Transitions: Shermain Hardesty, former Director of UC Small Farm Program

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Shermain Hardesty at a pitahaya farm in San Diego.

This past year we’ve seen several respected leaders in the California sustainable farming and agriculture movement retire after many years of tireless hard work.

To honor them (and as an excuse to catch up!), we set up casual conversations with a few of them to hear their reflections on the past few decades and pontifications of the future of sustainable farming in California.

Shermain-Hardesty-headshotWRead on for highlights and the full transcript of our chat with Shermain Hardesty, Director of the UC Small Farm Program. Last July, she retired after serving California farmers for more than 30 years, including 13 years as a Cooperative Extension Specialist.

Early in her career as an economist, she worked for the CA Rice Growers Cooperative (very different than small farms!) and consulted 10+ years for produce commissions and farms that specialized in specific types of produce.

She started tuning into small farmers around 1995, and in 2002 she became the Director of the UC Center for Cooperatives. In 2007, she became Director of the UC Small Farm Program.


Some highlights from our conversation (full transcript at the bottom):

FarmsReach: Having served farmers and ranchers for more than 30 years, how would you say the needs of the farming community have changed or stayed the same over the years?

Shermain: I’d have to say that markets are much more competitive overall than they used to be, since there’s so much more international involvement.  There are so many diverse sources for each product now. On the farm, crop mixes have definitely changed in California. Things like our water resources have gotten more and more erratic, and Mother Nature’s weather patterns are more uncertain.

In production, regulations have gotten much more onerous and expensive for [smaller] farmers over the past 30 years.  The per-unit cost of compliance for smaller-scale farmers is a lot higher.

The rules are well-intentioned for food safety, but I’m not convinced they are risk-based. There’s very little recognition that the way that smaller scale farmers operate and sell their product create less exposure for outbreaks. In other words, when people buy salad mix at the farmers market, they probably will eat it in the next couple of days; whereas when people buy containers of salad mix at the grocery story with their “use by” date up to 17 days later, and when the containers have been held at who-knows-what temperature at the grocery store, there are these other risks that need to be recognized.  This is the ongoing fight.

It’s well-known how difficult it can be for beginning farmers to break even and sustain their farm business. What are some of the key metrics – beyond profitability – that you think all new farmers should track most closely?

Farmers have to recognize the number of hours they’re spending on different types of tasks.  They also need to understand how their marketing costs (both costs and time) are different for different market channels.  For example, when they’re involved with selling at farmers markets, they need to recognize hours spent preparing their crops, driving, being at the market all day, etc.  They’re also usually not paying themselves a salary.

What I’ve been concerned about lately is that a lot of our smaller scale farmers are highly diversified, and it’s very difficult for them to determine what their costs are for each crop, especially with few support staff. It’s been very difficult to do any real farm management analysis with smaller scale farmers.

I’ve actually heard from some well-established farmers that it’s not really how efficient you are with your production practices; it’s how well you market them. How well can you tell the story? And, how well can you develop relationships with your customers.  And, therefore charge as much as you can.

How essential do you think it is for small farms to diversify their offerings, whether with value-added processing, agritourism, or other revenue streams? Continue Reading →

All Things Agritourism: CA Workshops, Toolkit Resources and Q&A with HipCamp Farm Camping

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Today we’re covering everything about agritourism! ~ a new government-supported agritourism program in California, comprehensive practical resources to start and manage an agritourism operation, and an interview with the Land Manager of HipCamp, a booking platform that connects paying campers with unique places to camp (think AirBnB for camping).


Agritourism Intensive Workshops

This Fall the UC Small Farm Program received a USDA grant to support the California agritourism community through a series of educational workshops, webinars and resources. This new program is all thanks to the collaboration of UC Cooperative Extension, local community organizations, tourism professionals, and experienced agritourism operators.

Over the next few months, three different regions of California will each host a three-part series of Agritourism Intensive workshops:

Plumas County Agritourism Intensive

  • Dates: Tuesdays, Dec 1, 2015, Jan 12 & Feb 23, 2016
  • Times: 9:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. each session (lunch provided)
  • Location: Mineral Building, Plumas County Fairgrounds, Quincy, CA 95971
  • Cost: $50 for 3-session course (only $20 for additional participants from same family or business)

Shasta County Agritourism Intensive

  • Dates: Wednesdays, January 6, February 10 and March 16, 2016
  • Times: 8:30 a.m. – 4:00 p.m. each session (lunch provided)
  • Location: The McConnell Foundation Lema Ranch, 800 Shasta View Drive, Redding, CA 96003
  • Cost: $50 for 3-session course (only $25 for additional participants from same family or business)
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CA Farmer Survey: Preliminary Results & Invitation to Participate

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This post is Part 2 of 2 re: “A Year of Learning.”  Also see Part 1: “Sobering, Inspiring Results from Agriculture Organization Strategy Session” posted July 29, 2015.

Thank you to everyone who has already completed the short Farmer Survey over the past several months. Below are the preliminary results.

If you haven’t taken the survey yet, please share your thoughts!  Your opinion matters, and it only takes about 10 minutes.  Plus, there’s one last $250 prize for respondents.  (Congratulations Steve Fitch of Pocket Creek Farm for winning the first of two prizes!)

Background: On January 21st, folks from FarmsReach CommunityMultinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA)Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF)Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL)ATTRA/National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT)UC Cooperative ExtensionFarmer Veteran CoalitionSustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE)Rogue Farm CorpsFull Belly FarmNorth Coast Opportunities (NCO), and Ag/Tech Mixing Bowl came together to design new, shared tools to more effectively serve small- and medium-scale California farmers and ranchers. The original context was educational curriculum for farmers, and MESA and FarmsReach had invited the primary organizations that offer these services in California.

Better understanding farmers needs and preferences was one of many priorities. (For more details on the convening, see Sobering, Inspiring Results from Agriculture Organization Strategy Session.)

Preliminary California farmer survey results are below:

* New questions were added to the survey based on initial farmer responses. Results will be shared once we collect more data.  If you already took the survey and wish to submit your responses to these new questions, you may do so here.

Farmers:  We invite you to take the survey.  It takes less than 15 minutes, and you could win $250!


Acreage

Percentage of respondents with different farm acreage. For context, below is the USDA’s report on farm size and cropland distribution.

 

Farm Size Distribution

This USDA graph included for context only. The data has nothing to do with the CA farmer survey.

Sales Channels

Percentage of respondents selling through each channel.

 

Continue Reading →

Sobering, Inspiring Results from Agriculture Organization Strategy Session

This post is Part 1 of 2 re: “A Year of Learning.”  Also see Part 2: “CA Farmer Survey: Preliminary Results & Invitation to Participate” posted October 4, 2015.

On January 21st, FarmsReach Community, Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA), Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL), ATTRA/National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), UC Cooperative Extension, Farmer Veteran Coalition, Sustainable Agriculture Education (SAGE), Rogue Farm Corps, Full Belly Farm, North Coast Opportunities (NCO), and Ag/Tech Mixing Bowl came together to design new, shared tools to more effectively serve small- and medium-scale California farmers and ranchers.  The original context was educational curriculum for farmers, and MESA and FarmsReach had invited the primary organizations that offer these services in California.

Shared GoalsIn the months that followed, I met individually with many of the folks above as well as other agriculture organization leaders to dig deeper into obstacles and opportunities in our shared sustainable agriculture ‘movement’, specifically regarding farm technical and business assistance.  Realizing there is no standard language to describe this farm focus, we started using the term “Farm Education & Support Services”.

A summary of the sobering results is below. Overall, there is consensus that many fundamental components for our collective success are lacking, resulting in a disconnect among farmers, organizations, and funders; duplication of effort; lack of strategic focus in fundraising and program development; insufficient organizational capacity; few explicitly shared metrics of success; and a general feeling of “dysfunction” among various organizations.

And yet, of all the groups in the convening above, all but two expressed a willingness to work together in some form of a collective impact framework to systemically improve our effectiveness and impact. (If your agriculture organizations is interested, please contact me.)

We are planning to review the results of our co-designed Farmer Survey before deciding on next steps.  So, a lot more to come.  (Please do share the Farmer Survey with your networks if you haven’t already.  Later, we’ll post the results for everyone here.)


Sustainable Agriculture Movement ~ “Farm Education & Support Services” Goals: Results of January Convening

Movement Needs

From literally hundreds of ideas to Improve Connections & Collaboration, Increase Quality & Quantity of Farmer Learning, and Improve Effectiveness & Impact, five distinct categories emerged.

Within each, I’ve summarized the group’s proposed areas for improvement.

 

Continue Reading →

Announcing the Interactive FarmsReach Community Map!

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After many months in development, our new, interactive Community Map is live! Check it out and let us know what you think.

In either a Map or Grid View, you can use robust filters to easily browse and find just who you are looking for among the growing FarmsReach community:

  • Farmers
  • Seed Stakeholders
  • Agriculture Advisors
  • Organizations and Advocates

Get the most from our Community Map by logging in and completing your Profile.  It helps expand the map and extend your network. 

There are many ways to use our new map and its filters. Below are just a few examples:

Continue Reading →

Water Series: Pt 6 ~ Understanding Groundwater Management ~ Tips from UCCE Advisor, Allan Fulton

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Groundwater pumping in the Mojave Desert

Today we are featuring an important discussion about groundwater management. Allan Fulton, UCCE Irrigation and Water Resources Advisor in Tehama County, gives us important tips for drought-proofing the farm. His tips are framed with your farm and larger local community perspective in mind — public districts and agencies included. Everyone has a stake in the effort.

Yet, Allan suggests that farmers especially need to pay attention. To be implemented at a community level, many of his suggestions for groundwater management require individual farmers to understand the issues and decide whether they can support them in concept, and then engage in efforts to make them a reality.

Read on as Allan shares his tips and insight on the importance of better groundwater management during and beyond times of drought.

Continue Reading →

Celebrating the Farmers Guild ~ Guild-Raising 2014!

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This Saturday, February 15th, Sebastopol, CA will host the first annual Guild-Raising. For one day, the newest wave of farmers and ranchers here in Northern California, will descend upon the Sebastopol Grange hall to interact, share resources and celebrate a fast-growing movement we call the Farmers Guild. The Guild is a network now stretching from Mendocino to Marin, Sacramento to Sonoma, Yolo County and beyond!

For this particular gathering of the Guild, these typically local farmer-to-farmer alliances will open their doors to the entire food and farming community: chefs, grocers, agricultural advocates, land-owners and more. The Guild-Raising festivities (and the Guild movement itself) reflects a new paradigm in food and farming: as food awareness grows and communication technologies sharpen, we’re watching as the walls between producer and consumer crumble, the conduits between a farmer’s crop and the consumer’s plate multiply, all while the ability to obtain information, find resources and connect with fellow farmers becomes easier than ever. All this movement explains the proliferation of the Guilds and such is the reason for throwing a party!

Continue Reading →

A Treatise on Powdery Mildew in Strawberry Plants

Side view of powdery mildew on strawberry fruit. Photo courtesy Steven Koike.

Side view of powdery mildew on strawberry fruit. Photo courtesy of Steven Koike. (Photo 6)

The following article first appeared on Mark Bolda’s Berry Blog on March 8, 2013. Mark is the UCCE Santa Cruz County Director and Farm Advisor of strawberries and caneberries.  They work in partnership with farmers and ranchers across the county to provide assistance in developing more-efficient growing methods, solve pest management problems and develop crops and irrigation methods that use less water. Through a range of educational training programs and workshops, farmer-to-farmer mentoring and a wide variety of events and networking opportunities, UCCE is the bridge between local farming issues and the power of UC research.

Written by Mark Bolda.

Powdery mildew is a very common fungal pathogen in strawberries. What follows is a review on the biology and management of the disease.

Continue Reading →

Abundant Benefits of Hedgerows & Bird Biodiversity on the Farm

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Hedgerow buffer between two fields

Today we cover hedgerows, also known as “living fences”.  The term hedgerows is an old English term that refers to narrow planting strips that grow along field borders, fence lines and waterways.  They often consist of trees, shrubs, ground covers, perennials, annuals, and vines depending on the function, size, and location of the planting strip.

What are the benefits of hedgerows?  Many!

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How Do You Set Your Prices? ~ Advice from the Folks at the UCCE Foothill Farming Program

cooking, Eva Antczak, farmers market, Marin, market-to-table, organic, Shanti ChristensenIMG_2931

This blog first appeared on the UCCE Foothill Farming website on August 20, 2013.  The University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) Foothill Farming program works in partnership with farmers and ranchers across Placer and Nevada Counties to provide a range of educational training programs and workshops, farmer-to-farmer mentoring and a wide variety of events and networking opportunities.

Written by Molly Nakahara, Specialty Crops Program Representative, UCCE Foothill Farming Program.

“Set your own prices.” This piece of advice, given to me by a seasoned fruit and vegetable farmer, has proven to be one of the critical foundations of my own farm business. So, here’s a test for all of you business savvy farmers out there: What is the secret message, the subtext, the implied meaning in this great guiding sales principle?

I’ll give you a hint: It does not mean you should set prices to what you think your customers will like, or set prices based on prices at the grocery store. Any ideas?  YES!  You’ve got it: KNOW YOUR COSTS! It means set your prices based on the true costs of production. If you can embrace this concept, it will become one of the most influential tools of analysis you will use on your farm.

Continue Reading →