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

San Diego small farms 050

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.

Overview:

  • Changing needs of farmers/ranchers the past 30 years
  • Beginning farmers’ success: metrics, resources, diversification, collaborative models
  • Small farmers & food justice efforts, or not?
  • Role of small farmers in the future food system
  • Small farms & AgTech
  • Changes in UC Cooperative Extension over the years

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?

I think they first have to learn how to produce well, and then they can start to consider adding on other diversification products. It’s nice to have year-round cash flow, and with processed products they’re able to be in the marketplace year-round.

But, diversification isn’t appropriate or necessary for all farmers.  Some don’t have the personality or whatever it takes to do it.  Even a farmer who grows and sells only raw product can make it – as long as they can tell their story well enough, and if they can get a high enough price.

Which services or resources offered by UCCE do you feel more farmers and ranchers should use more?

They should take advantage of post-harvest training and ask for help from their local farm advisors about how to store and handle their products.  They’d learn how to get longer-shelf-life for their products, longer selling life, and fewer rejects, especially when they’re selling wholesale. Even smaller farmers market farmers can learn how to do some pre-cooling of heir product which will make it last longer.

Advisors can give advice on how to get the best bang for their buck. Small farmers: ask your local farm advisors for more information!

Shermain with Michael Yang, UCCE Fresno County Hmong Agricultural Assistant

Shermain with Michael Yang, UCCE Fresno County Hmong Agricultural Assistant

SAGE just published a reference on Collaborative Farming models.  How do you think “organized cooperation” may become more of a reality in the near-term? How do you think farmers could cooperate more for their mutual benefit?

When you’ve got some shared farmland space, that’s a good way to get started. Equipment sharing is usually done pretty informally, but there are ways that it can be more organized.

I think collaborative models are more likely to succeed in urban areas.  You also have to consider the personalities of the people involved.  I remember in Salinas Valley, there was a farming coop that was trying to be organized for the immigrant farm workers, and oh…the personality conflicts! It was a no go.  It’s really like a marriage of a business relationship. Easier said than done.

During the CA Farmer Educator Summit in 2016, you made a comment about the need to balance the desire to create new innovative programs for farmers with farmers’ actual, basic priorities of just making a profit.  Can you speak more about that?

There’s a lot of talk about how smaller scale, local farmers should get more involved in food access challenges, and that’s where I have some concerns because they aren’t in a position to give away much food.  I think food access is a very important issue, but it shouldn’t be placed on the backs of small farmers because they don’t have the financial ability to do that.

The controversial Washington Post article from last September says that “Having a food system that has multiple scales is better than having a preponderance of one scale (either large or small).” What role do you think smaller farms can play to best serve/foster a reformed food system in the years to come?

Basically, we’ve got lots of problems with our industrialized food system, and the two main factors that I have been focusing on are: 1) poor eating habits and 2) overuse of chemicals and additives in the field and in our processed foods.  Overall, we have a food system rife with what economists call externalities that we’re not paying for, and yet we ARE really paying for them in the long-term with our poor health and degradation of our environment.

The smaller farmers typically are the ones with most direct access to the consumer so they could be the most influential in getting people to consider the quality [and taste] of the food or the freshness, and how consumers can learn to basically eat better.

It’s not the overall cure for our system, but hopefully it’s a meaningful piece.  Even the plant breeders at UC are recognizing more now: “Oh yes, we need to look at flavor!”

And, it’s not only the plant breeders who need to focus on flavor. It’s also consumer demand, and what grocery stores demand.   Back in 2014 or so, we made a presentation at the Produce Marketing Association meeting, and the whole theme for the conference was “Bring back the flavor!”

It’s such a complicated thing to get people who are raised on junk food to care about flavor and their health, let alone the environment.

Paul Reid/Washington Post

Photo: Paul Reid/Washington Post

In the same article above, the author writes: “In general…sustainability…encompasses all sizes and all crops, with local and organic playing an important, but necessarily small, role.”  What are your thoughts about that?

A lot of big agribusinesses in California are growing organic. We’ve got Horizon milk and a lot of major cereal companies have their organic brands.  I don’t agree that organics will necessarily be a small role.  For some big farmers, it’s just an evolutionary thing where they realize that if they just went two steps further, they’d be organic anyway, so might as well do it and be able to charge more. They then have the freedom to sell in the conventional or organic market.

It makes me wonder what the long-term role of the smaller farms is aside from consumer awareness as you mention above.  I secretly think small farms are going to HAVE to work together to get economies of scale to make it in the short-term.

There’s something around economies of scale that has to happen. Otherwise, it’ll have to be very very high-end small niche operations.  Beyond that small niche market, yes, cooperation will need to be a piece.

Yo Cal was cooperative in the Capay Valley founded around 1980.  The farmers that you read about now so often, including Full Belly, got together and said “We are all driving to SF every day, this is crazy. Everyone one of us is getting up at horrible hours.” So, they organized a coop to do the deliveries, and it functioned for 10 years.  They finally got big enough that they decided they didn’t need the coop anymore… They kind of outgrew themselves.

Other new farmers may need something like that now. Or, maybe that’s what Capay Valley Farm Shop could help with in some regards.

There’s a huge boom in AgTech investment and development – from farm management systems to robotics and sensors.  What are your thoughts about technology development for smaller farmers, and their potential impact on small farm viability/sustainability?

I don’t think it’s really possible or affordable for smaller farms to be involved in most of that high tech equipment yet.  I do know there are some mechanical harvesters being used for blueberries.  It gives those farmers a huge advantage as far as costs and labor, but they have to have enough resources to acquire those kinds of harvesters in the first place. You can’t expect a small farmer to afford that kind of technology.  There are barriers to entry there.

Anthill

Photo: Anthill Magazine

For those who don’t know the details, can you share how funding for UC Cooperative Extension has changed over the past 30 years, and how UCCE has adjusted to these changes?

In 2002, the UCCE budget included about $63 million provided by state funds. Then, in the budget cuts shortly after that, it was slashed $12 million to $51 million.  Since 2012, state support for UCCE has been cut by $30 million. So, basically in half in the last 15 years.

There have definitely been cuts in support staff.  In 1990, there were 528 academics involved in UCCE.  In 2007, that number dropped to 342. Then, in 2017, it dropped to 278.  That’s a lot of professional personnel that has been lost.

Research stations are also now self-supporting. Now, anyone who wants to use the facilities for research and experiments has to pay more to use it. Thus, more grant money must be raised.

It was getting pretty hard the past several years, so I can imagine it’s not easy for those still there.  When farm advisors get replaced, they’re usually replaced with broader assignments. For example, when our Fresno County advisor retired, and then our Tulare County advisor retired, one position was created for both, big regions.  They’ve got to get real about what’s possible.. The mileage and number of farmer clientele in those major farm areas… A single advisor can’t possibly cover that entire territory very easily.

How do see UCCE evolving over the next 5 or 10 years?

I wish I could answer that question. It seems like a very challenging situation unless the state finally recognizes that Cooperative Extension is a very valuable component of agriculture, which is a very valuable component of our overall economy in California.  There aren’t any solutions yet.

If you had a magic wand in the real world we live in today (I know a bit of a paradox), what would you make happen in CA with regards to small farmers?

It wouldn’t be directive. It’d have to come from the farmers themselves.  Perhaps them deciding to create a coop, or whatever it is to achieve their economies of scale. Determine which crop they’re the best at growing so we don’t have 80 farms all growing the same crops.

We also tried to get coops to be able to sell at farmers markets. To be able to provide one stall with a lot of diversity without every single farmer having to grow a whole variety on their own and spend the resources and time to work the stall. Dan Best, the manager of the Sacramento farmers markets and lawyer, led the effort in 2010 as well as in prior years, but it sadly didn’t work.

It would also be great if we had a lot more available farmland for smaller farmers.  I admire CA FarmLink and what they’re doing, and it seems like we need a lot more of that.  We tried to connect retiring farmers with emerging farmers, but these retiring farmers don’t seem to want to connect, partially because of the price they could get as well as the effort transitioning to a new farm operator.

There are a lot of mainstream, conventional farmers around Davis, and we talk about getting them connected with the younger farmers, who are more organically-oriented.  The sentiments aren’t quite aligned properly.  They have different philosophies, so then they sell to some big investment company who plants trees. That’s what’s been happening around here.  It’s not covered a lot in the news because it can get personal really fast.

I don’t know what the future holds.

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Shermain, Margaret Collins and Kristin Reynolds at the Women in Agriculture workshop at the 2008 California Small Farm Conference. Photo: Brenda Dawson


Thank you, Shermain, for our chat! We wish you all the best in your years ahead of travel, state parks and family time… 

Stay tuned for our next posts in the series: Ed Thompson of American Farmland Trust, and Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms.  If you know of other influential folks in the sustainable agriculture sector who have transitioned recently to a life of more freedom, and who would like to share their stories, let us know!


Full Transcript of our chat with Shermain:

FarmsReach: First off, I thought you were retired and going to travel, visit state parks and enjoy your growing family! It seems you are still quite busy!  What are your plans for the next 5 years, and which conferences are you attending? 

Shermain: I’ve been working the past 45 years; I can’t just stop working!  I’ll probably continue doing some volunteer consulting but I won’t be sitting in an office most days.  I’ve got one project involving agritourism, where we did a survey of agritourism operators in California as well as one in Colorado, looking at the factors that make an operation successful or not. Another major project has been looking at the potential for smaller-scale farmers to be involved as ingredient-suppliers for specialty or value-added, processed products – like jams, jellies, jerkies and cheeses.

I also did an economic impact study of local food marketing for policy makers, and I’m still trying to write a paper about that, but it’s been a very difficult project.  It’s hard to measure, and so it’s hard to explain without being too technical.

The conference I was at was a tea conference actually.  We have a global tea initiative on [the UC Davis] campus – a really multi-disciplinary group led by a professor of Art History of China, and then there are folks from the Chemistry department who are looking at the components of what’s actually in tea, Nutrition people, myself, other Cooperative Extension academics and some Political Science people as well.  We are growing some tea in California right now, very very small scale, mainly on the Central Coast.

But, there was also a planting done at the UC Kearney Experiment Station in 1965, and 14 of those plants are still around.  They’re doing research on those plants now to see how they’ve evolved and survived, with very minimal care.

And then I’ve been working peripherally on a coffee production project in California, going from the Santa Barbara to San Diego coast.

Hm, the new resilient locally-grown caffeine drink?!  When costs of production are so much higher in America, what’s the incentive to explore coffee in CA?

Well, it’s really meant to be for really high-end product.  All of the production from this organized group of growers was bought by Blue Bottle, so their sales price is equivalent to $65/pound.  It’s an extremely niche product.

Smaller scale farmers can get involved with the project, and even add on some agritourism with it.  It also can help build awareness about where coffee and tea come from, since people can take for granted how much it truly costs to produce and where it predominately comes from now.

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?

First of all, 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. We barely grow any cotton anymore, and we’ve got a lot more nut crops planted. 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 farmers over the past 30 years.  And, it’s not scale-neutral.  The per-unit cost of compliance for smaller-scale farmers is a lot higher.  It’s a toughie.

Our challenge is how to help smaller farmers comply when new regulations are formed, and also provide input so that the regulations can be more scale-sensitive.

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.  For example, when they’re involved with selling at farmers markets, they need to recognize the many hours spent preparing their crops, driving, being at the market all day, etc.  They’re also usually not paying themselves a salary, so there are many costs that aren’t being considered.  They also need to understand how their marketing costs (both costs and time) are different for different market channels.

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.  Crop enterprise budgets are very difficult to do!  The fact that they don’t have many support staff means that they probably don’t have the resources for much record-keeping. It’s been very difficult to do any real farm management analysis with smaller scale farmers.  There unfortunately hasn’t been a lot of promising progress that I can see.

But, I’m on a grant review committee, and we just funded a project in Nevada evaluating record-keeping mobile apps for farmers.  It’s small to start: two specialty crop growers and one livestock operation testing six different software programs to see what they can make out of them.  There really hasn’t been much research done on which tools are working for farmers.

I know these tools won’t work for everyone, but hopefully they can work for at least more of them.

If smaller farmers aren’t managing what they’re spending on each crop and therefore can’t see their margins on each, do you think they can still be successful if they’re efficient in other ways? 

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, whether they’re consumers or restaurateurs or distributors or whatever.  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?

I think they first have to learn how to produce well, and then they can start to consider adding on other diversification products. It’s nice to have year-round cash flow, and with processed products they’re able to be in the marketplace year-round.

But, diversification isn’t appropriate or necessary for all farmers.  Some don’t have the personality or whatever it takes to do it.  Certainly for agritourism, which can get very involved and is definitely not a one-person operation, you can’t be a sole farmer with minimal farm labor starting it up. It’s just too much.

Even a farmer who grows and sells only raw product can make it – as long as they can tell their story well enough, and if they can get a high enough price.  It depends on where they are geographically. It makes a big difference, for example, if you’re in the Bay Area, where small farmers have access to a huge marketplace, it’s much more feasible.  Whereas if you were try to do this in Utah or someplace more remote, it’ll be a lot harder. It’s just harder to find a lot of customers for values-based products.

Which services or resources offered by UCCE do you feel are most under-utilized by family farmers?  ie What should farmers and ranchers use more?

They should take advantage of post-harvest training and ask for help from their local farm advisors: how to store and handle their products.  They’d learn how to get longer-shelf-life for their products, longer selling life, and fewer rejects, especially when they’re selling wholesale. Even smaller farmers market farmers can learn how to do some pre-cooling of heir product which will make it last longer.

We actually haven’t had many farmers enroll in post-harvest training at the CA Small Farm Conference. I’m not sure why. All farms should have some type of cooling facility, and advisors can give advice on how to get the best bang for their buck.

Small farmers: ask your local farm advisors for more information!

SAGE just published a reference on Collaborative Farming models.  How do you think “organized cooperation” may become more of a reality in the near-term? How do you think farmers could cooperate more for their mutual benefit?

When you’ve got some shared farmland space, that’s a good way to get started. Equipment sharing is usually done pretty informally but there are ways that it can be more organized.  Although, we once tried to set up a dried-bean equipment “collective,” but everyone wanted to use the equipment at the same time.

I was also involved in a feasibility study for a new livestock processing facility in  Mendocino County, and the ranchers were really interested in it, but they weren’t interested in funding it.  And, there wasn’t enough government money to make it happen, so it never did.

I think collaborative models are more likely to succeed in urban areas. Not sure it could work as well in more rural places.  You also have to consider the personalities of the people involved.  I remember one of my first visits into the Salinas valley. There was a farming coop that was trying to be organized for the immigrant farm workers, and oh…the personality conflicts! It was a no go.  It’s really like a marriage of a business relationship. Easier said than done.

During the CA Farmer Educator Summit in 2016, you made a comment about the need to balance the desire to create new innovative programs for farmers with farmers’ actual, basic priorities of just making a profit.  Can you speak more about that?

There’s a lot of talk about how smaller scale, local farmers should get more involved in food access challenges, and that’s where I have some concerns because they aren’t in a position to give away much food.  I think food access is a very important issue, but it shouldn’t be placed on the backs of small farmers because they don’t have the financial ability to do that.  That’s really what I was getting at there.

Social justice for both sides of the equation. First, we’ve got to help farmers be profitable, and then we can add on these extra layers of altruism.  Sometimes I talk to students on campus who’ve worked on our Student Farm, and they don’t completely understand that you first need a truly profitable operation before adding on charitable programs.

The controversial Washington Post article from last September says that “Having a food system that has multiple scales is better than having a preponderance of one scale (either large or small).” What role do you think smaller farms can play to best serve/foster a reformed food system in the years to come?

Basically, we’ve got lots of problems with our industrialized food system, and the two main factors that I have been focusing on are: 1) poor eating habits and 2) overuse of chemicals and additives in the field and in our processed foods.  Overall, we have a food system rife with what economists call externalities that we’re not paying for, and yet we ARE really paying for them in the long-term with our poor health and degradation of our environment.

The smaller farmers typically are the ones with most direct access to the consumer so they could be the most influential in getting people to consider the quality of the food or the freshness, and how consumers can learn to basically eat better.

When you’re able to find strawberries that really taste like strawberries…they might not be bright red and shiny, but they taste wonderful.  It’s those kinds of things.  It’s the tomatoes.  Small farmers have helped some people change their eating habits. That’s a step in the right direction.

It’s not the overall cure for our system, but hopefully it’s a meaningful piece.  Even the plant breeders at UC are recognizing more now: “Oh yes, we need to look at flavor!”

And, it’s not only the plant breeders who need to focus on flavor. It’s also consumer demand, and what grocery stores demand.   Back in 2014 or so, Gail Feenstra and I made a presentation at the Produce Marketing Association meeting, and the whole theme for the conference was “Bring back the flavor!”

So, reforming the food system isn’t only for the environment. It’s also getting back to the basics of food tasting good. When you eat really good-tasting fresh food, you’re not as likely to eat as much junk food.

It’s such a complicated thing to get people who are raised on junk food to care about flavor and their health, let alone the environment.

In the same article above, the author writes: “In general…sustainability…encompasses all sizes and all crops, with local and organic playing an important, but necessarily small, role.”  What are your thoughts about that?

A lot of big agribusinesses in California are growing organic. We’ve got Horizon milk and a lot of major cereal companies have their organic brands.  I don’t agree that organics will necessarily be a small role.  Everything doesn’t have to be organic, but it certainly helps when farmers are aware of what they’re putting into the soils and onto their plants.  For some big farmers, it’s just an evolutionary thing where they realize that if they just went two steps further, they’d be organic anyway, so might as well do it and be able to charge more. They then have the freedom to sell in the conventional or organic market.

With larger-scale farms switching to organics and selling local, how do think smaller farmers will [need to] evolve to remain viable in the marketplace?

That’s a toughie. I think they’re going to have to be more involved with their story, and be able build really solid relationships with their customers.

“Values-based supply chains” is a concept I’ve been working on with others across the country. Many are really trying to develop those values, where the first link in the chain – farmers – are rewarded for their practices, not just organic but for stewardship, fairness, and whatever else they’ve done which customers value and would be willing to pay a premium for.

“Values-based supply chains” used to be a common, hot topic in the farming world 5-10 years ago, but I haven’t heard it much lately.  What progress has there been?

It’s been hard to document, and in fact I just got an email from somebody who asked for any kind of data I could possibly provide on it.  And, unfortunately, I don’t have much to share because it’s a supply CHAIN so you’re talking about a multitude of businesses.  Plus, a farmer often belongs to several of these supply chains, and so it’s incredibly hard to track the data.

I really like the concept. It’s a little harder to analyze. Actually, a lot harder.

Are there any groups or regions that are at least making headway to start showing it’s feasible and viable?

I wouldn’t say there’s any one particular region. I wish I could.  The one that I think is easiest to measure so far is Organic Valley, the dairy cooperative because they work directly with the farmers; they’ve got that link right there.  And, a lot of customers of Organic Valley are consumer-owned grocery cooperatives. So there you have a fairly short supply chain.  I’m not involved in that one particular project, but I believe they’re currently interviewing the farmers to assess their profitability and how well they believe their values are being acknowledged and paid for.

Having worked in several aspects of the food system and supply chain myself, I find it hard to quantify the progress we’ve collectively made. There are definitely more stakeholders who are aware of and working on the issues, and yet from an infrastructure and capacity level, it’s hard for me to see how now is better than five years ago.

Aside from some smaller aspects, I would agree with you too.

It makes me wonder what the long-term role of the smaller farms is aside from consumer awareness as you mention above.  I secretly think small farms are going to HAVE to work together to get economies of scale to make it in the short-term.

There’s something around economies of scale that has to happen. Otherwise, it’ll have to be very very high-end small niche operations, like for coffee and tea as we spoke about above.  Beyond that small niche market, yes, cooperation will need to be a piece.

Have you heard about a coop that existed called Yo Cal? It was in the Capay Valley founded around 1980.  There is actually a short case study that Penny and I wrote about it.

What happened was the farmers that you read about now so often, including Full Belly, got together and said “We are all driving to SF every day, this is crazy. Everyone one of us is getting up at horrible hours.” So, they organized a coop to do the deliveries, and it functioned for 10 years.  They finally got big enough that they decided they didn’t need the coop anymore… Dru at Full Belly was very involved in the creation of it.  They kind of outgrew themselves.

Other new farmers may need something like that now. Or, maybe that’s what Capay Valley Farm Shop could help with in some regards.

There’s a huge boom in AgTech investment and development – from farm management systems to robotics and sensors.  What are your thoughts about technology development for smaller farmers, and their potential impact on small farm viability/sustainability?

I don’t think it’s really possible or affordable for smaller farms to be involved in most of that high tech equipment yet.  It could work for some of the controlled environment operations, like greenhouses. I do know there are some mechanical harvesters being used for blueberries.  It gives those farmers a huge advantage as far as costs and labor, but they have to have enough resources to acquire those kinds of harvesters in the first place. You can’t expect a small farmer to afford that kind of technology.  There are barriers to entry there.

There was also a big mechanical harvesting project in the valley, tested on peach and nectarine trees.  They gave up after a couple of years because they couldn’t get the kind of quality that they needed. The technology wasn’t there yet…

Reading your bio, I actually didn’t realize how involved you were with cooperatives! Can you share more about your work and research in that regard?   

I worked for the rice marketing cooperative for 4 years, and then I was the Director of the UC Center for Cooperatives.  That was just the time when Tri-Valley Growers, a well-known cooperative, went bankrupt, and there were a lot of bad feelings about coops among farmers.  So, I did a study comparing the financial performance of different types of cooperatives in food sectors and compared them to non-food, “regular” shareholder-owned cooperative companies, and found that there was no different in their financial performance.

There have been efforts to create new cooperatives in other states, but in California, nothing’s really happening in major conventional agriculture except for what we call Information-Sharing Cooperatives.  Farmers get together and share pricing information and how much they’re selling to their customers. They’re allowed to do that legally (i.e., not colluding) because they’re a cooperative.

It’s a way to provide some form of market power to farmers. When you’ve got a lot of farmers who are competing against each other to sell to Costco and Safeway and places like that, this is a way for them to survive.

On the smaller side of things, we’ve got food hubs, which are somewhat similar a concept, but not really with a shared ownership structure.  But, in California, we already have a lot of marketing channels established already. We have some really good produce distributors, so there’s less of a need here.

What were some of the key/interesting lessons you shared with farmers and ranchers, which they were most appreciative of and hadn’t figured out on their own?

Marketing channels and being aware of your costs to participate in different ones, and how much time it really takes selling wholesale versus at farmers markets versus CSA.  And, really the importance of marketing in general. You can be a great producer, but you won’t survive unless you figure out how to market effectively.

For those who don’t know the details, can you share how funding for UC Cooperative Extension has changed over the past 30 years, and how UCCE has adjusted to these changes?  How has the Small Farm Program evolved since government funding ceased in 2010?  How has the Small Farm Program evolved since government funding ceased in 2010?

I don’t know the full history, and actually it was really frustrating that I wasn’t able to find the data even when I searched for it online!  I was able to find information on the last 15 years.

In 2002, the UCCE budget included about $63 million provided by state funds. Then, in the budget cuts shortly after that, it was slashed $12 million to $51 million.  Then, I just found a quote from 2017 that said: since 2012, UCCE state support has been cut by $30 million. So, basically in half in the last 15 years.

There have definitely been cuts in support staff.  In 1990, there were 528 academics involved in UCCE.  In 2007, that number dropped to 342. Then, in 2017, it dropped to 278.  That’s a lot of professional personnel that has been lost.

Research stations are also now self-supporting. Now, anyone who wants to use the facilities for research and experiments have to pay more to use it. Thus, more grant money must be raised.

It turns out also that the electronic systems in the nine U. of California research stations are woefully inadequate.  So now they’re really trying to raise their rates to pay for upgrades, which isn’t going over well with the researchers who need to find the funds to cover it.

It was getting pretty hard the past several years, so I can imagine it’s not easy for those still there.  When farm advisors get replaced, they’re usually replaced with broader assignments. For example, when our Fresno County advisor retired, and then our Tulare County advisor retired, one position was created for both, big regions.  They’ve got to get real about what’s possible.. The mileage and number of farmer clientele in those major farm areas… A single advisor can’t possibly cover that entire territory very easily.

How do see UCCE evolving over the next 5 or 10 years?

I wish I could answer that question. I really don’t know. It seems like a very challenging situation unless the state finally recognizes that Cooperative Extension is a very valuable component of agriculture, which is a very valuable component of our overall economy in California.  There aren’t any solutions yet.

Penny Leff, who has managed many projects for the Small Farm Program, is working now with Gail Feenstra.  She’s been totally funded by grant money since 2012.  I have no idea how they’re gong to handle the Small Farm Program from here.  We’ve asked, but we haven’t gotten a response.

With the volatile political climate, how much or little do you think policy will affect small farmers in CA (or beyond), and the food system of the future?

Policy matters.  I was incredulous about what happened with the SNAP program. That’s one case where policy can really undermine some really entrepreneurial efforts.  I don’t know about the food system of the future. It can be hard to stay positive.  I try not to think too much about it.

If you had a magic wand in the real world we live in today (I know a bit of a paradox), what would you make happen in CA with regards to small farmers?

It wouldn’t be directive. It’d have to come from the farmers themselves.  Perhaps them deciding to create a coop, or whatever it is to achieve their economies of scale. Determine which crop they’re the best at growing so we don’t have 80 farms all growing the same crops.

We also tried to get coops to be able to sell at farmers markets. To be able to provide one stall with a lot of diversity without every single farmer having to grow a whole variety on their own and spend the resources and time to work the stall. The last time we tried to get the legislation through was 2010.  Dan Best, the manager of the Sacramento farmers markets and lawyer, led the effort in 2010 as well as in prior years, but it sadly didn’t work.

It would also be great if we had a lot more available farmland for smaller farmers.  I admire CA FarmLink and what they’re doing, and it seems like we need a lot more of that.  We tried to connect retiring farmers with emerging farmers, but these retiring farmers don’t seem to want to connect.  I think it’s partially because of the price they could get as well as the effort transitioning to a new farm operator.

There are a lot of mainstream, conventional farmers around Davis, and we talk about getting them connected with the younger farmers, who are more organically-oriented.  The sentiments aren’t quite aligned properly.  They have different philosophies, so then they sell to some big investment company who plants trees. That’s what’s been happening around here.  It’s not covered a lot in the news because it can get personal really fast.  I just know it’s going on.

I don’t know what the future holds.

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