Friday, January 30, 2015
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
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Nonprofit helps match up farmers, landowners

Vonita Murray, a veteran, picks tomatillos at her Woodland farm on land that she acquired with the help of FarmLink, a nonprofit organization that helps match farmers with available property. Sue Cockrell/Enterprise photo

By
From page A1 | July 28, 2013 |

Farmland isn’t like most real estate; sticking a “for sale” sign on it is much less effective. And with much of the state’s once arable land converted to urban uses, good property is hard enough to find.

But there’s a way to remedy that visibility problem, and it’s by means of FarmLink, a nonprofit organization that features an online listing of agricultural land opportunities throughout the state.

FarmLink was formed 13 years ago, and is headquartered in Santa Cruz. The program operates through three divisions of California: the North Coast, Central Coast and the Central Valley.

Yolo County’s aspiring farmers are directed to Liya Schwartzman, FarmLink’s coordinator for the Central Valley division. She estimates that over the years she’s worked with 800 different farmers in the region.

Besides guiding farmers to the right land for their goals, and similarly assisting retiring farmers who are interested in leasing their land, FarmLink offers business assistance.

“What we’ve identified through our experience is that the two largest barriers to farmers being able to start and sustain a successful farm businesses is the access to land and capital,” she said.

And supporting beginning, small-scale farmers — as FarmLink is dedicated to doing — starts with supplying the finances necessary to a budding farming project.

Therefore, FarmLink has its own loan program to address the troubles associated with financial backing that come with questions of an agricultural business’ profitability, of which Schwartzman said there are many:

“Conventional banks sometimes don’t understand some of the more niche markets out there, such as the small-scale community-supported agriculture programs,” including farmers markets and farm stands, she said.

The nonprofit also offers workshops and individual technical assistance in a variety of topics related to running a farm enterprise, such as managing resources, determining cash flow and succession planning once land is obtained.

Right now, FarmLink is especially focusing on becoming more active in Yolo County, but that means attracting many more landowners than the disproportionate number who have stepped forward.

“The problem is, we have far more farmers looking for land than we have land opportunities to link them with,” she said. “It’s important for the land owners to know that we’re here and we have a lot of farmers who are looking for land.

“Land can be an existing farm, it can be a shallow field or even someone’s ranchette,” she said. “Some beginning farmers are willing to work on farms as small as half an acre to get started.”

In the case of U.S. Navy veteran Vonita Murray, it was a plot of land in the back yard of a Woodland friend that had been unused for more than 20 years.

FarmLink helped establish Murray’s lease three years ago. The field has since — with the former servicewoman’s green thumb — grown produce as exotic as Ukrainian eggplant and African horned cucumbers.

Murray’s situation was different from most, in that she already knew the landowner beforehand. Regardless, she found it beneficial to work with Schwartzman to sort out the formalities.

“The beauty of it is that they’re not biased toward the farmer or the landowner,” Murray said. “They work so that both parties are covered and everyone is happy.”

And once more she’s invoking FarmLink’s function as an arbitrator in lease agreements to expand her Mariposa Valley Farms operation to a new location (though she couldn’t specify where, as it’s still being negotiated).

Murray is interested in aquaponics farming — a sustainable food production system that combines conventional aquaculture with hydroponics — but the unique approach brings complications in leasing agreements.

“(FarmLink goes) out of their way to do research when it’s outside of the box and say, ‘OK, how can we make this work?’ ” Murray said. “It’s been amazing; it’s not something I could have ever done on my own.”

The aquaponics system is an idea Murray inherited from Winters’ Center for Land-Based Learning. The mentor program for beginning farmers that the organization runs also fits into FarmLink’s mission.

The Center for Land-Based Learning has been a partner with FarmLink since 2010. The groups work in concert to set up a good foundation for new farmers to find land opportunities.

“By being a part of the educational process, we can see the farms come to fruition from the very beginning,” Schwartzman said. “Then we can support their journey by helping them find land and start their farm business.”

But the farmers are more plentiful than the land that’s being offered. Because of this, FarmLink is waiving its $50 one-time processing fee for all new land listings until Aug. 31.

“So it’s an especially good time to post your land,” Schwartzman said. “It’s a free two-fold benefit now: landowners don’t have to mow their lawn, and will be supporting local produce in the process.”

Anyone who wants to market their property, she added, or knows of anyone else that does, should visit the FarmLink website at www.cafarmlink.org and submit a landowner intake form.

Schwartzman also encourages farmers seeking land to peruse the website for opportunities, and to contact her at [email protected].

— Reach Brett Johnson at [email protected] or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

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