As the nation’s farmers age, whether there will be enough interested youths to sustain their numbers remains to be seen.
One thing is for sure: Though there is some help for farmers starting out, the costs of just breaking ground do not make the career an easy one, especially in Yolo County.
This year’s census of American agriculture shows the average age of a farmer to be 58.3 years. On the brighter side, there has been a slight rise the number of farmers nationally in the 25-to-34 age group.
For 24-year-old student Kelsey Brewer, a Davis resident who put his back into it for a year and a half at a 15-acre organic farm in Rio Linda, the concern is less about whether there are enough young people to fill the tractor seats of the mid-century but, rather, whether young, aspiring farmers will be able to afford the land itself.
“Is there going to be a government program to subsidize for young people, or are the farmers themselves going to make the land available to the next generation?” asked Brewer, whose parents were not farm owners. “Or the alternative — that the land leaves farming, which is a danger if the gap isn’t bridged properly.”
Succession planning is one strategy aging farmers use to keep farmsteads locked into agricultural production.
“If they don’t plan, often the heirs aren’t involved in farming, and they will inherit an estate and sell off the pieces,” said Jennifer Taylor, director of the California Farm Academy, a nine-month training program to prepare beginning Yolo County farmers. “Get them to put it into writing, to say ‘this piece is going to stay in agriculture'; to let the children be involved, or not; some (land) could be sold and not the rest.”
Whether or not inherited land is kept in agriculture, the sheer cost per acre in Yolo County is prohibitive.
“I’ve heard it can vary between $10,000 and $15,000 per acre,” said Stephen Lasko, 27, depending on how fertile the acre is or if it has amenities like a barn, a well or already-installed electricity.
Lasko, who recently graduated from the farm academy, was looking for a farm of less than 20 acres in Yolo or Solano counties.
“It’s hard because you don’t see anything in that price range for smaller parcels because a lot of people are looking for places to build a home or ranchette or maybe a hobby farm, but the price for small parcels might be two to three times per acre what larger parcels should,” he said.
Lasko explored options through California FarmLink, a nonprofit that finds excess farmland not in use to list the opportunity for leasing. But very few listings are available in Yolo County, he said.
Instead, Lasko took advantage of incentives offered by the farm academy upon graduation from the program, which links graduates to farmers offering small acreage for use. The program also provides small plots on its own property with the added benefit of infrastructure including a greenhouse, barn space, a walk-in fridge, hand tools and mechanical tools.
“You can use your half-acre plot for up to three years and the expectation is that, if you’re going to continue, you would find a different local farmland opportunity so the new graduates can use that space,” Lasko said.
The start-up cost for a very small farming operation could be as little as several thousand dollars, said Lasko, provided you could find a couple of acres to lease and if the tractor work was already provided and tools available.
“I don’t plan to spend more than $5,000 this season,” he said, growing diversified row crops like green beans, sweet corn, melons, peppers, tomatoes and squash at SV Lasko Farm.
Tough row to hoe
For Brewer, things weren’t so easy.
“You could do it for free — but it’s not real,” said Brewer, who ultimately left Feeding Crane Farms in Rio Linda when its owner decided it wasn’t turning enough profit. “Programs like this are excellent because they do give young farmers the opportunity to put a low amount of capital into getting started … but it doesn’t diminish that risk factor,” he added.
Both Lasko and Brewer were growing heirloom-variety vegetables that are sold at five times the cost of standard veggies to upscale restaurants.
Both agreed it would be impossible for small-scale farms to compete with industrial-scale producers of more standard-variety produce.
For Brewer, the expenses mounted quickly in his first year.
He and a group of about 10 others of ages ranging from 18 to 35 invested in “irrigation systems, constant purchasing of large amounts of soil amendments such as compost, fertilizer high in nitrogen and other elements, mushroom compost, cow manure, and bone meal — amendments for both nutrient and soil consistency to make the soil not too claylike or silty.”
There also were expenses from buying tractors and trucks and their associated repairs.
“(We were) mostly working by hand, or with one tractor with basic attachments,” Brewer said. “Veggies were mostly hand-harvested, as were transplants and soil amendments. All small farms starting out have this initial challenge of competing against industrial-scale farms.”
Brewer admitted the added difficulty of working with land that had been fallow for more than 70 years.
“Every time we planted, we had to remove weeds,” he said.
And without wind breaks in place on land that hadn’t previously been used for farming, “the wind ripped through that valley at incredible speeds and would rip plants out of the ground.”
Taylor agrees in many regards.
“I do think it’s challenging,” she said. “If you don’t come from a farming background or have connections, how do you just break into agriculture? It’s hard to know where to start and what to do, which is really why we started our nonprofit. People want to grow food.”
The farm academy has graduated two classes so far, totaling about 40 people, she said.
Taylor encourages graduates to have a few years under their belts before considering purchasing land as well as using livestock and crops as equity when investing in land.
Brewer is headed back to school in the fall at UC Davis, majoring in plant biology. He hopes to start by building up a one-acre farm when he gets back to the fields.
The California Farm Academy is part of the Center for Land-Based Learning. Each year, it has space for about 20 students like Lasko, chosen out of an average of about 50 who apply.
For more information, go to http://landbasedlearning.org/farm-academy.php.
— Reach Jason McAlister at firstname.lastname@example.org