ON THE FARM

GROWING PAINS

Beginning farmers face big obstacles on the road to having a farm of their own

By Deborah Luhrman
Photography by Margaux Gibbons and Ted Holladay 

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Juan Cuevas lost his job at a grocery store and took a part-time gig selling produce at the farmers’ market in Santa Cruz. Before long, he was helping out in the fields and last year launched his own tiny organic farm in Soquel. “It started with a need for employment, but then I fell in love with farming and now I’m hooked,” he says.

Two-acre Branch Out Farm is a partnership between Cuevas and Fran Grayson, who owns a food truck business called The Truck Stop. “Nothing makes me more ecstatic as a chef than cooking food we’ve grown. It’s a ton of work, no doubt about it, but people love it,” says Grayson.

Branch Out is typical of a new wave of startup farms in the Monterey Bay area—planted on small plots of leased land by people, usually in their 30s, who’ve already had a variety of jobs and life experiences.

It’s a stark contrast to most parts of the country where the average age of farmers has climbed to 58. Around the country—including California’s Central Valley—small and mid-sized farms are disappearing at an alarming rate as farmers retire. Young people are not stepping up to run the farms, and properties end up getting swallowed by big agribusinesses.

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Robert Brunet harvests some monster beets

But in our area, there’s an abundance of small farms and beginning farmers, thanks in part to the world-class training programs at UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College and ALBA (see below) and also due to our mild climate, which allows year-round growing, making small farms more profitable than in areas with harsh climates. 

Cuevas took classes at the Cabrillo Horticulture Program and Grayson was an apprentice and assistant teacher at the UCSC Center for Agroecology, so they were able to tap into a vast network of resources and supporters to get started.

The first season they planted just half an acre and grew cover crops on the rest of the property to build up the soil. Now they have lush rows of tomatoes, strawberries, kale, chard and cabbage. They fashioned a greenhouse out of an old trampoline and borrowed a tractor from a neighbor when it was time to plow.

“It took a village to start this farm,” says Cuevas. Grayson agrees, “All our farming friends have been really supportive, giving us transplants and lending us equipment. That’s been great.”

COSTLY LAND

Author/farmer Rebecca Thistlewaite

Author/farmer Rebecca Thistlewaite

Nationally, the USDA says 91% of farm households rely on off-farm jobs to make ends meet, and the agency projects the average farm income will fall this year to negative $2,534. In some ways farming is easier in our area than in many parts of the country, but the attractions of agriculture here breed other problems.

“Access to farm land around the Monterey Bay is as bad as anywhere in the entire country and that’s why we left,” says Rebecca Thistlethwaite, who worked as head of programs at ALBA and formerly owned TLC Ranch in Aromas, but now lives in Oregon.

Thistlethwaite is author of the book Farms With a Future, which offers practical, step-by-step advice on starting a sustainable farm business. “Leasing land is not building any equity,” she warns. “It’s really hard on young farmers because investing in land is really the only longterm security that farmers have.”

Now residents of a small town east of Mt. Hood, the author and her husband own a five-acre farmstead with pigs, sheep, vegetables, fruit trees and berries. She cites access to land, access to financing for equipment and access to distribution channels as the biggest obstacles for beginning farmers—this on top of the usual farmer woes like bad weather and pests.

Caleb Barron of Fogline Farm, which is into its fourth season, says he and his former partner Johnny Wilson were very lucky to find their scenic hilltop location just outside Soquel. “Through FarmLink we found a farmer who was ready to retire and had 80% of the equipment we needed. So we didn’t have to buy much of anything and needed very little capital to start.”

Wilson left Fogline at the end of last year to manage an experimental farm near Healdsburg for philanthropist Peter Buckley.

“Partnerships are a great way to start out a farm because you have a sounding board and two investments of capital, but after a few years you start feeling you can’t make enough money to support two owners. Fortunately, Johnny got an offer he couldn’t pass up,” says Barron.

Fogline grows 40 varieties of organic vegetables and raises pastured hogs and poultry. Barron runs a 55-member CSA (community supported agriculture) program and participates in five farmers’ markets a week, but his farm is probably best known for the delicious chicken it provides to some of the best farm-to-table restaurants in Santa Cruz, Monterey and Carmel.

Prematurely going gray at age 33, Barron clearly has a lot on his plate. He’s on a short-term lease and feels insecure about the land. “It’s really scary not knowing if we’ll stay. I’m almost to the point where if I have to leave here and can’t find land within a 20-minute commute, then I’m ready to throw in the towel,” he says.

And he’s coming up on some hard choices about the future of the farm. “The pigs don’t make that much money. The broilers and the veggies make the most, but even the veggies are kind of a waste of time,” he reasons. “So where do I go? I don’t want to be a mono-cropper. I think it’s important to have diversity and not over-extend the land, but I have to make tough decisions in order not to kill myself.”

CAPITAL AND CREATIVITY

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Kelly Coxe and one of her chickens

With all of the challenges that new farmers face, creativity can go a long way in helping them survive and prosper. Robert Brunet, who owns E.C. Organics in Aromas with his girlfriend, Kelly Coxe, just put up a chicken coop using wood from discarded pallets. It houses 92 Barred Plymouth Rock chickens that Coxe, a 36-year-old yoga instructor and Ayurvedic nutritionist, is raising for the first time with encouragement from the Sustainable Poultry Network.

“At this point it won’t be very profitable, because organic feed is expensive and we had to buy the incubators and hatchers to get started,” she admits, adding her goal is to help restore the beautiful black and white heritage breed that was once prized for providing both eggs and meat.

Brunet, 38, definitely has a green thumb as well as an entrepreneurial streak. He spent 10 years growing marijuana in southern Humboldt County before he was busted. After serving a year in Lompoc federal prison, he signed up with ALBA’s farmer training program in 2012.

Now he grows vegetables on three acres leased to him by ALBA at the Triple M Ranch in Las Lomas and on the five-acre property he shares with Coxe in Aromas.

“Pot farming is totally different. It’s mono-cropping. This is much harder—I have 50 different varieties from all the crop families,” he says. “But I don’t have to hide what I do anymore.”

He grows a colorful array of heirloom tomatoes—including Prudens Purple, Pink and Red Brandywines and Amana Orange—and he’s slowly putting in rows of raspberries whenever he has enough extra cash to buy trellises. “My biggest challenge is the equipment. We have to hire a tractor because my credit isn’t good enough to buy one,” he explains.

Brunet’s also experimenting with a new British hybrid vegetable called flower sprouts. It’s a cross between Brussels sprouts and kale, with a small greenish purple sprout surrounded by curly leaves, and chefs go crazy for it.

To keep up with trends and make new contacts, he belongs to the Bay Area Chef’s Lounge that brings together chefs, farmers and foodies. Through those contacts he began selling directly to restaurants like Birk’s in Santa Clara and Good Karma Vegan Café in San Jose. Sometimes he adds produce from neighboring farms to his restaurant deliveries, and he’s quickly learning that’s also a good business.

“I can make more brokering produce from other growers than by farming,” he says. “And it pays off more quickly, usually in 30 days or sometimes 10 days. With farming you have to plant, irrigate, wait and lots of things can go wrong. With buying and selling produce, there are a lot fewer losses.”  

NICHE MARKETS

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Juan Cuevas and Fran Grayson of Branch Out Farm

While it’s hard to know exactly how many new farms start up every year locally, farmer/educator Jim Leap says he advises about 30 farms as part of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program he runs through UCSC for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Leap is mentor-in-chief for our area’s young farmers, offering one-on-one counseling and teaching practical workshops on everything from bed formation and irrigation to nuts and bolts. And yes, the nuts and bolts workshop was really about the fasteners, taps and dies needed to maintain farm equipment.

“All the beginning farmers I’m working with are small-scale, organic, community food activists. They see some real problems in the food system and want to change them,” says Leap, who’s been growing his own food in Aromas for 40 years and was garden manager at the UCSC farm until 2002. “They’re not going to be shipping to Safeway. More likely they’re going to have a CSA and sell at farmers’ markets.”

But there’s the rub. “Farmers’ markets in our region are highly impacted, and competition is fierce,” he says. “There are four-, five-, six-, even 10-year waiting lists for some of the markets. The Ferry Building, Mountain View and Palo Alto are the big ones you just can’t get into, and even Cabrillo has a huge waiting list.”

“It’s going to take years and years to get into the really good markets, so you’ve got to start with the small ones where you’re going to make $300–500 a day, instead of $2,000 a market,” he adds.

Nesh Dhillon, director of the five markets run by Santa Cruz Community Farmers’ Markets, feels there are just too many small, organic farmers here. “UCSC keeps popping them out and then they don’t want to leave. In some parts of the country, there’s a real advantage to growing organically, but here they’re coming up against the epicenter of the organic market,” he says.

“Each market has a carrying capacity and there’s a point where you just have too much stuff and nobody is making any money,” he adds.

Aside from accessing new distribution avenues, as Brunet has done with chefs in populous cities to the north, small farms also benefit when they can grow valuable niche products that aren’t readily available. 

“But that is getting real difficult,” Dhillon admits, “because everything that can be grown around here is already being grown.”

Kelly and Beth Bradford of Old House Farm, are determined to find a solution. “They say there are two things not to do in Santa Cruz—farming or acupuncture,” Beth jokes.

The sisters have been defying this wisdom for three years, successfully running their little farm on a steep redwood studded slope in Scotts Valley. The 12-acre property was purchased by their mother decades ago and it’s not the kind of place you’d think to put a farm, but

it was already in the family so they cleared brush from a sunny hillside and built cinderblock terraces. The terraces are now brimming with tomatoes, eggplants, peppers and three varieties of heirloom cukes.

Kelly and Beth, who each have a young son, live in the namesake old house with their mom, while a couple of interns are housed in mobile homes parked in the driveway.

“We tried the CSA route,” explains Kelly. “It was really successful. We filled it immediately with 65 members and we had a huge waiting list, but it wasn’t a viable model for us because we’re so small and we’re not at a point where we can take on employees. The hours required for the CSA weren’t returning what we needed.”

So they talked with Dhillon and found he needed vegetable starts for the markets and tried growing those. “It’s laborious but quadrupled our sales,” Beth says.

This season, they’re excited about growing the first crop of ginger in our region, along with turmeric and galangal—an intense relative of ginger popular in Southeast Asian cooking. They’ve leased greenhouse space in Aptos, sourced organic seed from Hawaii and are cultivating the exotic crops in big grow bags until they get the hang of it. “It’s already sold 10 times over and it’s not even going to be ready for months,” Kelly adds.

With an eye on the future, they’re also planting 100 fig trees on a lower slope of the farm, thinking figs will eventually be a good cash crop at the farmers’ market.

“Part of my personal mission here is to show that a very small farm can be economically viable,” says Kelly. She is working to develop new distribution avenues and hopes to write a book someday on her experience launching Old House Farm, so that beginning farmers of the future might have an easier time navigating all the obstacles.

“I think there needs to be a certain number of people farming, and this role fits for me,” Kelly says. “I love having my hands in the dirt. I love growing things for people. I love the freedom it brings to do something I feel is important in this world.”

HOW TO HELP: Support our local organic farmers—and enjoy fresh, seasonal and healthful food—by shopping at farmers’ markets, requesting local and organic at the grocery store and, perhaps best of all, signing up for a CSA. See our Local Source Guide and our CSA directory

Do you want to learn to farm?

veggies_nowritingTwo renowned training facilities—the UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) and the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA) in Salinas— are primarily responsible for the blossoming of small, organic farms in our area.

CASFS includes the 30-acre farm on the UCSC campus and the historic three-acre Alan Chadwick Garden—considered one of the cradles of the organic movement in the United States.

The center offers a residential apprenticeship that attracts budding farmers from all over the world. It’s a six-month program that begins in spring and covers all aspects of farming through classes, hands-on training on the farm and field trips.

Tuition is $6,000 for the full program, including housing in cabins and communal meals. Financial aid is available.

ALBA is a nine-month, non-residential program aimed at people who work full time. The program was originally designed to help farmworkers start their own ag businesses but has shifted to also include others interested in learning to farm.

Classes are taught in English and Spanish one weeknight each week and on Saturdays. Like UCSC, there’s a combination of lectures, work in the fields and visits from Salinas Valley farmers. Tuition is set on a sliding scale from $500–$2,000.

What really sets ALBA apart is its farm incubator program available to graduates of the training program. Alumni can lease prime farmland from ALBA at below-market rates and sell the vegetables they grow on it through the business arm of the operation, Alba Organics. Farm equipment is also made available for their use.

Each year the new farmers get to lease a few more acres and learn how to scale up until after five years they are ready to strike out on their own. “We often say it takes longer to learn to be a good farmer than to earn a Ph.D.,” says Nathan Harkleroad, education program manager at ALBA.

“You have to be incredibly hard working. It’s not really like any other job. It’s a whole lifestyle that you have to accept and love,” he adds.

Cabrillo College in Aptos also offers excellent training in organic farming and a two-year degree through its Horticulture Department.

Individual apprenticeships are a great way to find out if farming suits you. Love Apple Farms in Santa Cruz and Everett Family Farm in Soquel have well-established apprenticeship programs, and the website www.WWOOF.net (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) lists apprenticeship vacancies around the world. Housing and meals are usually provided in exchange for farm work. Young people often find it’s a good way to see the world, while at the same time learning valuable farming skills.

For further support, help is available locally through California FarmLink, Eco-Farm’s newly launched Farmers’ Association and from the Central Coast Farmers Guild, which meets monthly in Santa Cruz. And online resources for beginning farmers are provided by the USDA’s New Farmer portal and www.thegreenhorns.net, a grassroots support network for new farmers. 

Deborah Luhrman is a lifelong journalist who has reported from around the world. She returned home to the Santa Cruz Mountains a few years back and enjoys covering our growing local foods movement. She also edits EMB’s electronic newsletter.

Eat like a farmer!

Zuccanoush, aka “what to do with giant zucchinis rather than compost them”

Courtesy Fran Grayson, The Truck Stop and Branch Out Farm, Soquel

I like to serve this variation on baba ganoush on a large deep platter, drizzled with olive oil, along with warm flatbread (pita, naan or something similar) that also has been drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with Za’atar, a Mediterranean spice mix that is totally addictive. It can also be served as a dip for vegetables or in a sandwich.

1 very large zucchini (technically, “a lunker”) or any other summer squash, one measured in feet, not inches. (If you do not have a garden or know someone who does, just use a few of the largest you can find at the store.)

1 cup tahini
1 cup olive oil
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup lemon juice
Salt to taste
3 cloves garlic, crushed
(All ingredients can be adjusted to taste.)

Roast the zucchini whole. The best way is on the grill. It should get totally charred on the outside and be soft all the way through.

You can do this under the broiler in your oven. The last resort is oven roasting at maximum heat, but you won’t get the char that gives this dish really good flavor.

Put all ingredients except for zucchini in a food processor fitted with a metal chopping blade and spin until mixed, maybe 30 seconds. Add as much roasted squash as you can, and process until smooth and mixed. If all of the zucchini fits, then you are done. Taste to see if flavor balance is correct. If there is still more zucchini, process it in batches and then mix thoroughly in a large bowl.

Fresh Pesto with Lime Basil or Spicy Globe Basil and Pine Nuts

Courtesy Beth and Kelly Bradford, Old House Farm, Scotts Valley

This is our most beloved pesto recipe. For a delicious and different twist on traditional pesto, we often combine lime basil or Spicy Globe (fino verde) basil with sweet and large-leaved Genovese. Delicious!

3 plump garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
4 cups basil leaves, stems removed, leaves washed and dried
1 cup Pecorino Romano, freshly grated
2 tablespoons soft butter
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, add bit more if too dry

Process the garlic, salt and pine nuts in food processor until chopped. Next, add the basil and olive oil and blend until smooth. When smooth, add the cheese and blend. Then add about 2 tablespoons softened or melted butter and process just to combine.

Pesto keeps very well in the freezer in small quantities. Whether you store in the refrigerator or freeze it, seal with a thin layer of olive oil on top and cover well to keep it from turning dark.

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