A new generation of small farmers in California—many with horticulture skills but little to no business background—are turning to nonprofit mentors to help them succeed.
Kristyn Leach drives a tractor up and down the length of her field, towing a disc that breaks up remnants of last season’s crops so they can mix back into the soil.
Leach and her farm dog Bibi look right at home on this plot of land bordered by olive groves in Winters, 30 miles west of Sacramento.
She is part of an emergent generation of small farmers in California who have horticulture skills, but little or no business background. They are turning to an increasing number of non-profit programs designed to boost new farmers’ success.
“When I started my farm, it wasn’t because I felt like a competent business person or had any even basic financial literacy as an individual,” Leach explained.
Instead, it was her curiosity about traditional Korean farming that launched her on the path to growing vegetables. She even traveled to Korea to learn from an older generation of farmers.
When she started farming 15 years ago, Leach says it was just a “side hustle.”
But since 2012, Leach has made her living selling heirloom Korean and East Asian beans, herbs and melon to Namu Gaji, an upscale restaurant in San Francisco.
She says, In a way, farming turned her into an “accidental business owner.”
The lack of business skills is an issue for many beginning farmers, according to Evan Wiig, spokesman for the California Alliance with Family Farmers. The non-profit advocacy organization offers entrepreneurial business training for new farmers and ranchers who want to do small-scale sustainable agriculture.
Building up the business acumen of new farmers is a significant issue in California, where beginning farmers make up nearly a third of the state’s farmers. On a national level, new farmers operated one quarter of the 2.1 million U.S. farms, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture. The USDA defines a “beginner” as someone who has farmed for 10 years or less.
Wiig credits the local food movement with attracting an influx of new people to farming in California. “People are seeking to get out from behind desks and have a better connection to the land and be more entrepreneurial,” explained Wiig.
Based on a 2017 survey of 3,500 young farmers and ranchers across the country, the National Young Farmers Coalition recommended more support for them at the state and federal level, including on-farm apprenticeships and farmer training programs.
Wiig says the young farmers he meets through CAFF want to be outdoors, getting dirt under their fingernails and working with plants and animals.
“[They] are not exactly drawn by the prospect of sitting behind a computer filling out spreadsheets, crop planning, [doing] profit and loss analysis and developing markets,” said Wiig.
But when small farms go under, Wiig says it’s precisely the lack of “some element of business planning” that gets the farmer in the end. “That could be securing a solid lease on a property that’s financially viable, or it might be cash flow,” explained Wiig.
In an attempt to close this skills gap, several non-profit organizations in California have recently launched business training programs for new farmers.
Kitchen Table Advisors is one of the players in this new farmer space. KTA, a non-profit organization funded largely by foundation grants, has a small team of advisors who provide three years of free business advising for farmers on small, organic farms in Northern California and the Central Coast.
KTA started in 2013 and regional director Thomas Nelson says, so far they’ve helped 50 farmers.
David Mancera worked in real estate and finance before becoming a Kitchen Table advisor. Beginning farmers face barriers like access to land and capital to run their businesses, he said.
It’s a stark contrast from his previous career. “When you’re a finance person, you just pick up the phone and extend your credit by a million dollars,” Mancera said.
Now he coaches farmers in Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Benito and Madera counties. He says in those areas, it’s difficult to find five-to-10-acre parcels for sale. But those smaller sizes are what makes sense for a beginning farmer, he said.
Several of his clients are former farmworkers making the transition to running their own operation. They can’t afford to buy or lease larger parcels, and they’re not ready to farm at that scale, Mancera explained.
As rain clouds cluster in the skies above Monterey County, Mancera makes his way to visit farmer Bertha Magaña. When he arrives, she’s watching her small crew move swiftly between rows of strawberry plants.
“This will be the last harvest of the season, because of the rain,” Magaña tells Mancera in Spanish. She says she’s had a much better yield from this year’s strawberries compared to last year.
Mancera has been advising Magaña for about three years. She was a sharecropper and nursery worker before enrolling at the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, or ALBA, in Salinas to study organic farming practices.
Mancera came into the picture just as Magaña was in the process of purchasing nine acres in the Royal Oaks area of Monterey County.
Mancera says cash flow management is one of the key things he and Magaña have worked on. That boiled down to the new farmer learning how to use a spreadsheet tool to track money going into her business and money coming out. Before that, Mancera says, Magaña was keeping track of her everything in her head.
“She worked off a piece of paper and notes she made as she went through the season,” Mancera said. “But there was no formal way to look at her business and try to understand what was making money and what wasn’t.”
Last year was a difficult period for Magaña. Her husband and farming partner had open heart surgery. She says his illness made it difficult for her to be working at the farm where she grows strawberries, artichokes, chard and beets.
To get through the crisis, Magaña needed a bank loan.
Mancera says lenders want to see evidence that a farmer is tracking their business and they have a plan going forward. He says he also works with new farmers on crop planning, in terms of planting a profitable mix of crops that align with market demand and labor costs.
KTA also connects beginning farmers with help on financing land purchases and leases by working with California FarmLink, a non-profit organization that helps sustainable farming through loans, land access and business strategies.
Still, Mancera admits that the Kitchen Table Advisors don’t always see eye to eye with their farmer clients about what would be the most profitable path for the business.
“We don’t tell them what to do,” he explained. “We guide them, we help them ask questions. Ultimately, they’re the business owners. We’re trying to help them develop this business mindset.”
There are several other California programs that have popped up in recent years to support beginning farmers.
The Center For Land Based Learning in Winters runs the California Farm Academy Apprenticeship Program with Soil Born Farms of Sacramento. CLBL also offers a Beginner Farming Training Program and a Farm Business Incubator which connects new farmers with access to land and ongoing training.
The School of Adaptive Agriculture in Mendocino runs a three-month vocational program for people who are considering farming or ranching as a career. It includes courses on the history of agriculture and farming philosophies, as well as practical skills such as how to fix farm equipment or repair a broken fence.
Winters farmer Kristyn Leach is leasing two acres from farmer and olive oil producer Mike Madison. Leach also has a Kitchen Table Advisor who helps her think about farming decisions through a business lens.
She says she also thinks of Madison as her informal mentor. Leach has use of his tractor and other farming equipment. She likes being able to talk shop with him about vintage tractors and how to fix things without spending money.
And Madison says that’s the way most farmers solve problems — one-on-one conversations with other farmers. Any one particular business training model is not going to cover the many “uncontrollable variables” of farming. “You can get a freak freeze or a wet year, a dry year. The markets are unpredictable,” Madison said. He says there’s no map to show a farmer how navigate the unknowns.
As a baby boomer, Madison is keenly aware that the average age of U.S. farmers has climbed from 54 in 1997 to 58 in 2012. “I’m in my 70s. I have to be thinking, ‘I’ll farm for 10 more years. What’s the future?’”
Madison’s children aren’t working in agriculture. “And that’s the case for farmers all over the state,” he said.
Madison says he’s impressed by the intelligence and idealism of Leach and other young farmers he’s met. He sees this moment as an opportunity for his generation to hand off to a new wave of farmers, who, like him, are committed to sustainable farming.