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  • Chris Brown

El Futuro of Farming

By Chris Brown, Development Director at ALBA,

Since 1950, more than a quarter-billion acres of farmland were lost to development, due to a doubling of the U.S. population and the transition to suburban living by many Americans. As many American farmers left their farms, new technologies enabled farmland consolidation into fewer, ever-bigger farming operations which have bid-up farmland prices. Exacerbating the problem, global investors increasingly use farmland as an investment commodity.

Lost in the scramble for assets and market share are small- and mid-sized commercial (or “livelihood”) farms. Once the cornerstone of the rural economy and culture, livelihood farms comprise a declining share of a shrinking number of American farms. A majority of the 5.4 million farms in 1950, livelihood farms are now about a fifth of the 2 million farms that remain.

The loss of small to medium-scale farms disrupted intergenerational transfer of knowledge and assets, creating a wedge between a largely urban workforce and the land itself. We as a nation have drifted away from the land. We may well have lost our way back. Sure, a brave few hold on to the farm, and a few more have aspirations to, but it’s hard to claim that we have reached a critical mass of people and capital to readily confront the shortcomings of the modern food system.

A more environmentally sustainable, and economically vibrant food system would necessitate a resurgence of small- and medium-scale farms which use more labor-intensive, conservation-farming methods to supply their local and regional food economies. Realizing this vision requires hundreds of thousands of Americans, if not a million, to return to the farm. Rediscovering the ‘will and skill’ to farm, therefore, stands as a formidable barrier to this vision. Simply put: ‘Who will farm?’

* * *

We believe part of the answer can be found on Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association’s (ALBA) 100-acre farm in the heart of the Salinas Valley. A non-profit founded in 2001, ALBA’s mission is to create opportunities for limited-resource farmers through land-based training in organic farm management. Our farm is teeming with young men and women who have a love for farming and are eagerly pursuing the dream of organic farm ownership.

Who are they? Mostly Mexican immigrant farmworkers who grew up on family farms and immigrated to California to find work. They are hired by large farms through labor contractors to work in the fields, earning only $20,000 to $30,000 annually for back-breaking work, receiving neither benefits nor opportunity for advancement.

Despite origins that included hardship, these individuals have exactly what the organic movement needs: the experience, desire and motivation to farm organically. Moreover, they collectively have the youth and numbers to revive the American family farm and the rural economy at large, using environmentally restorative methods to do so.

The U.S. Latino population now exceeds 60 million, including 15 million immigrants. Compared to the American-born population, immigrants typically have stronger experience in and cultural ties to agriculture. Of the 2 million farm workers working in American fields, 3 out of 4 originate from Mexico and Central America. Latinos represent over 40% of the entire US agricultural workforce but own just 4% of America’s farms. This incredible pool of farming talent, given adequate investment in education and resources, and linked up to trusted commercial partners, can help forge a more vibrant and sustainable food system.

That’s not to say that navigating the jump from farmworker to farm owner is easy. Many farmworkers are hindered by limited formal education, capital, and English skills in a sector dominated by industrial-scale operations. Where do we go from here?

Again, the answer may be found on ALBA’s farm. Our Farmer Education and Enterprise Development (FEED) program is a replicable model for land-based learning, and just one of a growing number of farm incubator programs nationwide. FEED is a five-year program offering subsidized access to land and intensive land-based training in organic farm management giving start-up farms the time and space to take root and grow.

The program is split into two components. In their first year, aspiring farmers complete the Farmer Education Course, a 250-hour course that prepares them for launching a farm the following year. The course combines classroom with field instruction and includes field trips to successful farms and guest speakers from the industry. In years two through five, participants launch their own farm enterprise in ALBA’s Organic Farm Incubator. In the Incubator, they gain subsidized access to land, farm equipment and technical assistance.

Participants are taught conservation practices focusing on soil management to drive plant health, yield and quality. Techniques include the use of cover crops, compost, crop rotation, drip irrigation and natural pest management techniques: nurturing the land and allowing it to give back.

On the business side, ALBA has seasoned program staff advising farmers on finances, marketing, and food safety. In turn, farmers look to our non-profit partners that provide essential business services along the pathway to establishing a viable farm:

  • California FarmLink provides operating loans, mortgages and land-matching services.

  • Coke Farm distributes their goods to lucrative markets in the nearby San Francisco Bay Area.

  • Kitchen Table Advisors offers business consulting to farmers as they transition off of ALBA’s land.

In addition, many other training partners, alumni and guest speakers from the industry share their knowledge to support beginning farmers. The combination of land access and on-site technical assistance within a learning community of farmers lowers the barriers to starting a farm, giving each emerging farm owner a shot at success after leaving the program.

Once farming independently, our graduates tend to expand to around 8-20 organic acres relying on modest equipment and family labor to cultivate a wide array of organic vegetables and berries. Land is scarce and rarely available in small organic parcels. Many farmers resort to growing on marginal, hilly lands of north Monterey County. An increasingly popular way to farm is to share larger plots among 3-5 farmers, maintaining the social networks forged at ALBA. Some graduates buy land and invite their peers to farm on it. The only consistent method used is tenacity and resilience, again, showing their determination to pursue the dream of farm ownership.

ALBA is nearing completion of a 20-year impact assessment of our program alumni. So far, 185 have been surveyed representing 49% of all graduates. Early results show that, of the 170 now working, 81 (48%) currently operate farm businesses. Of the 52% of respondents who are employed, 81% stated that the program helped them obtain their job and 70% stated that their jobs were related to organic farming and food. Moreover, 83% of all respondents said that ALBA improved their careers and 84% rated ALBA 8 or more on a 1-10 scale.

We could take the credit, but the real story here is the skill, motivation and work ethic of our participants. These results speak to the untapped potential of our nations’ immigrants who are largely shut out of gainful employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. ALBA simply gives them an opportunity and some guidance to show what they can do. What happens on ALBA’s 100 acres can’t change the broader food system, but our experience can contribute to strategies that create pathways back to the land and re-awaken the rural economy.

Fortunately, we are not alone. New Entry Sustainable Farming, a Tufts University Project, has been operating for more than 20 years in Massachusetts and is rallying farm incubator and apprenticeship programs nationwide to create a support network of on-farm education centers for aspiring farmers. Other founding members of the FIELD Network include Viva Farms in Washington, Big River Farms in Minnesota and Global Growers in Georgia. Many more are just getting started, but it shows that there is still a hunger to return to farming as well as a need for education and guidance to make it possible.

Chris Brown is the Development Director for Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association commonly known as ‘ALBA’.

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