How I Learned I Could Start a Farm Tomorrow: A Report from Eco-Farm | Civil Eats

How I Learned I Could Start a Farm Tomorrow: A Report from Eco-Farm

For farmers up and down the West Coast and for many more across the country, Eco-Farm marks the arrival of the new year. Some call it a conference, though you won’t find any dark suits or laser pointers or cafeteria food. I call it a three-day wonder.

Well over a thousand farmers, activists, educators and homesteaders descend on Asilomar State Park in beautiful Pacific Grove, CA to attend Eco-Farm. For the old-timers (this was its 29th year), the event is an annual tradition, a sacred ritual; for the newcomers, it is an odd and wonderful time to learn and absorb. For me, a green second-year attendee, there’s no better place to meet the old and the new, the seasoned heroes of organic agriculture and the spirited soldiers of today’s burgeoning food movement.

At our first breakfast this year, I sat down next to Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms in Madera, CA. He asked me if I was farming. I told him that right now I teach middle schoolers to grow vegetables but that I dream of having my own farm someday, though it often doesn’t feel like a very realistic option. His eyes widened above his white beard. He looked right at me and said “It’s the most realistic option. Especially now. Just rent some land. That’s what I did. Then, in ten or twenty years, you’ll know better what land to buy.”

To my surprise, many voices echoed Tom’s words. “Amigo” Bob Cantisano welcomed the new faces at Eco-Farm by declaring us a whole new, significant generation. He spoke to the older folks, telling them to nurture and foster this relationship in order to minimize the obstacles for the next generation and help us find access to land, credit and knowledge. “We haven’t figured out how to make this transition,” he said, “but we’re getting there.”

“Transition” was a word I heard in nearly every workshop I attended. One such workshop, “Organic 101 for New Farmers,” was a crash course in starting a farm. Eco-Farm has offered this workshop every year for the past decade, and this year’s was the biggest crowd yet. I could hardly keep up with the presentations on cost-sharing programs, intergenerational transfers of farm land, grants, loans and business planning tools. I furiously took notes on forming a cash-flow plan, analyzing a soil test and managing gopher damage (3 cats/acre, fed every other day in the morning).

Carl Rosato, farmer and owner of Woodleaf Farm, was very clear in his advice: either work for a year or two to save up $25,000 to put down as a deposit on a piece of land, or go in on the purchase with a few people. It’s that simple. Like every other presenter, he said emphatically that the need for new farmers is one thing the entire agricultural community agrees on. Then, as the workshop ran out of time, the presenters all gave us their phone numbers, urging us to come to them with questions. “Give us a call, we can talk.”

I tried to take a break from farm planning by attending the session on Artisan Cheese, but Dee Harley and Donna Pacheco ended up telling more stories about starting their farms than about their passion for cheese-making. Neither of these women had any experience making cheese before they began their operations, and they both relied heavily on grants and loans that are specific to small-scale, female run farms. They left us listeners with a sense that starting a creamery is a bold adventure and a life’s work, but very possible. “If you’re going to do it,” Dee advised, “do it right from the start.” With a nod to all of us young folks in the room, she added, “start small, learn it deeply.”

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All this talk was rewarded with living proof: there are young people who, at my age, are already farming. One young man I met was growing olives on McEvoy Ranch. A year ago, he’d been leasing his own land and now, as he builds capital, he’s planning to buy a place to raise sheep and grow grapes, olives and vegetables. I heard a presentation from Toby Hastings, a young farmer who had no farming experience until a year ago, when he leased one acre from the Center for Land Based Learning; since then, he’s established a 30-family CSA and sells vegetables wholesale to restaurants. When asked if he ever gets tired, he smiles and says it’s hard work, but fun, and that he looks forward to going to the farm every day. “I think I’ll be farming for a while.”

On the last day, the whole Eco-Farm congregation packed into Merrill Hall for a final, boisterous call to action. Four of Eco-Farm’s founding fathers and mothers spoke on the topic of the “Final Frontier of Organic Agriculture.” Mr. Willey, the farmer I met at that first breakfast, happened to be among them and in his final words on stage he declared that now is the time to “pass the torch to a new generation of cultivators… I hope my generation has sufficiently inspired you to assume this immense and challenging task.”

And so we piled into cars for the trip back to our farms, schools, cities and townships, ready to share our sense of hope, our bright faces and our big ideas. I had the strange feeling that over the course of those three days, some of my dreams had become a little less wild and a little more tangible. I went into Eco-Farm with a burning question: can I really do this, can I really become a farmer? I went home with the grounding knowledge that, when I decide I’m ready, I can start a farm tomorrow.

P.S. In Eco-Farm’s generous spirit, here are some of the resources farmers and policy-makers shared with us new and aspiring farmers:

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Growing New Farmers, a community of new farmers and farm service providers managed by the New England Small Farm Institute.
USDA Farm Service Agency, which provides information on loan, conversation and other relevant programs.
The National Farm Transition Network, which connects organizations working on farm transfers all over the country.
– The Rodale Institute’s Classifieds and New Farm resources.
The Beginning Farmer Rancher Blog by Poppy Davis of the USDA Risk Management’s Agency.
CASFS (UCSC Agroecology), where you can download worksheets for creating small farm business plans and monthly cash flow spreadsheets.
– The ATTRA’s wealth of information (they’ll do research on pest management for you if you have questions!)

Vera Fabian is a garden teacher at the Edible Schoolyard in Berkeley, CA, a leader of Slow Food San Francisco, a cook and a compost advocate. Read more >

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