The founders of First Generation Farmers in Brentwood, California have spent the morning squatting and stooping uncomfortably as they hand-harvest row after row of asparagus. “This is the hardest work we’ve ever done in our lives,” says Larry Gaines, hauling a bin of asparagus to his car. His business partner, Christian Olesen, announces that he feels like puking from the effort.
The weather is hot and the mud is thick in this part of Contra Costa County, one of the closest “para-urban” farm communities to the eastern outskirts of San Francisco. The asparagus is painfully slow to cut. But Gaines seems happy to be in the field anyway. And Olesen is “stoked” about their blooming amaranth crop, to say nothing of the 19,000 “likes” on their Facebook page.
In just over a year, Olesen, Gaines, and their third partner, Alli Cecchinis, have schooled more than 300 aspiring agrarians in the fundamentals of farming through First Generation Farmers. The group has also hosted hundreds of elementary school and special education students, as well as senior citizens from assisted living centers. Cecchinis’ family, a long-time Brentwood farming clan, donated 10 acres and their expertise to the group. Now, volunteers come here from around the nation to learn to plant, nurture, and market a farm business.
The group is not what many people would have expected to see in Brentwood a few years back. As Civil Eats reported in 2009, the long-time agricultural area known for fruit trees and sweet corn was poised to go the way of subdivisions and sprawl. Between 1984 and 2002, over 20,000 acres of the county’s agricultural land were put into urban use—land that the California Department of California calls some of the most fertile in the state.
Since then, the sub-prime mortgage crisis has slowed development dramatically. Brentwood Harvest Time’s robust U-Pick program, trail map, and harvest calendar help urban visitors find seasonal produce. And corn grown in the area has also made it into many regional farmers markets and onto the menus of many high-end restaurants. More importantly, Brentwood voters have twice now refused to allow for commercial or residential construction in the agricultural core–a good sign as some see it. But, for now, Brentwood residents and farmers have some critical decisions to make, including whether Brentwood will remain a farm community and if its farmland is worth preserving.
Development Stalled or Development Stopped
“When I started in 2002, people told me I had the stupidest job they’d ever heard of because they expected the agricultural core to be developed,” says Kathryn Lyddan, Executive Director of the Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust (BALT).
Before the recession, developers offered farmers huge prices for their property on the speculation that the city’s urban limit would be expanded and the protected agricultural core would be rezoned for commercial and residential purposes. So Lyddan was tasked with convincing farmers to take on conversation easements–legal agreements that prohibit development, but in so doing, immediately lower the value of the land. It wasn’t an enviable job.
“The farmers here aren’t Wendell Berry types,” says Lyddan. Unlike the farmers at many of the bucolic dairies in nearby Marin County or the flower child farms in Santa Cruz, most Brentwood farmers see agriculture as a business, not a moral crusade. And many have been glad to have the option to sell their land to a developer.
Tom Bloomfield, a third-generation Brentwood produce farmer and Chairman of the board at BALT, understands why conservation easements aren’t for everyone. “It’s hard to get farmers on board, when the option is to either have the value of their assets stay the same or increase ten-fold,” he says.
Since 2002, BALT has managed to buy developments rights from nine farms, forever protecting that land from the cement truck. On average, BALT pays $10,000 per acre to purchase an easement, making the process as expensive as it is slow. But the organization has largely run out of money.
The city of Brentwood used to require developers to pay $5,500 per acre into an agricultural mitigation fund that went to BALT whenever property changed hands. Over the years, the organization was given $12 million to preserve farmland. Then, in 2007, the city ended that practice. Lyddan says that state and federal conservation grants aren’t much help, since most focus on saving open spaces and grazing pastures, not farmland. Although BALT expects to see some money come in this year from California’s cap-and-trade bill, AB32, which requires the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. The Bill identifies farmland conservation as a viable way to trap carbon and protect against further pollution.
Funding woes aside, as long as the current agricultural zoning holds, Brentwood’s farmland is technically safe. And now that developers have stepped away from the county, conservation easements might be more attractive to farmers, who can use the tax right off and immediate cash-flow.
“If there was more money, there would be more farmers interested in selling conservation easements today than ever before,” says Bloomfield. “It’s not that the conservation thing is dead. It just needs to adapt to where we are now when the government doesn’t have any more money to give to it.”
Of course, securing the land is one thing. Recruiting willing farmers is another.
A Job Too Few Want to Do
The inspiration for First Generation Farmers came to Alli Cecchinis after she offered to help her mom hire field workers for the season.
“I thought I wouldn’t have any problem finding people if I put the word out on Facebook and hung flyers around town. But no one phoned for a job. No one wanted that kind of work,” she says. “There’s a stigma to farming. Even a lot of farmworkers don’t see the significance in what they’re doing because they just deal with one stage of the production. They don’t see where the food goes or who it’s sold to.”
The goal of First Generation Farmers is to cultivate as much excitement about growing food as there is about eating it. The group is currently reviewing applicants for a farmer incubator program, allowing apprentices to have their own small plots of land on which to practice growing techniques and ultimately launch their own enterprises.
Christian Olesen is actively working against what he says is an assumption outside farming communities that “to be a farmer you have to be a hick or be stupid.” For one, the twenty-something founders at First Generation have a hip vibe and active Twitter accounts. (Before he sheared his mane, Larry Gaines was one of the only guys with dreadlocks in a town of crew-cuts and ball caps.)
When Olesen and Gaines helped a Brentwood school start a garden, they were amazed at how little the students, who had grown up surrounded by farms, knew about agriculture. Many of the kids’ parents even worked in the fields. It quickly became clear that many of the students saw farming as a last-ditch option. But when the First Generation Crew asked if anyone wanted to plant squash or seed lettuce every hand in the room shot up.
“We want our farm to be open source,” says Cecchinis, borrowing a techie phrase to describe her vision for a place where the public is always welcome and knowledge is shared.
“We want everybody in Brentwood to be connected to the farms around them in some way, whether they belong to a community supported agriculture (CSA) project or they bring their kids out to weed or the companies in town invest in farms because they see them as viable businesses.”
First Generation Farmers teaches a mostly organic approach, working their fields largely by hand without chemical inputs. But they avoid critiquing the more conventional techniques of farmers around them. “If we were to get political about GMOs or something like that, we’d burn a lot of bridges,” says Cecchinis.
From where Olesen stands in the asparagus field, you can see a high-end housing development in the distance. Trucks filled with tomatoes from large anonymous farms rumble past. He takes a swig of his water bottle. “We decided to farm here because this area needed it,” he says.
Photos, from top: The farmers and First Generaton Farmers, Tom Bloomfield in his new cherry orchard.