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Fresh to Farming - On the Land


hand washing vegetables in a tub of water

Photo Credit: Kiley Clark

By Kiley Clark

Over the last several years of planning obsessively for my future farm, my idealistic dreams have been altered, compressed, and evolved in various forms. While my business plan is in flux, the reasons why I want to be a farmer remain the same. I really enjoy working outside with my hands. Farming with ecologically sound practices, I can be part of the solution and I can both feed the community and contribute to building the community. 

The thinking behind the changes in my gameplan is that if I’m adaptable, more options would be available to me. When I really stop to analyze my challenges, they seem insurmountable but I realize that I am not alone. The pervasive barriers to entry for me are one in the same for most beginning farmers--lack of access to capital and lack of access to farmland.

A 2017 survey by the National Young Farmers’ Coalition found that 61 percent of respondents listed affordable access to land as one their biggest challenges to starting a farm. The majority of those surveyed stated that the cost of land is greater than what they can produce on the farm. It is often suggested that leasing land is the next best option to purchasing land. Nearly 40 percent of farmland in the United States is leased or rented from non-operating landowners. The process of leasing farmland, however, is nebulous. 

Whether purchasing or searching for a lease opportunity, there are similarities in what to look for in prospective land. Farmland Advisors with the American Farmland Trust (AFT) lists the four characteristics of access as: available, affordable, appropriate and secure. 

Available means there is an adequate supply of land that may be used for farming and affordability requires that land is priced appropriately for agriculture. Development eats into the availability and reduces the affordability of land for farming. According to AFT’s report, between 2001 and 2016, 11 million acres of farm and ranch land were converted into suburban residential use and highly-developed urban use. Around the country, housing developers are able to purchase land at prices unfeasible for most farmers, leaving most of us unable to compete for prime farmland near large markets of potential customers located in urban areas.

packing vegetables in boxes

Photo Credit: Kiley Clark

The last two access criteria--appropriate and secure farmland--I can say from personal experience have so far eluded me. Appropriate farmland needs to be in the right location, have infrastructure and the necessary natural resources (i.e. water for irrigation, soil type, and terrain).

One lease offer that was made to me seemed perfect on the surface. But, the land’s allure was diminished by a 14-mile drive on a washboard dirt road before reaching the main road. The well also had a very low flow rate in the winter and went dry every summer. Another potential lease opportunity offered no security, guaranteeing access for only one year. That is unfeasible for growing row crops on land that had never been farmed before. Both options were unrealistic. So I continue my search.

Most beginning farmers like me do not come from families with land to pass on. I was raised in a low-income area of South Los Angeles without any family interested in farming. Here in Sonoma County, parcels over five acres with a home easily are priced over one million (or more) and most likely are planted in wine grapes. I commend farmers who remove acres of grapes to grow food. But there is no way I can compete with folks who don’t bat an eye at the cost. I am very much under resourced. With student loans still to pay off, it has been challenging to work in the food industry and save capital for my future farm. So, I want to exhaust all possibilities.

Government programs like loans available from the Farm Service Agency (FSA) that were once a non-starter for me have eased on some of the eligibility as far as requiring a minimum of three years farm management. It is possible to reach the conditions with one year of management experience and work with a Small Business Administration SCORE mentor. A considerable downfall is that “substantial” farm management positions are far and few between and rarely become available. I have worked with SCORE before. However, my SCORE mentor lost interest in helping me with a business plan immediately after I turned down his offer of land with little water down that 14-mile dirt road!

Chicken tractors in a field

Photo Credit: Kiley Clark

One option I’ve considered to start farming sooner is to leave my home state. It is no secret that California is one of the more expensive places to live. Even some of the more remote areas of the state are cost prohibitive. So, I’m expanding my search to all of the West Coast, a state or two in the southeast, and I try to picture how well I would handle snow if moving to the Midwest or northeast portion of the country.

I’m open to exploring all avenues including agri-hoods, farm cooperatives, intentional communities, and urban farming on small plots. The possibilities keep me hopeful in knowing that there are hundreds of ways to farm.

 


 

Kiley ClarkKiley Clark is a farmer and photographer residing in Sonoma County, California. She lives in a tiny cabin in a nature preserve with her wife and 60-lb lap dog. This is Kiley’s first season working at Radical Family Farms in Sebastopol. You can help her raise money for a downpayment on a regenerative farm of her own by joining her crowdfunding campaign.

 

Photo Credit: Portraits to the People