meet the farmer

GROWING NEW FARMERS

Center for Land-Based Learning offers intensive academy.

WRITTEN BY PAUL TOWERS
PHOTOS BY CANDISS KOENITZER

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On a sweltering 108-degree day this past summer, with sweat dripping from her brow, Rubie Simonsen points to the rows of plants she is helping grow on her new farm. Rows of lemon balm, catmint, white sage, calendula, holy basil, and more spring up from the transformed lot in the heart of West Sacramento.

“I get to dig in the dirt — how do you compete with that?” she asks.

Simonsen is carving a niche for herself and her farm, First Mother Farms, around herbs and teas as well as value-added products such as balms and salves. And she’s not alone in trying to figure out the future of successful farming in California.

A fresh crop of farmers will join Simonsen, a recent graduate of the Winters-based California Farm Academy Beginning Farmer Training Program, when they complete the program in September.

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New faces of farming

Sri Sethuratnam, director of the CFA, which is housed at the Center for Land-Based Learning, said the program began with a simple question: Who’s going to grow our food?

According to the last USDA Agricultural Census in 2012, the results of which are stark, the average farmer is 58 years old, and getting older. Farmers are retiring, and their children aren’t taking up farming.

“Two percent of the entire population farms so that 98 percent can eat,” he adds.

Simonsen, who grew up mostly in urban Sacramento, credits a great deal to the intensive nine-month California Farm Academy Beginning Farmer Training Program for her new understanding of growing practices to marketing and planning.

She knew that before she got started, she would need a good business plan for what she was going to grow.

“I needed to find something that was shelf stable, and able to grow, harvest, and sell at different times of the year, particularly as I looked to sell outside labor-intensive sales channels like farmers’ markets,” Simonsen says.

The program also taught her to be flexible and experiment. For example, she’s learned that some plants have grown better in the soil than others. Many of her seeds initially failed to germinate so she had to buy plug starts for some plants.

She also has chosen to embrace technology, to “use tech for good.” Simonsen launched her new farm with a successful online GoFundMe campaign, avoiding initial debt, and she continues to expand her community of online supporters, particularly among tech-receptive millennials.

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Agricultural futures

Sethuratnam says Simonsen exemplifies one of three different people the academy’s teachers see as the future faces of farming: young urbanites with no prior connection to farming, refugees or immigrants who have some history with farming in their native country, and second-career farmers (or people switching professions entirely).

Given the trends of a shrinking farmer population, attention at the local, state, and federal levels to new farmers has grown in recent years, starting with major investments in budding farmers via the 2008 Farm Bill. Sethuratnam is sure that the farm academy will need to continue to train more farmers, but so will institutions of learning.

“Access to land and start-up capital are unquestionably necessary,” he says, “but access to knowledge, including learning spaces for new farmers, remains largely overlooked.”

Paul Towers is a frequent contributor to GroundTruth, a leader of the Sacramento Food Policy Council, serves as the organizing director and policy advocate at Pesticide Action Network, and enjoys cooking food from his garden with his children at his home in Sacramento’s Oak Park neighborhood.

Want to be a farmer?

The California Farm Academy Beginning Farmer Training Program runs for 30 weeks, from February to September, and applications for the 2018 academic year are due on Nov. 17. For details about the program, information sessions, or to apply, visit Landbasedlearning.org/farm-academy-beginning-farmer.

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