Growing the Next Crop of Farmers

Jennifer McAllister and Daniela Montdragon harvest wheat in the front garden beds at Bryte Campus Farm. Photo by Raoul Ortega
Jennifer McAllister and Daniela Montdragon harvest wheat in the front garden beds at Bryte Campus Farm. Photo by Raoul Ortega

West Sacramento projects are underway to inspire and support young people in agriculture.

When asked to picture a farmer, Americans may conjure up an image not unlike the male figure in American Gothic. Many farmers defy that stereotype, and a diverse, younger generation is increasingly drawn to farming. Yet data suggest the American Gothic man still represents the majority of farmers: 64 percent are male, 97 percent of land-owning farmers are white, and with a median age of 57, farmers are the oldest sector of the U.S. workforce. The costs of entry make agriculture a challenging career path for individuals who aren’t born into multigenerational farms. Access to water and competing demands for land make it harder for beginning farmers to get started — let alone make a living — in agriculture. These challenges and some innovative solutions are all on display in West Sacramento, a river city located at the confluence of programs that spark young people’s interest in agriculture, offer farmer training, and connect beginning farmers with land. 


The share of farmers in the U.S. workforce shrank from 7.6 million in 1950 to 2 million in 1990, with the number hovering near 2 million ever since. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz regularly told farmers to “get big or get out” during his tenure in the Nixon and Ford administrations; he implemented policies that precipitated farm consolidation and workforce reductions. He ascribed to an economic line of reasoning that farm consolidation led to greater efficiency. However, an efficient food system is not necessarily designed to produce delicious food, promote ecological health, and ensure the well-being of the people growing and eating the food. 

Enter the Center for Land-Based Learning’s California Farm Academy. CLBL’s training programs offer aspiring farmers the knowledge, technical skills, and connections needed to pursue their farming goals. 

“We grow more farmers,” says Ric Murphy, who manages the Farm Business Incubator program. 

Some participants also get a reality check: The training programs offer an honest, unromantic view of farming that includes the reality of working long hours in the heat. 

Four of CLBL’s incubator farm sites are located in urban West Sacramento, and another four are co-located at CLBL’s headquarters on the outskirts of Woodland, another city in Yolo County. Farmers apply to manage incubator farm sites; those selected get subsidized farmland and water, technical assistance, and access to tools, aggregation facilities, and other infrastructure. 

Murphy found farming midcareer: Tending a plot at one of Sacramento’s community gardens inspired him to leave a stable state job to become a farm apprentice in Albuquerque. Upon completing his apprenticeship, he started Sol Harvest Farm and produced vegetables on three sites located several miles apart. One of the sites was owned by a high-end restaurant that featured Sol Harvest produce on its menu; Murphy found other markets for his remaining produce. His farming experiences in Albuquerque prepared him well to be a resource and sounding board for beginning farmers. 

Hope Sippola, a farmer at Fiery Ginger Farm, carries freshly harvested tomatoes. Photo by Raoul Ortega
Hope Sippola, a farmer at Fiery Ginger Farm, carries freshly harvested tomatoes. Photo by Raoul Ortega

“The market for local, sustainably grown vegetables can be crowded. Growing is the easy part. Selling takes more work, and you’re not just selling the produce; you need to sell yourself, your farm, your vision,” he says. “I was where they are now, just starting my farm. They ask general questions, like ‘How did you build relationships?’ to specific ones, such as, ‘How can I sell all these cucumbers?’” 

Fortunately, Murphy can answer given his firsthand experience.


Nelson Hawkins farms one of CLBL’s urban incubator sites in West Sacramento, and like the other incubator farmers, he and Murphy meet regularly. 

Hawkins shares that the incubator farm program “isn’t hand-holding; it’s kicking you out of the nest and helping you fly by offering resources, access to land, and technical assistance for farming and for business success, so you can make it on your own.”

Nelson Hawkins, founder of WeGrow Urban Farm in West Sacramento. Photo by Fred Greaves/Center for Land-Based Learning
Nelson Hawkins, founder of WeGrow Urban Farm in West Sacramento. Photo by Fred Greaves/Center for Land-Based Learning

Hawkins founded WeGrow Urban Farm in 2018 shortly after completing his degree in sustainable agriculture and food systems at University of California, Davis. Would he be farming today without the incubator program?

“I would have found a way, but I wouldn’t be this far along,” Hawkins says. 

Growing up biracial in the predominantly white community of Auburn, Hawkins experienced various forms of racism. He became an activist and worked with others to transform systems of oppression. He saw activism unite people but also witnessed further division as individuals got caught up in differences. His mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, then his father got a cancer diagnosis of his own. Their health journeys awakened the family to the links between food, pesticides, and disease, and how everyone deserves access to healthy food — not just those who can afford it.

Hawkins began to see food as a tool for bringing people together. Without any previous farming experience, he immersed himself in sustainable, urban agriculture. WeGrow now includes the half-acre incubator farm in West Sacramento and another half-acre site in Rio Linda. On Fridays during the summer months, Hawkins can be found at the WeGrow farm stand surrounded by his helpers, school-aged children who live in affordable housing units adjacent to his farm. 

Nelson Hawkins, founder of WeGrow Urban Farm works on irrigation. Photo by Fred Greaves/Center for Land-Based Learning
Nelson Hawkins, founder of WeGrow Urban Farm works on irrigation. Photo by Fred Greaves/Center for Land-Based Learning

Hawkins has many outlets for his activism, including serving on the California Department of Food and Agriculture BIPOC Farmer Advisory Committee. Assembly member Cecilia Aguiar-Curry (D-Winters) authored the Farmer Equity Act requiring CDFA to identify and address how its services have not equally served socially disadvantaged farmers (including people of color, women, LGBTQ+, veteran, and urban farmers), and the BIPOC Farmer Advisory Committee is one outgrowth of this effort. Aguiar-Curry supports the committee’s efforts to purchase land for production and farmer training. 


Just a few blocks from WeGrow’s West Sacramento site, Jennifer McAllister teaches the Farm to Fork career pathway and facilitates a chapter of Future Farmers of America (FFA) at the Bryte Career and College Training campus, a satellite site of River City High School. McAllister’s colleague Cheryle Sutton leads a culinary arts program that incorporates produce from the garden in dishes served in the on-campus café. Jointly called CAFFE (Culinary Arts and Farm to Fork Education), the program offers students hands-on experience in all aspects of growing and preparing food. 

“They learn where their food comes from and how to eat — not just to satisfy hunger, but to nourish their bodies,” McAllister says.

Students grow a wide diversity of crops: The front yard includes five raised beds growing wheat, and, behind the school, perennials such as blackberries and raspberries are grown in 10 beds alongside annual crops. Rabbits, fish, and hens offer experience with animal husbandry. Sustainable agriculture practices are incorporated throughout the program, from composting and soil building to seeding and transplanting, harvesting, and processing. 

At FieryGinger Farm, Alejandro Ramirez Vannucci brings his goat, Luna, onto the scale to be weighed for the fair. Photo by Raoul Ortega

Collaborations with local food and agricultural businesses help urban students see futures for themselves in the food and agriculture sector. The California Wheat Commission helps mill the wheat grown on campus on an ongoing basis. Staff members of Faria Bakery in Sacramento worked alongside culinary students to turn their flour into homemade lasagna noodles, pretzels, and decadent dinner rolls that were served at the 2022 FFA awards night dinner. 

Prior to the event, McAllister counseled students, “Be yourselves, and be impressive! This could turn into a job opportunity if you really want it!”

McCallister and Vannucci celebrate Luna the goat making the fair's goal weight. Photo by Raoul Ortega
McCallister and Vannucci celebrate Luna the goat making the fair’s goal weight. Photo by Raoul Ortega

CAFFE is an example of Career Technical Education (CTE), formerly known as vocational training. The scholars/pupils of CAFFE, the largest student-run organization in the U.S., lead their local chapters and engage with members of other chapters, through sectional, regional, state, and national events. The Bryte Campus FFA chapter looks different from many others: Very few members are “farm kids,” and many are non-white. They overcome the challenges of living within city limits by boarding goats and hogs for the county fair at nearby Fiery Ginger Farm. 

What West Sacramento students lack in generational connections to agriculture, they make up for in enthusiasm: McAllister’s students are the first to volunteer at sectional and regional events and love visiting other chapters. West Sacramento students learned from peers in Clarksburg and Winters about raising hogs and showing sheep. They visit local farms and agribusinesses as a function of their involvement in FARMS Leadership, a CLBL educational program for high school students. Several alumni are studying sustainable agriculture and food systems at UC Davis. 


The enthusiasm of the students and beginning farmers is infectious, yet challenges remain. While CLBL operates agricultural training programs throughout the state, the incubator program only operates in Yolo County. Competing demands for land make it challenging to identify more sites: Existing incubators are the result of strong relationships between CLBL, which was founded in Yolo County, and local landowners. At least one farm is in its last year of production. Hawkins has spent five years building the soil at WeGrow, but next year the West Sacramento site will be bulldozed to build affordable housing there. While it’s hard to argue against the merit of expanding affordable housing, the trade-offs are acutely felt by farmers. 

CLBL plans to expand the number of incubator sites at its headquarters in Woodland in the coming years. Access to food that nurtures both eaters and the planet depends on efforts to inspire and support young people interested in agriculture. 

As McAllister points out, “Food is what makes us human; we build relationships and community when we grow food and eat together.”