Specialty Farms Grow for A Diverse Customer Base

Small Specialty Farms Specialize on Niche Crops

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor
Mark Gaskell UCANR Small Farms Advisor

Cal Ag Today recently spoke with Mark Gaskell, a University of California Cooperative Extension Small Farm and Specialty Crop Advisor for San Luis Obispo County. He explained the definition of a small farm.

“I remember the USDA used to define a small farm as a $250,000 in gross income or a $350,000 in gross income,” Gaskell said.

Gaskell also works with specialty crops that are lower in volume but are high value crops.

“I don’t ask small farmers what their gross sales is by any means, but because of the emphasis on these specialized niche crops, I tend to see more small scale farming operations,” Gaskell said.

Blueberries are a perfect example of a specialty crop in California. With a large, diverse population, this pushes the growers to continue producing high-quality fresh crops.

Blueberries were originally grown in the eastern United States because they like the acidic soil. Of course California growers found a way to amend the soil to drop the pH.

“Because of California’s diverse population and appreciation for high-value, fresh market items, we tend to avoid more commodity-type crops. Small farms need to specialize in fresh market, high value crops for this diverse population base,” he said.

Small Farms Must Include Marketing

Marketing Makes it or Breaks it

By Jessica Theisman, Associate Editor

Mark Gaskell is with the University of California cooperative extension as a small farm and Specialty Crop Advisor for San Luis Obispo County. Gaskell recently told California Ag Today about his work with growers and small farms in the county since 1995.

“Part of my job has to do with applied research and educational programs, and this case related to keeping small farms viable and successful,” Gaskell said. “These activities include troubleshooting problems, helping growers develop new crops and develop new market opportunities that make them more competitive.”

The big question is, what to plant and how to profit from the crops?

“I often tell growers, plan on spending half or more of your time on marketing because marketing is probably more important than growing,” he said. “Marketing is what will draw crowds. It is best to have a marketing plan for your crop before putting your seeds in the ground.”

“Some opportunities are direct sales via farmers markets or farm stand, but more often than not, those market outlets are full and there is a long waiting list,” Gaskell explained.

Growers have to then look at selling through specialized wholesalers and in some of the metropolitan areas, Gaskell said.

USDA Announces New Support to Help Schools Purchase More Food from Local Farmers

By: Monique Bienvenue; Cal Ag Today Social Media Manager/Reporter 

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that more than $5 million in grants will be given to 82 projects that support the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) efforts to connect school cafeterias with local farmers and ranchers through its Farm to School Program. The program helps schools purchase more food from local farmers and ranchers in their communities, expanding access to healthy local food for school children and supporting local economies.

According to USDA’s first-ever  Farm to School Census released earlier this year, school districts participating in farm to school programs purchased and served over $385 million in local food in school year 2011-2012, with more than half of participating schools planning to increase their purchases of local food in the future.

“USDA is proud to support communities across the country as they plan and implement innovative farm to school projects,” said Vilsack. “These inspiring collaborations provide students with healthy, fresh food, while supporting healthy local economies. Through farm to school projects, community partners are coming together to ensure a bright future for students, and for local farmers and ranchers.”

Secretary Vilsack made this announcement at Common Market, a pioneering food hub in Philadelphia that connects wholesale customers to farmers in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. Common Market is receiving a grant to support their “An Apple a Day” Program. The facility will act as a bridge between Pennsylvania Family Farms, a small Pennsylvania value-added processor, and public charter schools to provide food safety, product development, packaging, educational, marketing, planning, ordering and delivery support to farm and school food service partners.

Together, Common Market and the other selected projects will serve more than 4,800 schools and 2.8 million students, nearly 51 percent of whom live in rural communities.

West Sacramento Urban Farm

By: Monique Bienvenue; Cal Ag Today Social Media Manager/Reporter

West Sacramento has its first urban farm in the Broderick neighborhood of West Sacramento: 5th & C St. Farm. What was once a vacant city lot is now a 2/3 acre farm growing over 50 varieties of vegetables, melons, flowers and herbs. Most of what is grown is almost never sold in stores. These crops are planted specifically for their flavor, picked when the produce is ripe and delivered the day of harvest.

Diversity, companion planting, crop rotation, lunar cycle planting, compost, and working with nature are the central values held by 5th & C St. Farms. All goods are grown naturally using 100% organic compost. The farm never uses any chemical fertilizers, insecticides or sprays. Sustainability, selling locally and providing people with nutrient dense, delicious food is what drives this farm.

Visitors and guests interested in seeing small scale agriculture thriving in the midst of a busy city are welcome to visit the farm. 5th & C St Farms is living proof that small scale farmers can make a difference in the local food system.

Global agricultural research council appoints UC Davis sustainability leader

Thomas Tomich, director of the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis, has been appointed a scientific adviser to the world’s preeminent agricultural research system, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.

CGIAR is a publicly funded research consortium working in more than 100 developing countries to eliminate hunger and poverty, improve food and nutritional security, and sustainably manage natural resources. CGIAR programs around the globe focus on topics as diverse as increasing profitability for small-scale rice farmers in the Philippines and global efforts to adapt to climate change.

Tomich will be a member of CGIAR’s Independent Science and Partnership Council (ISPC), providing expert scientific advice to improve the quality, relevance, and impact of CGIAR’s research portfolio of over $1.1 billion per year.

“With this council appointment, I will stay at the cutting edge of global science on food systems and sustainable agricultural development, and bring that back to ASI and my research and teaching at UC Davis,” said Tomich, a UC Davis professor and W.K. Kellogg Endowed Chair in Sustainable Food Systems. “I hope this effort contributes to maintaining California’s leadership in agricultural science and innovation.”

Seven scientific advisers compose the Independent Science and Partnership Council representing disciplines in agriculture, environmental sciences, ecology, and economics. Council members are from Australia, Brazil, Japan, Kenya, and the United Kingdom. Tomich is the only U.S.-based member of the council.

“For half a century, CGIAR has been the single most effective use of development aid funding,” said Howard-Yana Shapiro, Chief Agricultural Officer at Mars Inc. and Chair of ASI’s External Advisory Board. “This indispensable institution has grown rapidly and is in the midst of reforming to meet huge 21st century challenges.” Shapiro currently serves on CGIAR’s midterm review panel, guiding its reform process.

“The Independent Science and Partnership Council plays a key role in ensuring scientific quality and integrity for the whole research system,” said Shapiro. “Tom is committed to the highest standards of science, and has the deep understanding of sustainability required to make transformative change at a global level. His appointment is a great opportunity to help shape the future of food on the planet and also to better link UC Davis to global agricultural research.”

Prior to his service at UC Davis, Tomich worked for the World Agroforestry Center, a CGIAR center, as principal economist and global coordinator of the ASB Partnership for the Tropical Forest Margins. He has worked in a dozen countries, including significant periods based in Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya, and now in his home state of California.

The Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis promotes the vitality of California agriculture through multidisciplinary research, education, and outreach. Formed in 2006, ASI was pivotal in developing UC Davis’ new undergraduate major in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems, and houses five programs, each dedicated to emerging issues in sustainability.

 

 

From Service to Harvest – Military Veteran Deploys Aquaponics on the Farm

By: Blair Anthony Robertson; Sacramento Bee

Farming wasn’t Vonita Murray’s first choice, but after making a drastic career change, the 38-year-old Navy Veteran, former office manager and longtime fitness enthusiastic now believes digging in the dirt, growing food and being her own boss may be the dream job she has always wanted.

The transition to farming for Murray, 38, happened gradually over the past several years. She eventually took stock of her life, sized up her talents, sharpened the focus on her dreams and decided she was no longer cut out for a desk job.

For several years, Murray had been an office manager and a CAD, or computer-assisted design, technician for an architecture firm. Much of her work focused on remodeling floor plans for a major fast food chain’s Northern California stores. But when the economic downturn hit the architecture and design industry, Murray got laid off. She saw it as a chance to make a change in her life.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she said.

Using a $5,000 grant she received from the Davis-based Farmer Veteran Coalition, Murray bought some basic farm equipment and managed to launch her new career. She also enrolled in the first class of the California Farm Academy, a six-month farming course run by the Center for Land-based Learning in Winters.

Murray knows it will take hard work and several years before she can make a comfortable living as a farmer. But she has a long-term plan and says farming – including many 12-hour days – is exactly the lifestyle she was seeking.

“I’ve never been so tired, so broke and so happy,” she said with a laugh. “For the first time in my life, I have worth and a purpose. What I do has value in people’s lives.”

More and more veterans are turning to farming to connect in a similar way. “We’re all a family and we all try to help each other succeed,” Murray said.

When Michael O’Gorman founded the Farmer Veteran Coalition in 2009, he searched throughout the U.S. and found just nine veterans interested in going into farming. By the end of that year, the number was up to 30. These days, O’Gorman and his group have helped 3,000 veterans transition into farming.

“What’s really attracting veterans to agriculture is it offers a sense of purpose and a sense of mission,” said O’Gorman, who has farmed for 40 years. “It’s about feeding their country, offering food security and a better diet.”

O’Gorman is seeing more women get into farming and says Murray is a great role model.

“Vonita is dynamic, creative, energetic and smart. Whatever she does, she will do it well and take it places,” he said. “She’s a growing phenomenon. About 15 percent of those who serve in the military are women and that’s about the same percentage we hear from.

More and more women are going into agriculture. The military and farming are both male-dominated. The women who have taken on both of them just seem like a really exceptional group.”

Those who encounter Murray are often impressed by her energy and her holistic, lead-by-example approach to farming. Not only does she want to grow good food, she sees the work she does as a way to help people be healthy.

Indeed, Murray’s physical presence says plenty. Though she no longer trains as a bodybuilder, she remains noticeably lean and muscular. Her workouts these days focus on functional training and she is a big advocate of Crossfit, which combines classic weightlifting with mobility exercises.

“I’m doing all this because I want to get people healthy,” said Murray, noting that she hopes to someday build an obstacle course on the property so people can use it to work out.

She also has a penchant for unorthodox and innovative approaches to growing food. Standing on a portion of the land she leases in rural Elverta next to the renowned Sterling Caviar facility, Murray watches water stream past. It’s runoff from the tanks where sturgeon are raised for their prized caviar. It’s also the key to what she will grow on her new “farm” site.

Murray essentially harnesses the water, 3 million gallons a day and loaded with nutrients, to create an innovative style of growing food called aquaponics, which combines modern hydroponics with forward-thinking environmental awareness.

The water goes through a settling pond to separate solids from liquids, travels through a moat and into small ponds where Murray is growing produce she sells to restaurants and to a growing number of customers at the Saturday farmers market in Oak Park.

The outgoing and optimistic Murray has put some of her energy into tapping resources that can help get her going in farming. She obtained a $35,000 low-interest loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Murray, whose produce operation is going to specialize in watercress, says she would have been at a loss as to how to proceed as a farmer without the education she got at the California Farm Academy. The program costs about $2,600 and various grants subsidize the tuition, according to Dawnie Andrak, director of development for the Center of Land-Based Learning.

Those who enroll run the gamut of age and work background. About 20 students graduate each year. To make it a real-world experience, they write a business plan and present it to a panel composed of people from the banking, business and farm community.

“There are more women like Vonita getting into farming,” Andrak said. “You will not find someone more dedicated and more clear about what it is she wants to do. She is certainly not one to give up.”

Jennifer Taylor, the director of the Farm Academy, is herself an example of a woman who made the career leap into farming. She was a research biologist who had no idea until well after college that a life in agriculture might appeal to her. She landed a four-month internship on a farm, was given four calves and eventually rented a barn and started dairy farming.

“If you have no connection to agriculture, it’s very difficult to imagine yourself doing it, Taylor said. “It’s a way many people want to live, an opportunity to be your own boss, work outside with your hands and be your own boss.”

But can you make a living?

“That depends,” said Taylor, noting that one young farmer from the program now sells to about 50 Bay Area restaurants and nets about $75,000 a year.

Back in Elverta, Murray is busy tending her crops and her chickens. She’s not making a profit yet, but she knows it takes time. More than anything, she loves the work, the lifestyle and the mission. She sometimes feels the stress of having debt and not knowing whether her crops will thrive.

But her farm is called Thrive Acres for a reason.

“You have to keep dreaming,” she said with a smile. “This is just the beginning.”