Thursday, February 23, 2012

Getting into farming (and staying there)

That's the topic of several recent stories out of California.

A few days ago, the San Francisco Chronicle ran this front-page story about the diminished profitability of cattle ranching, particularly in California where land prices are so high. The story features Tim Koopman of Sunol. It's no wonder his land is so pricey: Sunol is an unincorporated Census Designated Place... that happens to be in metropolitan Alameda County, home to City of Oakland and part of the Bay Area bubble. Koopman is the first of four generations of ranchers in his family to work off the ranch. His two sons also ranch--and they also earn their livings with careers other than raising cattle.
[A] number of American cattle families are throwing in their branding irons, either selling off their land or planting crops. While the price of beef is at record highs, the cost of doing business for some is impossible.

The shrinking beef supply is affecting consumers, who on average paid 10 percent more per pound for meat in 2011 than they did the year before, said Steve Kay, editor and publisher of Cattle Buyers Weekly, a trade publication based in Petaluma."
Kay added that consumer prices could rise another 10% in 2012. Still, demand has remained strong, with 14% of the U.S. beef supply exported in 2011.
Ranchers, agricultural experts and theUSDA cite a number of reasons for the beef decline: loss of grazing land to development or other farming purposes, the high cost of feed and energy and the fact that the average age of a rancher has crept up to 59 and their children don't necessarily want to take the reins.
Development of farm land, the resulting high cost of land, and aging farmers are also themes of this January story from the Sacramento Bee. It tells of a match-making scheme--matching, that is, farmers looking for land with plots to be farmed. Here's an excerpt from Carlos Alcala's story:
Putting farmers onto underused land was once a matter of creating homesteads.
Now it has entered the computer age, with nonprofits using the Internet to match farmland with growers.
[M]any landowners are hoping to preserve the land for agriculture, not development, and want to help young farmers--not large agribusiness.
It led to a dating service of sorts for farms.
Farm Link has online listings of about 80 land opportunities in the Central Valley and connections to around 800 would-be farmers.
Land opportunities can be as small as half-acre or as big as 800 acres.
There is an urban parcel in West Sacramento that the owner wanted productive, and orchard acreage in Apple Hill looking for someone new to take it over.
And that takes us to this story, which ran a few days earlier, focusing on a well-known Sacramento-area organic farm, Good Hummus, in neighboring Yolo County. Jeff and Annie Main, who own Good Hummus, are 61 and 59 years of age, respectively, and their children are pursing other careers. The Mains know they could sell their 20-acre farm for more than it's worth for agricultural purposes, but they don't want it to be developed. They specifically want it to be farmed. Edwin Ortiz's story explains the solution being pursued to keep the land for farming:
Enter the Davis and Sacramento natural food cooperates with "One Farm at a Time" solution.
Both stores are helping to raise funds to purchase an easement, through the oversight of the Yolo Land Trust, that would stipulate the Mains' property would remain a farm, in perpetuity. Such efforts are not common in California, since most easements demand only that land remains open space.
The goal is to raise between $300,000 and $400,000 from 40,000 customers who shop both stores, said Paul Cultera, general manager of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-Op.
"This is a test model ... The idea is to do this and then move onto the next farm," Cultera said.
I am heartened to know of these grassroots efforts to save California farm land and to get and keep Californians farming. Only time will tell whether they succeed.

Cross-posted to Legal Ruralism.

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