Placer County, California faces threats to agricultural sustainability from development-driven land prices and the lack of a new generation of producers. To help ensure agriculture’s survival in the area, this Professional + Producer grant supports the Placer Ag Futures Project, the brainchild of 25 local agriculture representatives.
The Ag Futures Project built the foundation of a program for recruiting and training new producers and training existing producers to become more economically viable. This was achieved through a piloting an internship program, building closer connections with high school agriculture programs, developing a website and delivering beginning farming and farm business planning training.
The Placer Ag Futures Project was conceived as a response to critical issues affecting local agricultural sustainability. Development-driven land prices and an aging grower community with no new generation of producers are major threats to local agriculture. The sustainability of small-scale agriculture is in doubt if we cannot recruit new producers and connect them with affordable land. The Ag Futures Project began in 2007 with a diverse group of local producers who are deeply concerned about the future of local agriculture. The group created a common vision, identified priority problems related to the sustainability of local agriculture and developed projects to resolve the issues. This project was intended to help grow a new crop of agricultural professionals that are trained in sustainable agricultural practices.
a. Offer ten paid internships on five local farms/ranches.
b. Develop an educational outreach program to local schools and community colleges to raise young peoples’ awareness of opportunities in agriculture.
c. Develop an interactive website to connect people with land and other resources.
d. Develop hands-on business planning and market-driven farming courses to help producers analyze their operation’s financial prospects and determine appropriate enterprises.
e. Promote farm diversification through the internship program and the market-driven farming course.
The Ag Futures project was designed with close collaboration of a team of producers and two UCCE Farm Advisors. Producers included those listed on the grant proposal as well as four others, representing winegrape production, citrus, forestry and livestock (sheep) production.
The project components included:
a. On-Farm internship program
The summer internship program consisted of an intensive three-day pre-internship training, a training binder and a nine-week rotating internship, working with producers of different commodities. The internship started with a three-day training program developed and delivered by producers and UCCE Farm Advisors. The training included classroom sessions on the science of production and husbandry practices, as well as hands-on practical training at several of the participating operations. To augment the training, each intern received a binder of materials related to production and husbandry practices for the relevant crops and species, farm safety and other information.
The interns spent a two-week rotation at four different agricultural operations, plus a week on another farm. The farms/ranches included Hillcrest Orchard, an organic citrus and vegetable operation in Penryn, California; Blossom Hill Farm, an organic melon and chicken operation in Auburn; Fawnridge Vineyard and Winery, a winegrape vineyard in Auburn; and Edwards Family Farm, a sheep and timber/firewood operation in Colfax. The farm selected (by the interns)for the one-week rotation was Ueki Garden Flowers, a cut flower and vegetable operation in Auburn. Farm and ranch owners served as trainers, mentors and supervisors to the interns. The producers paid the interns at a rate consistent with other internships in the area.
b. Outreach Program
The goal of the outreach program to local schools and colleges was to raise young peoples’ awareness of opportunities in agriculture. The producer/Farm Advisor team worked together to develop talking points for presentations to ag sciences and other science classes about local agriculture, sustainability and opportunities for careers in agriculture. Presenters also distributed information about the Ag Futures Project and the Internship program in summer 2009.
Seven area farmers and two UC Farm Advisors visited seven local high schools (Placer, Del Oro, Lincoln, Foresthill, Colfax, Bear River and Nevada Union) and two community colleges (Sierra and American River) in spring 2009. They talked with teachers, guidance counselors and instructors about the Ag Futures Project and opportunities in local agriculture. Nineteen presentations to agriculture, environmental sciences and other science classes were made.
c. Foothill Farming Website
http://ucanr.org/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/ or http://ucanr.org/foothillfarming
The Foothill Farming website was developed by a committee of producers, who provided input on content, design and features. The website was created by Vanessa Reed, a UCCE Intern, who participated in the 2009 On-farm Internship Training and assisted in managing the on-farm internship.
The website provides information on specific crops and livestock species, soil and water management practices, business planning, marketing and agriculture-related community resources. There are sections for beginning farmers and for youth interested in agriculture careers. The website also includes a calendar of training and other opportunities for farmers and ranchers, a weekly blog by members of the local agricultural community and a connection to a listserv for farmers. Some areas are still under development such as mentoring opportunities, land access and a producer exchange.
d. Farm Business Planning and Market-driven Farming courses
Two six-week farm business planning courses were delivered during the course of the project. The courses are team taught by two producers, two UCCE Farm Advisors and the General Manager of the Foothill Farmers Markets. The course includes sessions on developing a mission and vision, financial analysis tools, cash flow, evaluating enterprises, market analysis and operations planning. The classes help producers analyze their operation’s financial prospects and determine appropriate enterprises. Course participants develop a business plan and an action plan for putting their business on a sound economic footing. A total of 17 farm and ranch operations participated in these intensive short courses in 2009 and 2010.
Three market-driven farming classes were delivered over the course of the project. Seventy beginning and prospective producers participated in the classes. Topics covered in the classes include: assessing your resources, identifying market outlets, market research to determine marketable crops and species and basic financial analysis tools such as start-up budgets, capital purchase decisions and enterprise analysis. In addition, the 2009 PlacerGrown Farm Conference featured seven sessions on market-driven farming and business planning topics, delivered by teams of producers, UCCE Farm Advisors and the Foothill Farmers’ Markets General Manager.
The Ag Futures Project has trained new producers in sustainable practices, mostly through the beginning farming classes and farm business planning. Seventy-seven prospective producers participated in the Market-driven Farming classes for beginning farmers during the course of the project. Of those, 27 are now in business. Several of them have continued on to take the farm business planning course, as well as participate in other classes and workshops. Seventeen ag operations completed the Farm Business Planning course in 2009 and 2010. The fact that these new businesses have survived and are doing well in a poor economy is an important impact.
Both of these courses continue to be offered, and the demand is growing. Both classes always have a waiting list, and the beginning farming course is so much in demand, we are offering it quarterly. We are also sharing it with surrounding counties. More and more participants are coming from other counties because they do not have similar training programs, so the impact of the Ag Futures project has expanded well beyond Placer County.
The 2009 on-farm internship had lower participation than expected, and participating producers elected not to continue it in 2010. The program began with four interns, but only two of them completed the entire internship, for a variety of reasons, including economics and the physical work involved. The low participation numbers for the internship showed the Ag Futures group that more effort was needed to reach out to schools and raise awareness of local agriculture. This has led to much closer collaboration with area Future Farmers of America (FFA) teachers and programs.
Despite the low number of interns, the program had other impacts. Two of the farms who participated in the internship program now have their own on-going internship programs and a third is in the planning stages. Participating host producers also form the core for a mentoring program for prospective farmers. Starting in 2011, each farm/ranch participating in the beginning farming classes will be offered mentoring for a year. In addition, the UCCE Intern who participated in the training and helped manage the internship went on to complete an on-farm internship in 2010 and develop the “Foothill Farming” website.
Working through the workers’ compensation and liability requirements for the internship taught participating producers, Farm Advisors, and the RC&D Coordinator about the complexity of managing on-farm internships. Many producers have been unaware of legal requirements for internships, but as a result of our experiences, we are better able to advise producers and educate them on those requirements.
Although the Foothill Farming website was a long time in development, it is already becoming the go-to place for information. Given the burgeoning number of people interested in starting farms or ranches, it is a critical information resource.
The Western SARE Producer/Professional grant helped build and support a nascent farmer training and information delivery program that will help keep local agriculture viable into the future. The training programs, the website and collaborations will continue. While the collective internship will not continue, individual farms and ranches are now offering internships to meet the growing demand of young would-be producers. In addition, the mentorship program which grew out of the Ag Futures internship will provide support to new farmers and ranchers.
Educational & Outreach Activities
Ag Futures On-farm Internship Training Binder
Ag-Related Community Resources
Foothill Farming http://ucanr.org/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/ or http://ucanr.org/foothillfarming
Summary of Education and Outreach Programs and Events
The Ag Futures Project has created strong, productive partnerships among producers, producer organizations and agricultural agencies. We now have a very dedicated and growing group of producers who collaborate with UCCE, the Foothill Farmers’ Markets and other organizations to develop and deliver a variety of training courses and workshops for beginning and existing farmers. Demand for training new farmers and ranchers has grown tremendously over the course of the project, and the Ag Futures Project continues to draw more producers into trainer and mentorship roles. This has allowed us to expand the scope of educational opportunities we offer. The range of classes and workshops now attract prospective farmers and ranchers from surrounding counties because they do not have similar opportunities in their home counties. The impacts of the project have grown beyond Placer County, and the on-going project is called simply the Ag Futures Project.
The Ag Futures Project has fostered collaboration through sponsorship of agricultural community meetings to address key issues. In 2009, Ag Futures sponsored a marketing strategy meeting of producers, producer organizations and agricultural agencies such as UCCE and the County Agriculture Department to discuss ways to focus marketing efforts and market more collaboratively.
The project also hosted a meeting with California FarmLink to discuss collaborating on facilitating access to land. Since then, FarmLink has participated in a number of local events and provided information and input on the land access issue. In the past, FarmLink had a hard time finding landowners in Placer to take part in their programs, but since their participation in Ag Futures events, they have facilitated several landowner/new farmer partnerships in the area, including one with a signatory on the grant, Claudia Smith.
In 2010, Ag Futures sponsored a meeting of all the organizations that serve agriculture, both producer associations and public agencies. The purpose of the meeting was to educate each other on the mission and activities of the various organizations and agencies and to promote collaboration and cooperation among them. The groups do share information more often and collaborate on activities.
The importance of agricultural education and raising awareness among local high school and college students became clear to participants over the course of the grant. As a result, efforts to highlight agricultural education and forge closer links with ag sciences programs included a meeting of producers, ag agency staff and FFA/Ag Sciences teachers in May 2010. We discussed the needs of the Ag Sciences teachers and how we could collaborate. The teachers requested closer links to the ag community and participation in educating and mentoring students. Outcomes of the meeting included making ag education the theme for the 2010 Placer County Ag Tour for decision-makers. FFA students from several local schools participated in the tour. Another outcome will be an Ag Science and Technology Career Fair in 2011 for high school students. Several producers are also mentoring or overseeing high school ag students’ Senior Projects.
Building on the support of the Ag Futures grant, we now offer a full calendar of classes and on-farm workshops, with supporting materials. More and more existing and potential farmers and ranchers are accessing our programs through the Foothill Farming website.
Ag Futures is, and may well remain, an ad-hoc group of people committed to the future of local agriculture. As the issues change, the people involved will also change. However, one of the most important, but intangible, accomplishments of the Ag Futures Project is the role of Ag Futures in the Agricultural Community. When there is an issue or problem to be resolved, ag community members more often than not, ask that Ag Futures take it on.
This project did not include research, so there were no discoveries. However, the professionals and the internship hosts learned a great deal about regulations and legal requirements for on-farm internships. On-farm internships have become a critical issue in the past two years, as regulations are enforced.
In order to develop the website and provide as much relevant information as possible, we collected a great deal of information together from our own sources and also learned what other organizations are doing throughout the country. It is helpful to know that other ag communities are facing the same challenges and that there are a variety of resources that we can adapt to local needs.
The only recommendation is to collaborate on everything. Start with a core group and keep expanding. We accomplished so much more because we had a core group of collaborators that expanded over the course of the project to include more producers from surrounding counties and others such as FFA teachers. Collaboration among producers, producer organizations, ag professionals and the consumer community is critical to sustainability. Western SARE should put more emphasis on collaboration in funding requests because it leverages the funds for greater impact.