By Lisa Schliff [Note: The following is a monthly contribution on local issues of interest.]
The county we live in hosts a bounty of farms and ranches. When we think about the challenges of modern living, we must include and in fact elevate the challenges of farming and ranching business and lifestyle. As concerned citizens, we cannot turn a blind eye to this segment of the population. For information about them, I turned to the Nevada County Farm Bureau, which in turn led me to UC Cooperative Extension.
According to Cindy Fake, County Director of UCCE Horticulture and Small Farms Advisor, the largest farm is a 72-acre vineyard. However, most of the farms in Nevada County are small operations consisting of less than ten acres. They grow produce (fruits, vegetables, nuts) and ornamentals, and some include poultry and eggs. The larger ones produce timber or grapes, or raise livestock.
Many of us living urban lives may not realize that many farmers and ranchers in the area are retiring, and we need a new generation of farmers to replace them. Fake claims that there is a significant number of small farms in Nevada County, and that number is growing. The challenge that lies ahead is that many are now being run by young, beginning farmers and ranchers (people who have 10 years or less experience farming). Some don’t come from agricultural backgrounds and suffer a rude awakening when they discover that their dreams of growing must also include a broad range of skills to be financially viable and actually earn a living. They need to learn more than how to grow organic potatoes or tasty peaches. To successfully manage a farm or ranch, they have to run it like a business, applying accounting, bookkeeping, law compliance, marketing and sales skills.
This is where UC Cooperative Extension steps in. The organization is a research-based source of agricultural information functioning as an autonomous University of California campus and part of the USDA as well. The campus has been offering apprenticeship classes for mostly young, novice farmers and ranchers for the past fifteen years. Dubbed the Sierra Harvest Farm Crew, they work on local farms for six months and study profit analysis and sustainable farming practices. The newbies find their way to theses classes via word-of-mouth, website searches, and referrals from other agricultural-oriented groups such as the Nevada County Farm Bureau.
How effective is the apprenticeship? The last agricultural census in 2012 (they’re only taken once every five years), found that only 25% of all farm operations in Nevada County reported being profitable. Director Fake took a survey a few years ago of the farm owners who had matriculated in the apprenticeship program. 91% of them reported a financially viable farm.
How can we as Democrats make a difference in the world of Nevada County agriculture? We can purchase local produce at the farmers markets in Grass Valley, Nevada City and Penn Valley. The markets are also a perfect venue to talk to farmers and ranchers and learn from them. Ask about their issues and how we as voters can support them. We can also buy local produce at stores such as Briarpatch Co-op and Natural Selection. Briarpatch places small signs on the shelves indicating when produce is sourced in Nevada County. Look for them and enjoy the wonderful foods that come from our region.
*UC Cooperative Extension’s website is www.ucanr.edu. If you meet a struggling farmer, be sure to refer him or her to this organization and website.