Finding farmland in the Golden State: Young Farmers’ 2019 California Whistle Stop Tour


At the start of February, I had the privilege of spending a couple weeks in California, organizing five Finding Farmland workshops for young farmers in partnership with our California team and California FarmLink. The workshops were focused on sharing practical strategies for finding secure, affordable land tenure, as well as introducing farmers to useful tools—including our Finding Farmland Calculator—that can help with financial planning. At one point, it even stopped raining long enough to catch a view of this rainbow over the ocean:

Spanning from San Diego to Mendocino County, this “whistle stop workshop tour” opened my eyes to the vast range of land access challenges endured by California’s beginning farmers. Their primary challenge is the high cost of farmland. And though I hear that from farmers everywhere, Californians may “win” here.

California has just about the most expensive farm real estate (which includes land and buildings) in the nation (see Chart 1 below). Yet farm property values alone are not always a good gauge for judging farmland affordability for beginning farmers. Our 2017 survey of American young farmers, the results of which are compiled in Building A Future With Farmers II, found that 75% of young farmers are first-generation farmers. Relative to multigenerational farmers, first-generation farmers work on smaller tracts of land—more than 80 percent of first-generation young farmers work on farms smaller than 100 acres, with about half working on farms smaller than 10 acres (see Chart 2). Our forthcoming California Young Farmer Report indicates that of all respondents who own their farm operation, only 27% own land. For renters, they’re facing farmland lease rates that double every ten years and short-term leases that make it difficult to make long-term investments in infrastructure and beneficial ecosystem management practices.

These small-scale, diversified farmers follow in a long tradition of niche producers adept at adapting small tracts of precarious, marginal farmland to their unconventional production needs, particularly farmers of color. California has the largest population of Asian American farmers and ranks third in the nation of Hispanic farmers, yet data from the 2012 census shows that farmers of color tend to farm smaller farms.

 

Chart 1: USDA NASS map

Chart 2: Building A Future With Farmers II

 

Marginal farmland lies in a blurry area near the residential and commercial real estate markets. Unfortunately for farmers, these other land uses break the property pricing scales for agricultural purposes (think tens-of-thousands of dollars per acre instead of thousands per acre). In California, a mecca of urban sprawl and still a fast-growing state, marginal farmland is prime residential real estate. Small farm owners in the Northeast may have similar gripes to home buyers, but in the Northeast, due to geography and protection efforts, more marginal farmland is available; you can find affordable, marginal farmland in rural communities fifty miles from Boston, but fifty miles from San Diego you’re still in rush hour traffic.

This context puts California’s beginning farmers in quite the bind. Prime farmland is expensive, and marginal farmland is probably less affordable there than anywhere else on the continent. Financial planning, like what we teach in our Finding Farmland workshops, is an important starting place, but it’s not going to change the math behind property values.

After reflecting on what I learned in California, here’s my best advice for accessing secure land tenure in the Golden State.

1. Say hello to California FarmLink

Our tour co-conspirators, California FarmLink, help farmers to build strong business skills, access fair financing, and establish secure land tenure. They are the only organization I’m aware of that can help you identify available farm properties, review your business plan, help you negotiate with landowners, and lend you money to buy your farm.

Finding Farmland workshop at the Aromas Grange Hall

FarmLink is a particularly useful lending partner if you want to buy land. Most beginning farmers qualify for Farm Service Agency (FSA) loan programs—check out our FSA guidebook to learn more. But even the newly increased FSA direct farm ownership loan maximum of $600,000 cannot buy much land in California; harder still, buying a farm in the residential property market is rough with FSA financing, since FSA cannot offer borrowers pre-approvals, usually a standard requirement for a home purchase offer. California FarmLink can help with both of these challenges. They are a joint financier with FSA, which means you could potentially build a loan package for double the FSA’s loan max. FarmLink can also offer you the pre-approval you may need to compete with other buyers.

All of that may sound wonky, but the short story is: California FarmLink is a unique and helpful partner for any California farmer seeking land to lease or buy. Introduce yourself to their team!

2. Meet your neighbors

In Petaluma, we invited Arron Wilder, owner of Table Top Farm, to share his personal land access story. Table Top Farm is a patchwork of farm plots in Marin County, a pricey property market north of San Francisco. Wilder could never have afforded to buy farmland in this county when he started his farm. But a handshake agreement with a neighbor led to a small vegetable CSA. As other neighbors saw what he was doing, they offered him opportunities to lease their marginal land too. Instead of competing with farmers for prime agricultural leases or with home buyers over farmable properties, Wilder avoided competition entirely and built a farm that worked for his finances. Over time, Wilder built collateral, confidence in his business, and relationships with landowners, and was able to purchase one of the properties he farms.

Farmland on the open market seems prohibitively expensive because it usually is. But there is plenty of available farmland off the market. Problem is, it’s not going to be listed on some website—you have to go find it! Introduce yourself to landowners and other farmers, tell them about your goals, and chances are you will eventually find opportunities too.

Short-term leases don’t have to be your only option, even if that’s where you start. Reaching out to your community and building trusting relationships are essential steps to most farm transitions that prioritize affordability for working farms. Partnering with a land trust to negotiate and fundraise for a conservation easement to reduce a property’s value at the time of purchase—an affordability strategy in places with development pressure on farmland—is one strategy for accessing land, but it can take two years or longer and requires a strong relationship between the farmer and land trust. See Young Farmers’ guidebook, Finding Farmland: A Farmer’s Guide to Working with Land Trusts for more information about working with land trusts.

3. Organize

I met many young farmers curious about alternative land access strategies: cooperative land purchasing or business ownership, raising grassroots financing, I even heard some mutterings about squatters’ rights. California is one of the few states with worker cooperative statutes, and farmers are taking advantage of it. There are more worker cooperative farms there than any other state (several of the original ones were developed by Mai Nguyen who is now our California Organizer). Check out these two publications for more information, examples, and guidance on co-op development and alternative financing.

Alternative solutions based on cooperation can help California farmers overcome land access challenges while building more resilient businesses. I would caution against reading success stories and jumping into any one strategy too quickly, however. Instead, I suggest farmers get organized. Focus on building strong relationships with other young farmers, talking about your goals, and seeing where they align.

A Young Farmers chapter is the ideal soil for cooperative ideas to germinate. My heart was warmed by organizing efforts happening across California, all supported by our California Organizer, Mai Nguyen. At our workshop in Aromas, David Robles, a farmer from Santa Cruz, invited farmers to join him in starting a Central Coast chapter. In Willits, Isabel Quiroz and Caroline Rehberger convened an organizing workshop during the North Coast Farmers Convergence to bring together Mendocino County farmers.

It may seem like a lot of extra work to organize farmers, but so is running a cooperative farm or a successful community fundraising campaign. People power, like farming, can be as tiring as it is fruitful. If you are considering organizing a local chapter, check out our new 2019 Young Farmers Organizing Handbook.

 

 

4. Learn about your options

Still feeling overwhelmed thinking about land access in California? The Coalition is here to help! Contact us at land@youngfarmers.org with any specific questions about land access. Join the Young Farmers newsletter to learn about future land access learning resources we create, including a free online course coming later this year. You can do it!

                           Finding Farmland workshop at UC Davis

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