Unaffordable land stunts new generation of small farmers in California
PESCADERO -- In 2005, would-be farmers Nancy Vail and Jered Lawson spotted an old barn along Highway 1 that would make a good produce stand, along with 13 acres of prime coastal property, available for $1.25 million. They jumped at the chance to buy it.
"We were incredibly lucky," Vail said. "It's a lot of money, but it's actually pretty good."
Indeed, Vail and Lawson, who operate Pie Ranch, a nonprofit educational farm on the edge of the Pacific Ocean, were lucky to find land to farm.
They are part of a new and growing generation of farmers who aspire to deliver locally grown organic food to their communities but can't usually afford the land to do so.
Access to land is the main impediment to beginning farmers and ranchers today, said Reggie Knox, Central Coast coordinator for California FarmLink, a nonprofit that works to preserve family farming and conserve farmland in California.
"Small farmers like to be close to urban areas," said Knox, who has a long waiting list of people who are looking for affordable farmland. "Land values are going up around all the urban areas, so it's harder to get into land."
But even though the amount of California farmland in production has been falling for decades, and the average California farmer is now 58 years old, the latest agricultural census reveals another trend: The number of small farms -- 49 acres or less -- in the state has grown by more than 4,000 since 2002.
Many of these operations are founded by people in their 20s and 30s for whom earning a profit may be secondary to their real goal of producing wholesome, seasonal food and teaching others about farming.
Most farm program graduates won't be as fortunate as the founders of Pie Ranch, who turned to the Peninsula Open Space Trust to help them buy the first 13-acre parcel and the old barn. The farm produces many ingredients found in a pie, such as eggs to strawberries. It connects high school kids to the land and sells produce in the old barn.
The Peninsula Open Space Trust applied a conservation easement to the land to prevent development. Pending a capital campaign, Pie Ranch will soon own the land outright.
"This is part of a larger vision of a sustainable agriculture corridor from San Francisco down through Santa Cruz," Vail said. "We need to have more farmers, and they need to be able to access land and make a living and pull it off. We can't be the only ones doing that."
This is yet another reason to fight sprawl: only where land is clearly delineated as urban or rural is there a chance for farmers to buy land for its intended agricultural and ranchland use. It can be done, but strong policies against sprawl are necessary to foster the growth of small, urban-edge farms.