Small farmers: A growing presence
Photo by Sarah C. Phelps
Jerome Cunnie and friend Nick sheet mulch between rows to control weeds at St. Francis Estate Gardens.
Twenty-something Rachel Kohn Obut didn’t intend to become a farmer. Originally from New Jersey, she studied neuroscience in college. However, Kohn Obut’s childhood memories of attending camp on a Pennsylvania farm led her to take a semester off and travel through France, working on farms through a hands-on volunteer program called Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Kohn Obut finished her degree in 2005, but her focus had changed. “After WWOOFing in France, I was just planning to get a job on a farm after college,” said Kohn Obut, “I wasn’t really planning to keep farming forever, but now I think I am.”
Kohn Obut currently runs Lunita Farm on a two-acre plot that she leases in the Sonoma area. From there she runs a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program that delivers in Sonoma and Glen Ellen, and sells her excess produce at the Glen Ellen Farmer’s Market.
Kohn Obut represents a new generation of farmers – one of the 100,000 the federal government says it must recruit over the next several years in order to replace a rapidly aging workforce. According to the U.S. Census, in 2007 the average age of U.S. farmers was 57. In 1945, the average American farmer was 39 years old. In California, for every principal farm operator under the age of 35, there were nine farmers age 65 and over. Among a bevy of other challenges, farms have gotten bigger, but not necessarily more profitable, which makes it hard for farmers to pass on farmland to the next generation.
“The challenges for a new farmer are always access to land and access to capital,” said Molly Bloom, North Coast Regional Coordinator for California FarmLink, an organization that plays matchmaker for new farmers looking for land, and aging farmers looking to pass their land on to others. California FarmLink also provides guidance and information to aspiring new farmers. “When farmers are starting out, it’s often not possible to buy land, so many new farmers are looking to lease. However, because agriculture is still seen as risky and not that profitable, most lenders are not willing to lend to farmers,” said Bloom. In addition, with average agriculture leases ranging from $500 to $1,500 per acre per year, today’s beginning farmers face competition for land from residential developers and vineyards, which are often more lucrative sources of income for landowners. “The landowner really has to be interested in the greater goal of trying to preserve farmland,” said Bloom, “The only incentive is the more altruistic idea of sheparding these young farmers into their own future sustainable businesses.”
Kohn Obut found this out the hard way. Along with fellow farmer Austin Blair, she started Lunita Farm and CSA on rental land in Kenwood. However, before Lunita Farm could take off, the land went into foreclosure and Kohn Obut and Blair went on the hunt again, eventually connecting with a woman who owns property in Schellville, where the last two harvests have been grown. However, this land went up for sale in July. When the house and land sells, Kohn Obut will have move once again. “The owner gave me plenty of warning that she wanted to put it up for sale. She said she’d like me to keep farming it because she sees it as an asset to the property. But I’m a little uncertain about what to do for our winter crops since this land is for sale, too.”
Access to equipment can also compound a beginning farmer’s efforts, especially in an area devoted almost exclusively to another type of agricultural pursuit – growing grapes. “It can be challenging in this area, industrially, where there are wineries everywhere. You can’t as easily go find farming equipment,” said Jerome Cunnie, who is in the process of developing St. Francis Estate Gardens on the corner of Highway 12 and Pythian Road. “For example, at the irrigation stores they sell winery irrigation supplies. Their tractor supplies, they have different tractor attachments.”
Last year, St. Francis Winery approached Cunnie to develop a sustainable garden on the two-acre site with the goal of growing most of the food for their kitchen exclusively on site. “They’re definitely using a large percentage of produce from here for their kitchen this year, and next year they might just be ordering yellow onions,” said Cunnie. However, Cunnie, who also runs The Garden Keeper CSA out of Sonoma and manages gardens for Domaine Chandon’s kitchen as well, hopes the St. Francis garden will grow beyond the winery. “Our main goal of this farm is for families to be eating it. More than anything we want parents and children together with their friends to be cooking it at their dinner tables,” said Cunnie.
Family was also a primary motivator for Shannon Lee and her husband Steve, when they started Two Moon Family Farm in Glen Ellen. “The intention was never to have a place where we’d sell stuff; it’s always been about producing our own meat, producing our own food,” said Steve, “but Shannon has got this farmer’s market bug, so she’s been taking it in that direction.”
Although Steve comes from a legacy of ranchers in the Humboldt area, farming wasn’t really on the immediate agenda. Steve and Shannon met in Los Angeles as PhD students in Marine Biology. After college, the Lees stayed in L.A., teaching and eventually having three kids, now ages 10, eight and four.
Their move to Glen Ellen, and the inspiration to develop the land into a farm, was motivated in part by personal experiences they had in the classroom. “I was teaching a biology class and this college student says, ‘Well, what part of the fish do we eat when we eat fish sticks?’” said Shannon. “I said ‘Well, what part of a chicken do we eat?’ They couldn’t answer. ‘What part of the cow?’ Couldn’t answer. What I was getting at is it’s the muscle that’s the steak, with the fat marbled through it, and maybe some connective tissues. They were so out of touch with their food they couldn’t fathom it.” The Lees wanted to raise their kids with a different connection to their food and the natural world. “It’s a personal thing with our kids. We want our kids to respect where their food comes from,” said Shannon.
|Shannon Lee of Two Moon Family Farm with baby Cumulus, a newer addition to her small herd of goats.|
The five-acre farm currently houses a small vegetable garden, half a dozen goats, a turkey and a flock of chickens. Shannon frequents the Glen Ellen Farmer’s Market at Jack London Village, almost literally at the bottom of their driveway, selling eggs and excess produce from the family’s vegetable garden. They also sell their livestock, although only “on the hoof,” as USDA regulations make it financially unfeasible to get permits to sell already-processed meat.
For Shannon, a huge appeal of farming is her own continuing education. Just recently she was complaining to a visiting Southern California friend about an annoying green weed that was impossible to eradicate from her vegetable garden. The friend identified it as Purslane, a leafy green that can be added to anything from salads to soups to cocktails. Now Shannon has been taking the Purslane along with her to the market. “I love going to market and have people realize that the weed growing in their yard, they could be putting in their salads the whole time. It’s just a mind shift,” she added.
This creativity and experimentation might be what it takes to make farming, traditionally seen as less profitable than grape-growing, stay afloat, and possibly gain some traction in Wine Country. Oak Hill Farm, in Glen Ellen, just celebrated 55 years of being in the farming business. “We started with a little booth on the highway and nobody stopped,” said Anne Teller, owner and manager of the 700-acre ranch that extends from Highway 12 east to Cavedale Road. Her husband, the late Otto Teller, originally bought the land in 1957, using it to graze sheep and then moving it into commercial flower production in the 1970s. After Anne and Otto married in 1977, they began to explore vegetable production, abandoning the booth on the highway and moving their operation into an unused red dairy barn, which eventually evolved into what it is today. The Red Barn Store, which is open seasonally from April through Christmas, sells produce, cut flowers, jam, and even local art.
“We have customers who come back and back again,” said Teller, “It’s hard to replicate the drive into this space. You see all these flowers; its kind of peaceful in here. I think it’s incumbent upon anyone who does this to try to do something different, grow a different crop, do what is best for your environment.” Oak Hill Farm also sells commercially to restaurants in San Francisco, participates in three local farmers markets, and has a small CSA they hope to expand in the winter.
The Tellers, founding members of the Sonoma Land Trust, donated a conservation easement covering the entire ranch to the trust in 1984, ensuring that the farm will remain essentially unchanged in the future. “We grow all this food and we grow all these woods; that’s one the most important things we do for the entire valley. We don’t tear them out and open them up and plant vineyards in inappropriate places.” Teller says all of her four children, most of whom still live locally, are “vitally interested in our movement.”
The emergence of a new generation of farmers and the growth of local farmers markets perhaps signals a change in sensibility about our access to hyper-local food products in an agriculturally prolific valley where, ironically, the best farmland is used to grow wine grapes.
One example of this multi-use approach to the land is Rose Ranch in Kenwood. Besides growing Merlot and Primitivo grapes for Benziger Winery, restaurateur Steve Rose of the Vineyards Inn has expanded his vegetable production to include 17 varieties of heirloom tomatoes, as well as a large variety of other produce including peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, summer squash, tomatillos, corn, and many different leafy greens, fruits and herbs. Rose Ranch is certified organic by Stellar and certified biodynamic by Demeter. Rose grows his produce primarily for use in the restaurant, but also has a stand at the Farmers Market in Fort Mason in San Francisco, and has recently opened a smaller farm stand inside the Vineyards Inn.
“When we moved here 30 years ago I fell in love with the earth and wanted to grow grapes and vegetables organically to supply our clientele at the restaurant, to make sure they were supplied with organic fresh vegetables all through the year,” said Rose. “My farm plan continues to evolve around beneficial multi-crop farming. We are the opposite of a monoculture!”
Even with the mounds of challenges, Rachel Kohn Obut is optimistic. “I certainly don’t have any trouble selling the produce. People are really excited and I’m getting a lot of feedback. There’s a definite growing interest in growing vegetables locally. People want it to happen so it seems like somehow the land will become available, or the resources will become available for it to happen. There’s empty land, so it seems its just a matter of time for finding the right opportunity. In some form or another that I feel that somehow things will come together in a way that it can be a career for me.”
Local Agriculture Resources
Lunita Farm: lunitafarm.net/csa/ or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Garden Keeper: gardenkeeperCSA@gmail.com, 227-6088, or Facebook the Garden Keeper CSA.
Oak Hill Farm: www.oakhillfarm.net, email@example.com, or 996-6643.
Wild Rose Ranch: sonomamountaincsa.blogspot.com, SonomaMountainCSA@gmail.com, 545-6062.
Vineyard’s Inn farm stand: 833-4500.
Glen Ellen: Sundays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Jack London Village. The market plans to start accepting the CalFRESH program (formerly known as Food Stamps) this month.
Oakmont: Tuesdays, 5-8 p.m. and Saturdays, 9 a.m. to noon, Wells Fargo Bank parking lot.
Sarah Phelps is an editor and staff writer.