“…What’s not happening is an increased interest in all the other jobs that make agriculture successful and viable and all the other services and innovation that we are going to need to address complex issues such as water shortages, climate change and growing population. Or the skills that will be required to help us effectively manage our natural resources. The innovation, the technology, the STEM jobs … few are talking about STEM jobs in agriculture on a national level. No one includes agriculture in that conversation. But what is more STEM than agriculture and environmental jobs?”
– Mary Kimball
The Center for Land-Based Learning is dedicated to creating the next generation of farmers and teaching California’s youth about the importance of agriculture and natural resource conservation. Headquartered in Winters, California, the organization was founded by Craig McNamara. (McNamara is also the owner and president of Sierra Orchards and serves as president of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture).
Mary Kimball serves as the executive director for the Center for Land-Based Learning. She started with the organization in 1998. Kimball was raised on a small farm in Yolo County, California. She holds a master’s degree in human and community development from the Ohio State University and a B.S. degree in agriculture science and management from the University of California, Davis. She is an alumnus of the California Agricultural Leadership Program (Class XXXII).
The UC Food Observer has followed Kimball’s work since 1998 and recently caught up with her to learn more about how the Center for Land-Based Learning is growing and evolving.
Q: Your organization has been around for a long time. What’s new? How are you evolving?
A: I’ve been here since 1998 and we have evolved greatly during that time. I think a significant expansion for us has been into the area of adult education.
One of our newest programs is the California Farm Academy, a beginning farmer training and incubator program.
Q: How did the idea for the California Farm Academy develop?
A: About eight years ago we were approached by an aspiring young farmer who had just graduated from UC Santa Cruz. He hailed from Davis and his best friend worked in our SLEWS program (Student and Landowner Education and Watershed Stewardship). This young man was looking for land to lease to start farming. He had gardening experience, but no farming experience. But he was certain he wanted to do it. “I need support. I need help,” he said.
We decided to lease three-quarters of an acre to him. We had a garden in that space. The garden was a small amount of our programming. Gardens are a lot of work and ours was receiving limited use, because most of our programming is not at our headquarters in Winters, but is located throughout the state. I thought, here’s a way we can have this young farmer manage this plot of land for us, and we’ll have a site so that when we do have youth groups out, they can utilize it as well. It seemed like a win-win.
It was … and it evolved into something more. We provided much more than the land. We provided infrastructure, barns and hook-ups to irrigation. We helped him find markets for what he was producing. We connected him with chefs in San Francisco. There were other things he needed … we even let him use our printer and copier. And he became very successful. About three to four years in, he grew beyond our lease, and instead began leasing five acres from another farmer. Today, he is up to 10 acres in total, including permanent crops. And we looked at his success, and the model that we had inadvertently created. It was exciting. It was informative.
At the same time, the 2008 Farm Bill was signed. Of course, it included the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program. So these national conversations were happening, and funding was getting into the pipeline. In 2009 the first national conference for beginning farmers was held. I attended.
I came back and decided I’d write a grant application. My thinking was we’re perfectly suited for this work. We have the place. We also have incredible resources with UC Davis and UC Cooperative Extension so close by. Yolo County is a great place to be. We have superb farmers eager to be mentors and we’ve got a good track record at educating. It seemed right. We partnered with ALBA (Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association). Brett Melone was incredibly helpful about sharing their model and process for doing things. So I spent some time in Salinas with ALBA and it was very helpful.
I wrote a grant proposal for the CDFA (California Department of Food and Agriculture) specialty block grant program. We were awarded that and hired our first director. Today we’re into our fourth class.
Q: How is the California Farm Academy program organized?
A: The California Farm Academy is a seven-month training program designed for working adults. Some may be farming. It’s designed for people who want to be commercial farmers, at whatever scale. It’s incredibly intensive: 300 hours of instruction in seven months.
Our goal is to develop the next generation of farmers. We focus on production agriculture at various scales. And our folks run the entire gamut. Many are career-changers. We’ve had bankers, lawyers, teachers, quite a mix. Other folks grew up on farms, left the farm and have come back and needed something to jump-start their engagement back into farming.
We basically split the program into three types of educational experiences: classroom, a field portion and field trips. A thread that prepares academy members for the business of farming runs through the entire program.
The classroom portion is a pretty informal classroom style of teaching … I’d say it really emphasizes experiential learning. We invite researchers and faculty from UC Davis, specialists from UC ANR and the UCCE farm advisors to come in. We also have folks from NRCS (USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service) come in and teach classes. We are so lucky to have these individuals: they are enthusiastic, they are incredibly knowledgeable and they are very applied in their approach. They’re on the cutting edge in their area of research and practice. We are fortunate to have these folks helping us.
We spend about one-third of our program time in the field. Participants literally have to grow their own crops on the land we make available for them. They do this in teams of two or three. They grow a crop from start to finish (supported by our staff). It’s the practice of applying what they learn in the classroom portion of the program.
The third part of our program is spent on field trips. Every other Saturday our academy members go on full-day field trip to other farms. This gives academy members the opportunity to experience many other kinds of farming styles, to learn about decision-making, who they might be selling crops to and more. We don’t have the ability to teach or support livestock production on our site, so this portion of the program enables students to “touch” that agricultural practice.
Academy members are also required to complete an independent project. A chunk of the seven months is focused on developing a full business plan, which is presented to both the class and a group of professionals that offer a critique of the business model. As part of developing a business plan, academy members meet with lenders. They learn how to negotiate land leases. A very large section of the 300-hour program focuses on the business aspect of farming: accounting systems, taxes, record keeping and business planning.
We’re graduating our fourth class at the end of September. We’ve graduated 60 people already, and we’ll graduate 18 more in September.
Q: But the program doesn’t stop there … right? Can you tell our readers what happens next?
A: We learned something really valuable from ALBA, which is that even though people have developed these skills, they still need support to get started. So we’ve created an incubator portion of our program that academy graduates can opt into.
So they graduate, and if they want, they can lease land from us at our Putah Creek site. This land can be utilized to start their own enterprise. At Putah Creek, they’ve got infrastructure, washing stations, barns, equipment, a cooler, tractors and more. In addition to the rural setting, we now have an urban farm component to our incubator program. We have four farm sites in the city limits of West Sacramento, leased by eight different beginning farmers, most of whom are graduates of our California Farm Academy. Just like our incubator at Putah Creek, these farmers have access to infrastructure and we provide them with washing stations and shade structures. And we help them find markets for what they produce.
The goal of the incubator is to try to make individuals as successful as possible and as soon as possible. We provide some support – and a safety net – to enable them to take some risks. It’s a safe environment. It’s been incredibly successful.
Q: What about the cost? How do you fund these programs?
A: The class itself is $3,200 for seven months. The cost will likely go up, because our costs continue to rise. We started out at $2,250. We don’t charge for the full cost of the program. It costs us much more to sponsor it than we charge. Participants are required to pay, but we offer scholarships. Organizations and companies provide funding for these scholarships. We don’t ever offer full scholarships because we firmly believe people need to be invested in this experience.
We work closely with the Farmer Veteran Coalition in Davis. We’ve had at least two veterans per class, which is wonderful. We work closely with that organization to connect veterans to this opportunity. It’s truly beneficial.
Q: Every organization faces challenges. But it strikes me that as a nonprofit and a land-based organization with an agricultural operation, that your challenges may be somewhat unique. What about the drought?
A: We’re lucky in some ways, from a drought perspective. We lease land from Craig McNamara and Sierra Orchards. There is surface water from Putah Creek and groundwater. Sierra Orchards has put in a new well and we benefit from that. We help pay for piping and meters … things that we directly utilize. We’re affected by the drought, but not in same ways that landowners are affected by it.
Some young farmers don’t want to stay in California because of all the challenges. I had a conversation with one young farmer recently, and I ticked off some reasons why he may want to stay here.
One of those reasons is because of our region – Sacramento. I’ve seen an incredible change in the conversation about and the interest in agriculture. People have become much more knowledge about agriculture in general here.
Q: Tell me about how Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork effort has been influencing work in the region.
Sacramento recently defined itself as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital. It’s been very interesting to see how that idea has been taken by the entire region and embraced. It’s changed the conversation … and it’s changed the opportunities for farmers, whether they are just beginning or continuing a long family tradition of agriculture in this region. It’s really, really different now.
Here’s an example. There’s a brand new arena going in for the Sacramento Kings [an NBA team] in downtown Sacramento. It’s called the Golden 1 Center and it’s slated to open in the fall of 2016. Because of the America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital effort, the increased focus on local agriculture and the interest in working more closely with our farmers, there are some really interesting opportunities emerging. The company that has been awarded the food service is Legends. They’ve hired an executive chef from the area – Michael Tuohy – and he’s all about working with local farmers. It’s been his passion since he opened his first restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia many years ago. Sacramento is his home now and he has been instrumental in creating this new generation of restaurants that makes the local connections.
It was decided that 90 percent of food utilized within the arena must come from within 150 miles of Sacramento. The arena will be used for basketball and concerts, but the bottom level will house restaurants which will be open all the time. So it’s not just about basketball, or concerts, but restaurants that are patronized every day by the public.
This is a big thing for big growers as well as small-scale growers. This enterprise is going to need a huge diversity of farm products and they’re going to need it in significant quantities. That’s what I mean about the potential. Yes, drought is a challenge. And regulation … well California has that above and beyond every other state in this country. But here are all the other opportunities in this region.
This region has really – finally – embraced agriculture. It’s completely turned around and become an enormous source of pride across the region.
If I were starting out in farming, this would be an incredible place to be.
Q: You have also added some opportunities for urban agriculture. Can you tell our readers about those?
A: We started an urban agriculture incubator program in May 2014 in partnership with the city of West Sacramento. We’ve started four farms in one year. So now, our California Farm Academy graduates can use our incubator program at Putah Creek, or go to a more urban orientation for their work. Two of the urban farms are on private land and two are on public land. We’re working the land with beginning farmers. More than half of the farmers are from our program. Some are local community members or apprentices from other organizations and farms. There is a lot of unused land here, there are food deserts and critical issues with food access. We think this program can help address these issues.
But it’s larger than food access. Again, we want to train the next generation of farmers. Recently, the mayor of the city of West Sacramento – Christopher Cabaldon – was asked by the U.S. Council of Mayors Food Policy Committee to give a presentation about our urban ag program. The presentation was incredibly well received not just by the food policy committee but also others who happened to be listening. The result was that Mayor Cabaldon was asked to be one of five mayors from the United States to speak at the Milan Food Expo in the U.S. Pavilion. He spoke to mayors from different cities in Italy, sharing experiences with urban ag.
This is a big new area of work for us, and it’s all within this incubator model. Helping people get their start on land that we can help them access is of real assistance to beginning farmers. It works like the program at Putah Creek: we set up the basic infrastructure, including storage, water, washing stations, shade structures … all that. And we have the ability as a nonprofit to get corporate sponsors for each of the farms in West Sacramento. These corporate sponsors capitalize the cost of getting the farms up and running. Farmers then have this ability to start their farms with low inputs, so they can be successful, hopefully grow, and move off from one acre to three acres, or five acres, and beyond.
Q: What should we be teaching young people about agriculture and the food system?
A: Our early work strongly aligned our agricultural education efforts with the California state standards. In recent years, one of the things we’ve realized is that we have a different methodology and a different vision in terms of what agricultural and environmental literacy is.
We have learned, perhaps, more effective ways to portray the food system and agriculture and how we enable youth to experience it. It’s all about experience and getting them out on farms, ranches, connecting them to post-secondary institutions and businesses. It’s about showing them what agriculture is over the course of a year, or two years.
Many students come to us first through our Caring for Our Watersheds program. We sponsor a writing contest that reaches 600 students per year in about fifteen school districts. This is a program that’s just starting to help build awareness among students … to try to get them interested in the larger system out there. We know that agriculture and environment are incredibly inter-related. Everything we do as a society to produce food has impacts. So this program is a first step. It’s a low-touch program.
We move up to programs that more actively engage students, such as SLEWS. Students do habitat restoration on farms and ranches. It’s a project-based, hands-on program. Students get to meet farmers and ranchers. They learn from these mentors about livelihood, and why having a good wildlife habitat is vital to a farm’s success. The SLEWS program gets youth out to sites where they experience things, but since it’s in a whole classroom experience, it feels safe for students.
Our FARMS Leadership Program typically works with four or five high schools in one “site” as we call it. We have eight sites around the state, covering twelve counties. There are six to seven kids from each school, for a total of around 30 students. The students are creating a new community of learning. It’s a more complex educational experience. The group meets every month. There are multiple leadership activities. There’s also a career focus. It’s all about experiential learning and trying to show them as much as possible about the food system and the environmental challenges we face. The students also work on a community action project together; they create and implement a project as a team.
The highest point of our learning pyramid is the Growing Green Internship Program. The students who participate in this program have probably completed at least one – and often two – of our other programs. The students most interested in continuing on in careers in agriculture and environmental science receive paid internships.
There are a lot of resources going into these youth … and the impacts are very great. We follow these students through the college years. Sometimes we help them secure scholarships or find internships. We help some with coursework, so they can continue their studies. This is one way we’ve evolved.
We can’t be just about awareness and attitude. We have to be about those things and also about behavior and life changes. It’s how we roll those services up to post-high school, college … how we continue to move young people through life and careers. It’s about how we support them, incubate them. By the way, these programs serve kids whom for the most part are mostly urban. Previously, they have not had experiences with agriculture and environmental science. They may be in FFA (Future Farmers of America) or taking agricultural biology. But we can offer different experiences than their high school can provide.
We also conduct teacher trainings. We have high school teachers join us for a day of tours and visits to farms, businesses, and other support industries to agriculture. They learn about the myriad of jobs available today – beyond production agriculture, which is where the majority of jobs in agriculture are.
Q: How do we get more young people to pursue careers in agriculture?
A: I’m trying to hammer that necessity home with the agricultural industry right now. My thinking now is if you want the next generation of really good skilled workers with agricultural backgrounds, you have to invest in the pipeline. You have to do what Silicon Valley did … what other industries have done. Agriculture doesn’t always invest in the pipeline … we think we do, but we don’t. Or at least not in the most effective way.
The numbers are proving it. Nationwide there are 30 percent more agricultural jobs out there for college graduates than available graduates. The needs in food safety are particularly acute. That’s a great opportunity for those who have the degree and experience. But that also means we have a 30 percent deficit in that labor pool. California has the largest FFA program in the nation. This makes sense: we’re the largest state and agriculture is a large industry. But even with FFA, the numbers are not translating into agriculture and environmental sciences careers.
Across the board, we need to assess how agricultural education programs translate to college enrollment and career selection. Clearly, we need to do a better job about talking to high school kids about careers in agriculture. We’re doing our best, but we need more systemic support. Support from industry.
Q: What kinds of national policies might improve the flow of students into agricultural careers?
A: I focus mostly on the local and regional level, because I feel that’s where I personally can make strong, effective change. But I think about the impacts the Farm Bill had when adding the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program funds … that really changed the game. Before that, there were maybe 10-12 beginning farmer and rancher training programs in the entire nation. When that funding came out, it exploded. It’s great. It shows that organizations were interested in doing it, there was a need, and there’s a growth in interest in going into farming.
The growing interest in farming is also because of people like Michael Pollan and some of his books, and other thoughtful writers (including Mark Bittman) that are on the national stage now. So instead of it being buried, there are op-eds or front-page coverage food and agricultural issues in the New York Times or in The New Yorker. This trend has really increased interest in farming and where food comes from.
What’s not happening is an increased interest in all the other jobs that make agriculture successful and viable and all the other services and innovation that we are going to need to address complex issues such as water shortages, climate change and growing population. Or the skills that will be required to help us effectively manage our natural resources. The innovation, the technology, the STEM jobs … few are talking about STEM jobs in agriculture on a national level. No one includes agriculture in that conversation. But what is more STEM than agriculture and environmental jobs?
From a national policy perspective, that’s what I’d like to see. Not just talking about it … we have a major challenge on our hands. Our country, our globe … we have to produce what we’ve been producing with a reduced environmental footprint, with climate change, and all that means. We need innovative young people in the pipeline, and as a nation its time to do more than talk about our needs, its time to invest in educational practices and programs that we know engage young people in agriculture and lead them to careers. Programs like those of the Center for Land-Based Learning.
Q: Your program is always evolving. What’s next?
A: We’ve made the decision to expand our service area. Currently, we work predominantly in the Valley: Yuba, Sutter, Yolo, Sacramento, San Joaquin, Stanislaus and Fresno counties. We’re going to be greatly expanding our programs in Fresno and adding new programs in Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. Mas Masumoto has called this area “the other California.” In many ways, he’s right. There are very few foundations or large philanthropists that serve this region. We are at a disadvantage as a result. That is why we need to work directly with industry – we are all in this together. To increase the pipeline of skilled employees for agriculture, to keep improving upon the viability of agriculture, we need the industry’s help. We’ve received a generous grant from Rabobank that will help us develop and achieve some new goals in this arena. Especially in the areas of internships and career pipelines for Valley agriculture. It’s exciting.
Another exciting thing for us is our involvement in a new farm-to-table development in Davis called The Cannery, through an innovative partnership and lease with the city of Davis and The New Home Company.
We’ll be using our urban agriculture incubator model (the model being used in West Sacramento) to develop and manage a seven-acre farm on the site, called the Cannery Farm. It is being built now and will be a “turnkey” farm – that is, all of the infrastructure is being built for us. Barns, greenhouse, coolers, tractor storage sheds, irrigation systems. We will be running this farm with beginning farmers. A “graduate program” so to speak, for our incubator. We will create a CSA to serve the new residents. We will serve the community with educational opportunities and hands-on learning. Just like we’ve done for so many years.