The UC Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems is a great resource for beginning farmers. In particular the budgeting excel spreadsheet they have developed is a great tool for visualizing expenditures and required income to acheive a balanced farm budget.
It has been a while since the blog has last seen any activity. Attention has been focused on the site assessment portion of the website, as site evaluation is the most pertinent topic at present. My wife and I are looking to move to Solano County as a result of her recent hire at the UC Medical Center in Sacramento. For the first time in three years our work and home will potentially be in proximity to one another. Tyler is in New York indefinitely but I intend to push forward.
As with politics I approach site selection with the best of intentions, only to be disappointed by how a limited market seems to be the driving factor to decision. We have achieved pre-approval of a fixed 30 year interest loan and connected with a realtor but are finding limited availability. The goal is to locate a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom home with a 3-5 acre parcel. Establishing operations will be slow but the longest journey begins with one step. I heard that somewhere...
Part of the service that we were trying to provide was to provide links to all available bureaucratic documentation that you might require to achieve your agricultural ends. This was to be the purpose of the permitting page. However, due to relocation and lack of co-operation from appropriate departments in specific counties updates to this page have slowed. This has caused an opportunity for reevaluating the approach to this page. As mentioned in an earlier post, regarding GIS, lack of programming knowledge is creating technical hurdles for the distribution of educational material. In order to create a page that will have lasting capability and provides scalability programming might be required. Permitting will be the initial page of experimentation for programming practice.
Posting links can create problems in the long-run. Links are susceptible to “link rot,” this is when the destination of a link no longer connects you to the appropriate location. With less sophisticated web-pages this is common. In order to avoid this we plan to have a searchable database that the user should be able to customize in order to find the appropriate information. Ideally the user would be able to select a county, search based on key words, and find the results they are looking for. Unfortunately programming is over simplified in written explanation. The courses used are available for free here. Hopefully the first course will be enough for results to appear on the permitting page relatively soon.
Sorry for the delay in postings. Due to circumstances of my personal life I have relocated to New York City. This is to be a temporary relocation but will provide an opportunity for a comparative case study of agriculture in urban environments and the bureaucracy that helps/hinders it.
One of the first noticeably different things about NYC vs. The Bay Area (TBA) is how garbage is dealt with. There are no bins of any kind. Garbage is just left in bags on the streets for the rats to pillage and feed upon. This leaves no mystery to the endemic rat problem. I assume that is partially because of the astronomical cost of getting the city retrofitted with bins, in addition to the space constraints of an already claustrophobic living situation. Second, there is no convenient method for composting. The New York Deptartment of the Environment provides compost receptacles at particular farmers markets through a program called GrowNYC. This is not conducive to participation for multiple reasons. One, it makes it difficult to get rid of your compost. Two, your compost has to be easily carried. Three, there is no incentive for participation or legislation requiring involvement. Four, you have to have an air tight container to ensure that the stench of your compost does not overpower you into throwing it out. However, I guess it’s better than nothing.
Produce is not as common or as tasty as that provided in the Golden State. The growing conditions are not as ample as on the west coast. The majority of the produce that arrives in the city comes from farmland located in the Hudson valley. In conjunction with an inferior product the distribution is slightly more complicated. Due to the previously mentioned claustrophobic living situation markets do not have much space, or allocate much space for large produce sections. This is caused by the poor diets of average Americans and the need of market owners to make space for higher selling products (packaged, process, synthetics “foods”). This makes finding good produce difficult. In an effort to supplement the lack of available produce mayor Bloomberg established 1,000 permits for “green carts” in 2008. This in conjunction with a $1.5 Million grant from the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund set the cart program in motion. This is a good effort to bring more fresh produce into neighborhoods that might not otherwise see it. More about the program can be seen here.
Another attempt at supplementing the fresh produce there is an organization titled Green Thumb. This organization is part of the NYC Parks & Recreation department. Green Thumb is responsible for the 600 community gardens in all five boroughs, the largest network of community gardens in the United States. These gardens vary in purpose from food production to strictly botanical. The purpose of the green space is up to the caretakers. These spaces provide multiple services aside from just gardening. Members of the community can sign up for classes, get involved in seed exchanges, or participate in other green projects. You can watch the video below for more information.
Finally, my apartment has a fire escape which will be utilized in an effort to create an illegal urban garden. I am a bit late in terms of planting for a fall vegetable garden but I might just go for it. As long as I stick to heartier vegetables (kale, collards, broccoli, Brussels sprouts) that are capable of withstanding colder temperatures I should still achieve yield of some sort. I will keep you updated on my continued agricultural investigations of NYC and the efforts of the fire escape garden. There will be a post regarding the permitting section to follow; there is a new approach in the works. Photos to come…
Whether the content we upload is ever received by any audience, the process of articulating our goals and the outcome of our research is of great value. My latest efforts have been to describe the steps involved in evaluating site potential; and as I address the inevitable obstacles that climate, soil, geography, hydrology, and topography pose, I improve my approach to our anticipated land acquisition. The act of describing the process ensures that I thoroughly partake in the process.
My current aim is to design a method by which one can effectively and efficiently evaluate land quality. Ideally I would possess the computer programing skills to generate a software that incorporates GIS layers, and through preferential input, ranks available agricultural real estate from most to least desirable. I do not, however, possess these skills; and thus, I have designated Soil Capabilities, Climate, and Water Availability as the physical determinants of land quality and I address each individually.
In addition to these physical obstacles are the social factors that limit agricultural production. Legislative Regulations and Permitting Requirements affect site potential by influencing the cost and scale of operations. From the federal to local levels there exist limitations to what can and cannot be done and the price at which one is permitted to do so. Selecting agricultural property in a county that supports agricultural cultivation, application, and distribution is to the benefit of the farmer.
Also your Crop Selection and local agricultural Industry must be compatible if you are to profit from your harvest. It is important to consider existing enterprise before establishing business within a community. It is unwise to enter a saturated market, as is it to enter a vacant market. Industry presence is potential competition, but it is as much, and likely more, potential collaboration.
Assessing the soil and hydrological layout, regional regulations, and industry presence will make your purchase more informed and prepare you for the planning process, Ultimately, how the available agricultural real estate fits your budget determines land acquisition; and such is our case. It has become a process of identifying the least expensive available pieces of agricultural property and determining their land quality.
To assist others through this process we are publishing our progress. Within the site we provide in depth evaluations of each of the seven categories above for the San Francisco Bay Area. For now each factor must be evaluated individually but we can hope to someday see quantitative data that holistically assesses land quality. I imagine it isn't long before technology takes us from the age of "Apps" to data "overlApps".
The tubers are opening their eyes, and the hypocotyls are pushing through the soil to stretch their arms and greet the summer sun. The growing season is upon us. For now Forethought Foods remains a virtual endeavor. Content development and market evaluation are the current labors. For now crop cultivation remains limited to the 1/4 acre plot I rent as residence.
In addition to the more common market crops, I have dedicated the soil to testing unfamiliar food crops with market potential. Amidst the typical summer alliums, cucurbits, solanums, and legumes,I have growing an ethnobotanical mix of perennial fruit, tuber, and leaf crops. It represents an array of neglected South American and African crops as well as tropical fruit crops with tolerance to Mediterranean climates.
Certainly these crops will not replace the more common food crops in our agricultural system. Perhaps with improved cultivars and by virus elimination techniques, competitive yields could be achieved; but demand remains low and the consumer remains unfamiliar with these crops. It is not for this purpose that we are entertaining their potential. These crops show promise in complimenting the American palate. Chefs are constantly seeking new flavors to distinguish their dishes and from the shelves of markets, exotic fruits and vegetables pull in curious consumers. These crops demonstrate niche potential. They do not represent a significant source of income for growers but perhaps a marketing tool to attract customers and assure accounts.
I have begun to meet with local farmers and nurseries, seeking advice and evaluating industry niches. The decision of whether to shape the business around food sales or plant sales weighs upon my shoulders. Ideally a compromise of the two will work.
I have been contacting many of the Bay Area counties in order to develop a better understand of which permits are required for Apiary, Orchards, Industrial Kitchen Operation, Vineyards, Wells, Pond cultivation and others. This has been a very difficult process since it requires contacting three to four government departments to attain the information. Also, to my frustration, this information is not readily available online. Our site will attempt to become a source of forms, permits and other documentation that might be required to achieve the goal of becoming an agri-business.
Also, permitting is not cheap. We will have to prioritize which permits we would like to attain first by determining which ones will add the most value and educational potential to the farm. Currently we have many of the permits available for Lake County, CA. Any further progress will be added to the permitting page.
The modern farmer is much more than a cultivator of crops and livestock. While the vocation requires an affinity for the simple traditions of food production, the modern farmer conducts a complex array of tasks. Producing nutritious, fresh produce sometimes is not enough. There are many actions required of the farmer in delivering that produce to the dinner table. As the authors of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources' publication, Small Farm Handbook, explain in the beginning paragraph of the third chapter,
"Successful farmers combine their production knowledge and skills with top-notch business plans and marketing approaches to provide the nation and world with its food. They work with natural resources and manage them to produce high-quality, diverse, nutritious, and abundant products. Farming takes hard work, planning, discipline, and prudent management, and then still more hard work. A farmer must be prepared to devote many hours to raising and selling his or her products and must be able to deal with the fact that income will vary from year to year depending on the weather, pests, and market conditions. Farmers must be astute and be able to manage financial, cultural, and other aspects of farming. Risk is inherent in farming; success is in part the result of identifying and maximizing opportunities while minimizing constrains and losses.... Owning and operating a farm business requires stamina, fortitude, and creativity. Farmers need to be able to withstand the vagaries of product successes and failures and to find creative solutions to unforeseen problems that are sure to arise"
The chapter goes on to explain,
"Farming involves more than planting, cultivating, and harvesting crops. It requires record keeping, financial forecasting, marketing decisions, handling legal and regulatory issues, dealing with farm credit, and technical knowledge about equipment, plant and animal growth, chemical use and soil... Skills that are typical of most successful farmers include a natural affinity for growing crops or raising animals, along with mechanical, business, and people skills. Business, marketing, and communications skills are critical to farming in the twenty-first century and should not be overlooked."
The modern farmer must utilize available technology to record and assess activities of the farm. Farming is a biological process in an orchestra of environmental and ecological variables, and the modern farmer is the conductor. Decisions must be forethought. Only by understanding an issue can a solution emerge. Likewise; only by documenting reciprocated actions, is the best practice defined.
The modern farmer must connect with the modern consumer. This means dispensing the rural setting of the farm in addition to fresh food. It can be achieved by marketing through social media, developing email recipient lists, and consistently reporting farm affairs to members by blog or periodic newsletters. Whether sales are on-site, through community farmer's markets, wholesale, or by subscription, sharing food for the small-to-mid-scale farmer is a human experience.
California Farm Bureau Federation, a non-governmental, non-profit, corporation explains in a promotional brochure published in 2011,
"California family farmers and ranchers produce more than 400 different crops, providing consumers with a wide variety of healthy, fresh and affordable food. With only 2 percent of the nation’s population involved in production agriculture, there is a growing need to re-connect those who produce and consume agricultural products."
These ideas of tracking information, marketing, and networking are echoed by many other sites. Sites like Start2Farm , a project funded by the USDA, which works to connect beginning farmers with one another and institutions designed to aid developing farms. And there are many other online resources working to strengthen the stability of the 80% of California's farms which are small farms. So many in fact; that the task of locating viable resources and legitimate advice becomes daunting. Sifting through the advertisements for software and consulting services to find direction can distract one from the original goal of establishing a farm; but such is the burden of the modern farmer.
And such is the burden of Forethought Foods. We aim to provide useful information for those willing to receive, but shall do so while maintaining implementation as our priority. We will do out best to provide accurate information relevant to the modern farmer as well as the modern consumer. Our information will pertain mostly to Northern California but will hopefully sere as a case study for other locations.
As Josh mentioned my agricultural endeavors have mainly been a hobby. Vocationally I am involved in the political world working on campaigns for progressive issues and candidates. This experience in civic engagement has resulted in a working knowledge of the red tape associated with local governments. Due to my familiarity with bureaucratic institutions, a portion of my contribution will be determining where the cost of doing business will be cheapest. In addition to land prices, property values, and demographics there are various permits required to operate an agricultural entity. Since these permits vary in price and level of consent it is important to fully understand what is required of us both physically and financially, before getting involved with a specific county.
Permitting is an important aspect because eventually we will take on more than just farming. We believe that this is where most CSA’s fall short in the services they provide to the community. Current CSA’s deliver food that is bountiful in the spring and summer months and then lack variety and bounty during the rest of the year. We would not only like to provide food that has been preserved from other seasons, but teach the community how they can preserve their own food. We would like to offer food and instruction year round that does not require additional trips to super markets. It is one thing to get your produce provided locally, but it is another to get entire meals locally sourced.
We are trying to create a model that is replicable and that allows for financial incentive for those who engage. We want people to want to learn to grow and preserve their own food. This can be done alone or as collaboration with friends and neighbors. This is also a movement to reduce that amount of resources we waste on cultivating grass. We ideally would become an agricultural hub of the community providing insight and education, while filling the nutritional holes that homeowners cannot fill themselves.
Obviously we are idealistic people. Part of what we are providing through our website is the step by step learning process that we experience in our mission to achieve the dream. We understand that we are a long way from attaining that dream. However, this only adds to what we can contribute to the education of those starting in similar situations and pursuing similar dreams.
I suppose we should further introduce ourselves and our intentions, and get into what distinguishes us; and better yet, qualifies us for transforming a dream and a plot of Earth into a functioning enterprise.
Our vision is to develop a profitable organic, poly-culture farm/nursery and document our success to share with others.
It is our goal to deliver fruits, vegetables, poultry and livestock, and specialty goods to local consumers through CSA subscription, on-site retail, through local restaurant contracts, and farmers markets. Crop propagates and seedlings will be available for purchase onsite and through internet sales. Prices will be competitive but fair. Profits will improve the infrastructure of the organization. Resources will be recycled when possible and each component will serve multiple purposes. Work will be conducted primarily with human labor but machinery will be implemented when necessary. We aim to provide educational interaction to the public through online media and host on-site demonstration workshops. Aside from the more widely known vegetable and fruit crops, we will emphasize nutritious foods that are of unique flavor, cultivar and type. We will preserve crops whenever there is surplus or demand. We will improve the land through our agricultural practices.
It is the counties in and around the Bay Area, that we are in considering in our evaluations of permitting, crop selection, and risk management. This is a climate that we are comfortable with and the community that we belong to.
We are experienced with food production. We have worked in agriculture, myself more than Tyler, but where I have made a career of managing crops he has prepared himself for managing a business. While attending Sonoma State University we worked together on a 3/4 acre demonstration garden. The garden aimed to familiarize the public with food crops and produce the maximum yield of food, fuel, fiber, fertilizer, and feedstock for the minimum input of resources. The garden also provided an example for how to transform a suburban/urban yard into an ecologically conscious garden without dependence upon petroleum. We carry some of the philosophies of the garden into this new venture but where the garden represented the antithesis of conventional agriculture we will adopt practices of both farming ideologies.
What is worse, all action and no thought, or all thought and no action, I do not know. The managers funding the garden proved to be the later. For this reason our involvement ended; after which, Tyler and I pursued different career paths, each separate, but neither far from preparing us for engaging in our own agricultural venture. I will ask Tyler to provide detail on his work experience.
After the garden I was employed in installing and caring for sustainable ornamental landscapes at large estates, wineries, and campuses. I cared for orchards, gardens, and lawns; perennials and annuals around the calendar. I was a landscaper. I improved my skills in pruning, applying fertilizers, identifying and assessing pest problems, and using related tractors, machines, and tools, but I was not fulfilled by cultivating aesthetics.
I left my foreman position in the spring of 2010 to take a position as a plant biologist for a private company, conducting trials to improve the spectral output of horticultural LED grow lights. In applying for this job I had simultaneously applied for a position as a nursery technician for Foundation Plant Services, a self-supporting service department in the College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences at UC Davis which produces, tests, maintains and distributes virus & disease-tested plant materials, primarily grape, for use by California nurseries. After a few months of involvement with the LED company I transitioned to a part time consulting role and was hired on full time at Foundation Plant Services. And that brings us to date; I currently hold both positions.
I have worked as a gardener, farmer, landscaper, researcher, and nurseryman for the past 10 years. I have cultivated plants for beauty, nursery material, feedstock and food; amongst other things, on the small and large scale. In addressing the pragmatic questions necessary to contrive our statement of purpose, it became clear that what, and where, and how defer priority to why. Why start a farm? For fulfillment, for autonomy, or recognition? Perhaps, but it is so much simpler for me. I am a farmer at my core. It is my vision, mission, and my purpose, to feed people and the land.