The State of Local Farming
At the end of June, Lucila de Alejandro, who with her husband Robin Taylor was the face of Suzie’s Farm, posted a long video on Facebook that went viral among San Diegans who love locally produced food. There was shock. The couple was closing down the farm.
Suzie’s Farm had long been a community treasure—and they seemed to be doing all the right things, including creating brand recognition. But it wasn’t enough. And while the loss was shocking, given the environment in which local farming takes place, ultimately it wasn’t surprising.
The reasons behind Suzie’s closing were aired in a July editorial on the Edible San Diego website. But we realized that what happened with Suzie’s could be the canary in the coal mine warning of the frailty of our local farms. San Diego already had lost La Milpa and Cook Pigs, so it’s not like Suzie’s was the first. And we were curious about what was being done—and could be done—to create a climate more feasible for local agriculture to not just survive, but thrive.
Facing the Challenges
As a region, San Diego is known for its agriculture. Think avocados and poinsettias, for example. The County has more than 5,700 farms—but that’s actually a decrease from 2012, when at its peak, the number of farms was 6,687. Product value, along with acreage, has declined.
The reasons behind this are fairly obvious. At the top of the list is the cost of water.
“For most farmers in San Diego County, it’s the price of water,” said Eric Larson, the San Diego County Farm Bureau’s executive director. “It’s had the single biggest impact. It’s tripled in about a decade.”
Not far behind is the prohibitive cost of land. Then there’s legislation, like Proposition 2, which addressed cage laws for chickens—a boon to animal rights but a huge cost for farmers. Also, San Diego’s new higher minimum wage has increased farm overhead. There’s the lack of a local slaughterhouse, which makes raising livestock for food almost impossible. Add to these the availability of cheap produce from other countries and a lack of infrastructure that includes trained workers. “We need a guest worker program,” Larson said. “And with the labor shortage, we need research into more efficient equipment.”
Here’s another issue: The average age of farmers across the country is 60—but, according to Larson, it’s even higher in San Diego. “Young folks are not coming up clamoring to be farmers,” he noted. “If they are, they’re probably going to larger farm communities because the cost of land and production make it difficult to get in.”
And that’s not all. Stepheni Norton of Dickinson Farm in National City is aghast at the cost of farm insurance and workers compensation for her small organic farm, which is less than an acre and has only one part-time employee. “Policies are very hard to get for small farms in general and even harder for small farms in nontraditional farming locations,” she said. “In San Diego we have yet to find a local farm insurance agent.” She said it took over a year to find an insurance company that would cover them.
But, here’s the biggest problem local farmers face—you and the lack of support by the local community. Our country has a cheap food policy that San Diegans buy right into.
“It’s not like there’s a huge number of San Diegans wanting to rush out and purchase from farms,” said Larson. “Demand is limited for locally grown products. It’s too easy to go to the supermarket. It takes a commitment to go to farmers’ markets. We have three million people but what percentage go to farmers’ markets to buy directly from farmers?”
Larson and others think one solution would be a distribution infrastructure that would make it easier for farmers to aggregate products so that they could go more efficiently to markets.
Catt White, who operates San Diego Markets, notes that farmers’ markets, farm stands, and CSAs are hugely important to farmers’ incomes because the retail price of the produce goes to the farm directly—and CSAs, in fact, provide a financial commitment in advance to the farmers. But again, it comes down to consumers understanding how important it is to buy locally from farmers.
“We all need to eat, so we all have a personal investment in keeping farmers in business,” she said. “Where else are we going to get our food?”
Agents of Change
The good news is that there are several organizations in the region that recognize what farmers are up against and are on the ground making change.
One is the San Diego Food System Alliance. According to director Elly Brown, the organization is addressing the generation gap Larson mentioned and looking at opportunities to bring in young farmers, tackling challenges from affordable land access, capital access, and business planning to market development.
“We’re starting with the land access piece and talking to California FarmLink,” Brown explained. “They have a presence in Central and Northern California and we’re trying to convince them to come here. They link landowners with potential growers and offer support on leasing, administer capital as a lender, and help manage intergenerational farm transfers.”
Brown also advocates for institutional procurement that would facilitate investment in local farms, urban agriculture incentive zones that provide tax incentives for property owners to put vacant land into active agricultural use, farm microloans, and grants for beginning farmers and ranchers. Some of these are items that are part of state legislation, others are missing links in the upcoming federal farm bill, which is revised every five years.
They also are deeply involved in the consumer education component with their “Know Your Food System” campaign.
Another organization is the San Diego New Farmers Guild. “We are a group of new and aspiring farmers,” said co-founder Laurel Greyson. “Our goal is to generate community, work together to share information and tools, and network.” The Guild started about a year ago and has a core group of about 25 people.
“There are definitely new farmers out there. It’s hard anywhere to get started but in a place where it’s not as common to have first-generation farmers, there’s a whole slew of issues that need working out,” Greyson explained. “That includes what types of crops to grow, what will make money, how to get to markets, how to market yourself. We’re in the process of building a foundation of resources for new farmers.”
And White, who operates three farmers’ markets, is trying to help farmers be more effective in selling their wares. “We do a lot of training,” she said. “We offer Vendor 101 and the InTents Conference, which is specifically designed to teach vendors already in business how to make more money. We call it ‘when passion meets profit.’”
One thing White believes could make a difference is a change in California state regulations, which she said makes it difficult for farmers to make larger profits on value-added items. “Do you grow peaches? Then you should be able to make and sell peach pies. They could make it easier for them.”
A Happy Warrior
One new farmer who is slugging it out pretty joyfully is Luke Girling of Cyclops Farms in Oceanside. A graduate of the Center for Agroecology & Sustainable Food Systems farming program at UC Santa Cruz, Girling was the farm manager for West Steak and Seafood and Bistro West for two years before striking out on his own. On his two-and-a-half acre farm, Girling produces a large variety of vegetables, strawberries, flowers, and herbs. He’s looking to participate in farmers’ markets but currently his main income stream comes from his farm stand (“We’re very supported by locals.”) and working directly with chefs from restaurants including 608, Belching Beaver, Mission Bar & Grill, and Biga. Some buy what he grows; others request specific items for him to grow.
For Girling, water will forever be the leading issue—so he’s held four-course monthly water bill dinners on the farm for over a year to help pay those bills. “Labor is also a big problem,” he adds. “I can’t afford it. I’ve tapped into volunteers whenever I can.”
“I know I’m not going to make a lot of money,” he said. “I see the challenges financially. But I love the work. I have an endless amount of awesome food and I get to have my kids out here.”
The Farm Bureau’s Larson is equally bullish on farming. “A lot of investment is going on. Golf courses are being transformed into vineyards. Growers are planting avocados at a rapid clip, along with olives and dragon fruit.”
But, notes Brown of the San Diego Food System Alliance, “Farming is romanticized. It takes a lot of hard work. I think there’s so much that can be done to support those who want to go into farming but they have to be realistic about what it takes to farm in San Diego. We need to address practical advocacy issues and create touch points for the community to get adults to buy local and seasonal food. That’s where we need to start.”