Spring 2024 News

Purple broccolini

Dear friends,

I’m humbled by the quantity of specific and detailed knowledge required to run a successful farming business. Farming is not only capital intensive, but without detailed knowledge in production, pest control and fertility, business and financial management, labor, legal, regulatory compliance and many other areas, small farms are deeply challenged in building multi-generational wealth. As we learn more about the specific knowledge that farmers need to succeed, we adapt our loan products, educational courses and individual technical assistance accordingly.

This newsletter describes the journey of one farmer who, over the last 12 years, used almost every program and service that FarmLink provides. From building a lease agreement, to annual operating loans and the Resilerator courses, these programs and services are mutually reinforcing to build resilience and profitability.  

Many of these articles reference an ecosystem of service providers that support small and mid-scale farms in California. It takes partnerships to accomplish this work, and we aim to continue growing our network of support for the people we serve. Thank you for being part of our work.

Reggie Knox, CEO

Table of Contents

Q & A with Antonio Garza, Feeding Crane Farm

In recent months, our program teams have designed a client journey to support business knowledge, access to land and good land tenure, as well as grants and loan capital. One farmer who has been involved in our work for more than a decade is Antonio Garza of Feeding Crane Farm in Nevada County. We recently spoke with him about his client journey. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you first get started in farming, and how did you get involved in FarmLink’s work?

Antonio Garza: I think California FarmLink has been there from nearly the beginning. I started as an apprentice at Soil Born Farms, a nonprofit in Sacramento, and they had some classes that included Farmlink staffer Liya Schwartzman. So I became familiar with FarmLink at that time…[but I was] keeping an eye on you all because, not having money or land in the family, I was initially interested in the linking services around land tenure. I became the farm manager, and then looked for what the next steps would be. My goal was to get on some land and to have a farm business. Now I've actually been much more involved in many of the other things that you do.

As of March 2024, what are some business challenges that are of greatest concern?

Antonio: As someone who leases, land tenure is definitely a concern. We're working on a long-term lease on the property where I'm at. I was actually just having a conversation today with the next generation of the landowner's family. If we sign a long-term lease, they will be part of the conversation. Day to day, it really comes down to cash flow, and I have an operating loan from California FarmLink. I have one full-time crew member and I had two more join at the beginning of March, so taking the Employment Resilerator course and being more familiar with employment law is helpful. But the number one concern at this point in the season is always just money. My greatest area of interaction with FarmLink is about access to capital.

What were your goals in taking the Resilerator and the Employment Resilerator courses?

Antonio: I definitely wanted to learn more about the aspects of farming that don't excite me. You don't have to encourage me to learn about soil science or plant nutrition or new varieties in the seed catalogs. But it's really helpful to have a structured setting as well as incentives for learning details of the business and particularly employment practices. I actually really enjoy running a business so I've already delved a fair amount into business operations, but employment is one of those things that I've just come into…I love my crew and enjoy working with them, but employment law has never been a passion.

What were some key take-aways from the courses?

Antonio: When I think about the original Resilerator, it was a different framework for thinking about things, differentiating cash flow and wealth and thinking about where you are with your  business structure, where you are in a lifelong framework for what you're trying to accomplish. It is really helpful. We need to feel like we're accomplishing our goals outside of just growing the crop, which is taking care of our families and ourselves. For the Employment Resilerator, there's a high likelihood that I'll have more employees in the future, so developing systems, streamlining their integration, and maximizing their skills is really important.

What would you tell other farmers about the courses?

Antonio: The sooner you get into them, the better. I'd taken other courses, so some aspects in the Resilerator weren't new, but younger me would've benefited even moreso. And in the Employment Resilerator, there were some people who were just getting ready to employ their first person. That's a great point to start making sure that you have all your ducks in a row.

Tell us about your land tenure journey, and how many acres are you operating right now?

Antonio: It's about nine acres within a larger property. We just started talking to people in the community and they connected us to a local landowner. And I thought I was going out there to talk to him about other people he might know, because he knows a lot of people in the Penn Valley area. At the end of our conversation, he said, "So when do you want to start?" Now we're working towards formalizing a longer-term lease. We started with a three-year lease, written by FarmLink and now we need a longer lease to make sure we're eligible for things like [USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service] funding, which has been an issue with shorter-term leases. The NRCS wants to see that things that they fund will be there for the longer term. I'd say the outside length of the lease would be something like 30 years, which would take me through the end of my farming career…I don't think I want to go much past 75.

You’ve also received operating loans from FarmLink. How did you first decide that you needed a loan?

Antonio: I've always needed loans farming. The first time, I funded it by getting a credit card offer in the mail that said I could have up to, I think it was, $10,000 for a year with 0% interest, and I just knew that I needed to pay it back in a year. A pretty chancy thing, but it worked. This might be the seventh year of getting operating loans from California FarmLink, and an additional operating loan in one year, because of a terrible spring and equipment purchases, we were just short of capital. So I was able to work with the loan officer to get additional money beyond what was anticipated to keep making payroll.

How have you been using the FarmLink loans in your business, and has that changed over the years?

Antonio: We use the FarmLink loan to cover a lot of the [seasonal] startup capital. We attempt to farm year-round, but winter is definitely slower and less productive than the rest of the season. So we'll run a deficit of up to $30,000 before we start becoming cash flow positive. Maybe [one day] we won't need as much operating capital, but I think we'll continue to use it as a cushion against the variabilities of nature and markets. It covers everything from fertilizer to payroll to minor investments and equipment. For major investments, we look at other loan options either with FarmLink or others. When we bought a truck and we went with a loan from the dealership. 

We also have a customer Convenience Card, which provides a portion of startup capital. People pay upfront, but it's not enough for all of the season’s start-up costs. It's essentially a balance that people use at the farmer's market, and we add on 10%. It encourages loyal customers and provides them with a deal. One of our major buyers, BriarPatch Food Co-op in Grass Valley, and now also Auburn, subsidizes the FarmLink loans for farmer vendors. We end up paying a quite low rate of interest on those loans, which is also really beneficial.

How would you describe FarmLink’s lending?

FarmLink understands farming and small farmers in particular. They're willing to work with people, I'd say, almost on reputation, because particularly for a small farmer getting started, there's very little collateral to offer. Having someone who has that [kind of lending] as their mission can really facilitate people growing a business that under ordinary circumstances just might not have a shot at it from the financial standpoint. Having people make the jump from a farmworker or farm manager to a farm operator, it's really key to have someone like California FarmLink there who understands the business, understands the potential, and is willing to put that money forward.

What does the future look like, what are your aspirations?

Antonio: Where I want to see things going is more cooperation amongst the local farms in a given area. I've seen some very interesting things with FEED Sonoma, sort of a cooperative farmer-owned sales model. I'm very interested in seeing something like that operate here, because farming has a number of issues. Particularly in small farming, there’s often overproduction and under-utilization of any number of things. I might be driving a small amount of produce in my vehicle all over the place, and there's a bunch of other farmers doing the same thing. I’d like to see people developing a structure for managing overproduction, getting it into the right sales outlets, and maximizing our assets.

Learn more about Feeding Crane Farm here. You can purchase their produce at the Nevada City Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings, BriarPatch Food Co-op in Grass Valley and Auburn, as well as Three Forks Bakery & Brewing Co. and Heartwood Eatery, both located in Nevada City.

Ecosystem Building

In June, we’re presenting an online course, “Evaluating and Supporting Farming, Ranching and Fishing Clients: An introductory short course for business advisers.” It’s designed to provide financial and legal services professionals with knowledge and skills to serve farmers, ranchers and fishers: the kinds of people we aim to support in realizing business success! The course will convene on Zoom on Tuesdays from June 4-25 from 12:00 - 2:00 pm. 

We welcome accountants, bookkeepers, tax preparers and business advisors, including Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) and nonprofit organizations. This will be the course’s third cohort, and with each group we are building networks of professionals who want to be part of our referral network. The course aims to bridge the gap between specialized business assistance and the wide variety of clients we serve.

Please help nominate people! Do you know someone who would be interested in attending? Folks can fill out the form to indicate interest in joining the course. Learn more here.

Staging a comeback of the American Family Farm

By Christopher Brown, Guest Contributor

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s speech on February 13, to announce the release of 2022 USDA Census of Agriculture data, was unexpectedly poignant. He could have celebrated the 40% surge in total farm sales. Instead, he referred to the data as a “wake up call,” expressing concern at the loss of 142,000 farms since 2017 and 535,00 since 1981. Questioning the longstanding focus on increasing productivity starting with FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, he asked: “As a country, are we okay with losing that many farms?”

Secretary Vilsack proposed a “a better way,” a vision in which small- and mid-sized farms thrive, providing a stable living for farm households while boosting the rural economy. He proposed strategies to boost income of these farmers through financial incentives for using climate-smart practices and recycling biowaste, as well as supporting direct market access.

The speech was a breath of fresh air, providing hope for a departure from the productivity-focused, ’get big or get out’ policies of past administrations. Fulfilling this vision, however, faces daunting obstacles. Aside from requiring a paradigm shift in public policy, the vision’s biggest shortfall may be in human resources.

Having referenced the New Deal, Secretary Vilsack could have mentioned that farm numbers have since dropped by nearly five million. In fact, farm numbers dipped below two million for the first time since the 1850s, and of those remaining, less than 20% have adequate sales to support a household. Over four generations, much of our farming knowledge and assets were lost, and with it, our connection to the land. Even the thousands graduating from over 80 agricultural colleges and universities each year have not stemmed the decline.

Any plan to reverse course must ask, “Who will farm?”

The answer may be in what Secretary Vilsack did not mention: racial equity. Currently, farm owners are over 90% white and nearing 60 years old, foretelling a further drop in farm numbers. To reverse the trend, agriculture urgently needs an infusion of youth, talent, and desire to farm independently.

All of these qualities can be found in abundance in the Latino community, and other communities of color. Eighty percent of the nation’s estimated two million farmworkers are Latino, making them essential to food production and distribution. Yet, they are too often dismissed as ‘unskilled’ and ‘uneducated’ and relegated to low-pay field work. This has to change. Recognizing their unique experience and desire to farm as a strategic resource, and investing in their pursuit of organic farm ownership, is key to achieving the Secretary’s vision.

ALBA, a non-profit organic farm incubator operating on 100 acres in California’s Salinas Valley, is an example of how it can work. Though ALBA welcomes aspiring farmers of all backgrounds, Mexican immigrants and first-generation Latinos make up over 90% of participants every year. The five-year program lowers the barriers to starting a farm by providing subsidized access to training, farmland and farm equipment. In addition, they receive free, on-site assistance from staff who teach regenerative farming practices and help farmers build their businesses. Partners such as California FarmLink provided targeted assistance with continuing education, loan capital, and assistance to establish land tenure. This level of concentrated support is needed to gain knowledge and build capacity to successfully navigate production, management, and financial and regulatory challenges, while lowering risk to new farmers.

Since 2001, ALBA has launched over 250 organic farm enterprises, supported by several USDA and state grant programs. A recent impact assessment revealed that Latino-owned farms coming out of ALBA not only earn higher household incomes and live out their dream of farming independently, but their farms are in the top quartile of U.S. farms for gross sales, and most earn most or all of their household income from the farm. Furthermore, the local economic impact created by these farms each year is far greater than the grants awarded over ALBA’s first 20 years.

ALBA’s model meets the moment by focusing on kickstarting the type of farms Vilsack described. The program has already been replicated in Washington, Massachusetts and Minnesota and many other sites. In mapping out a strategy for reviving family farms, the USDA would do well to prioritize establishing a robust network of land-based farm business incubators and apprenticeships, along with strategic partnerships, to unleash the latent potential in communities of color, and help all Americans reconnect with the land.

Christopher Brown is Development Director at the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association (ALBA), a nonprofit farm business incubator near Salinas.

USDA Equity Commission Opens the Door to New Programs for Farmworkers

The USDA’s first-ever Equity Commission just released a historic set of recommendations for increasing equity in USDA program delivery and explicitly called for an increased USDA focus on farm labor. 

We applaud the Equity Commission for including farmworkers in their broad recommendations, and we look forward to supporting specific and practical proposals for new USDA programs to support farmworkers.

Farmworkers are as essential to American agriculture as farmers, but mostly absent from USDA programs. Congress typically sees farm labor as the purview of the Department of Labor. The few USDA programs aiming to benefit farm labor are primarily focused on housing and community facilities. There are no USDA programs that provide farmworkers with insurance, education or income subsidies, but there are hundreds of USDA programs to provide those benefits to farmers. This is the practical context of the Equity Commission’s recommendations. The Equity Commission has opened the door from inside the USDA, inviting a conversation about creating new USDA programs designed to address the needs of farmworkers.

In the coming months we will work with other nonprofits such as the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition to identify opportunities to develop new programs to support farmworkers in their many roles - as family members, community members, workers, aspiring farmers, part-time farmers, farm educators, community leaders, friends, colleagues and neighbors.

¡Felicitaciones and Congratulations, Resileradores!

We celebrate the outstanding achievements of the 2024 graduates of El Resilerador! These dedicated farmers have earned the esteemed title of Resileradores through their commitment to business resilience. Participants immersed themselves in a comprehensive curriculum covering essential business topics, including federal taxes, recordkeeping, cash flow, budgets, profitability, and contracts and lease agreements.

As Resileradores, they now enjoy exclusive benefits, such as rebates on FarmLink loans, the opportunity to enroll in other FarmLink programs, and personalized technical assistance. The knowledge gained serves as a vital asset for future business success. 

Are you ready to embark on a transformative learning journey within a supportive community? Act now! Sign up now to be considered for a spot in next year’s el Resilerador (for Spanish speakers) or the Resilerator starting in October!

Thank you for the survey responses!

Each winter we ask our clients to share their feedback through an impact survey. On behalf of the staff team, and our Board and Farmer Advisory Committee, we share a hearty thank you to everyone who responded to the survey. Now in its third year, we closed the survey with more than 200 (!) responses from recent clients. Kudos to the impact team for achieving this milestone; and helping to fulfill one of our core values: Learning from diverse communities of farmers, ranchers, and fishers who inform, teach, and inspire us to improve our work.

Welcome to the California FarmLink Team!

We are thrilled to announce the newest additions to our team, who bring a wealth of experience and enthusiasm to our mission. Please join us in extending a warm welcome to:

Christine Potter, Senior Accountant, Grants and Contracts

Christine monitors and maintains grant accounting records including budgets, and actively participates in annual budgeting, regulatory compliance, and workforce planning. “If I am ever in a position where I can provide assistance to those who do not have access to resources, I feel it is my duty as an able bodied human, to lend a helping hand."

Jenny Sanchez, Communications Manager

Jenny joined FarmLink to create meaningful stories centering clients’ voices and developing innovative content supporting program and revenue goals. “I'm passionate about supporting small-scale farmers and promoting sustainable ag. I aim to raise awareness and the importance of equitable access to resources."

Claire Mesesan, Development Manager

Claire helps secure funding for California Farmlink's mission, engages with funders so they understand the impact of their support, and identifies new ways to build resources for the team. "I look forward to engaging with funders to better meet the diverse needs of farmers, ranchers, and fishers throughout California to help them thrive."

Explore more about our staff and board members, the dedicated people who drive our work.

Spread the word: We're Hiring!

California FarmLink is growing, and we’re on the lookout for passionate individuals to fill the following roles:

Ready to make an impact and take the next step in your career? Apply now and be a driving force behind positive change in California's farming and fishing communities. 

Did you know?

Did you know that you can leave a gift to California FarmLink in your estate plan? Contact us to learn more.

Newsletter Sign-up
Subscribe to our newsletter to stay in the know

Support our Work

Contribute. Invest. Partner