Happy holidays! It’s been a busy fall at California FarmLink, including the launch of a new educational offering from our Resilience and Wealth Building team. Sixteen farm businesses participated in our first Employment Resilerator course, designed to help improve job quality and employee retention. Graduates will receive technical assistance and small grants to tailor individual approaches to improving the workplace for employees on farms and fishing vessels.
For a second year, our Business and Innovation program brought together nearly 40 business service providers for a six-week course this fall, Evaluating & Supporting Farmer, Rancher, and Fisher Clients.” Participants include advisors from Small Business Development Centers, Women's Business Centers, and nonprofits, as well as accountants, bookkeepers and tax preparers. Course alumni become part of our referral network of professionals with expertise on how to effectively serve small farm and fishing businesses.
So far in 2023 the Farm and Ranch Prosperity Loan Program deployed more than $8 million in 59 loans, with 82% supporting low-income and farmers of color, including over $2 million in land loans made possible at less than market rates. Finally, our Equity and Conservation on Working Lands program continues making impacts with 26 lease or purchase agreements completed and 15 more underway!
We are excited about integrating approaches to business development that combine education, philanthropy, and loan capital – all designed to advance equity and grow wealth. Read more below about our disaster relief work and investments in people who depend on Mother Nature for their livelihoods. As always, we are grateful for your support and involvement. Thank you.
Reggie Knox, CEO
Table of Contents
Resilerator Alumni: Hijas de la Fresa
Ninety percent of all fresh US strawberries are grown right here in California. The temperate, Mediterranean climate of the Central Coast allows the crop to flourish, resulting in a $3.2 billion industry. Recent graduates of California FarmLink’s Resilerator, Miriam and Donna Olivera, owners of Hijas de la Fresa (Daughters of the Strawberry), know this as well as anyone. Donna explains the name as a way to uphold a family legacy: “My sister and I grew up with parents that invested a lot of their time in the strawberry business…we are our parents' daughters, but also daughters of this business.”
“We are products of strawberries, and we are marked by their history and their future,” Miriam adds.
They started their business in 2021, after their father passed away from COVID-19. Their parents had farmed for over 30 years. Initially migrating with the crops around the state, and after experimenting with zucchini and tomatoes, they settled on growing strawberries near Santa Maria. They describe themselves as once being “adjacent to the farm business,” watching their parents develop farming practices and helping out on the weekends.
“Our dad was such a big person in our lives. And honoring that, the fact that our business was born out of that tragedy, and that heartache, trying to honor that as well,” Donna says. The decision to start their own business was made within the same week, while mourning their father and the larger loss to their community. “One of the first things I said to our workforce was: ‘You saw my dad more than I did. You spent more time with my dad than I did.’ The folks who stuck with us, who could have gone elsewhere…they've become so integral to our community.”
The word legacy lingers in the background of our hour and a half long interview: their family legacy, leading back to Oaxaca, Mexico, their legacy within the Santa Maria community, their commitment to the environment and the overall legacy of minority women farmers creating successful family businesses.
Farming, by nature, is a community-wide enterprise and their community is a source of pride for the Oliveras. Family members, neighbors, and even vendors offer support, give advice and continue to step up in unexpected ways. Miriam describes a “new community,” defined by folks who have put everything on the line–who are not only responsible for their own livelihoods, but also those of their families.
“We've been very fortunate,” Donna says. “Our [family] has built a lot of relationships…aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors. Their help has been so invaluable. They've lent us their equipment, they have done certain jobs for us that we were not able to do, and they have stepped up in a way that we did not expect.”
“We are really a part of a larger legacy of California history,” Miriam remarks. “We are also part of the growing trend of younger women coming into farming. And when we are taken seriously, it's in earnest and people speak admirably of women who've shown that they can rise above.”
Prior to Hijas de la Fresa, Donna was engaged in labor activism in college and Miriam studied soil science. Their backgrounds combine to draw upon a wealth of knowledge to inform their business practices. While Donna is out in the fields from five in the morning to eight in the evening, Miriam oversees the critical day-to-day details: finances, urgent judgment calls, environmental practices, and much more.
“One of my goals for the Resilerator program was actually to be able to better understand what Miriam does,” Donna explains. “That curiosity was also from seeing my sister having that burden of knowledge of our loans and debt. One of my goals was just knowing what our financial situation is. The course really just allowed me to put on that business hat.”
“We were invited to attend a virtual Latino farmers conference and someone mentioned FarmLink and potential programs,” Miriam expands. “Years prior, one of the reasons why I didn't get more involved with my parents' business is because it seemed so overwhelming. I felt that having some guidance would really help us break down what it is that we're doing.”
Looking forward to sharpening their financial and organizational skills, the sisters also enhanced their understanding of the fine lines of contracts, cash flow projections, and relevant policies and regulations – all while focusing on goal-setting and overcoming challenges. The Resilerator’s close-knit cohort structure is furthered by incorporating classes taught by fellow farmers and contractors. The course is designed to encourage community and solidarity across generations of farmers and promote a knowledge bank that attendees can draw from long afterward - among themselves, with personalized assistance from FarmLink staff, and through additional courses.
“Some of the farmers we met were smaller or larger and they were able to do certain things like growing multiple crops. Understanding how challenging that is, and getting to see the other side of certain things without having to experience it ourselves, and whether or not it's something that we want to do for ourselves, is also part of it,” says Miriam. “It's getting a fuller picture of what farming is about, not just today, but also the long term.”
When asked about the long-term, Donna is direct, “I want access to land. 20 acres, that's all I'm asking for,” she laughs. “The course, I think, established certain things for me. We don't want to put ourselves in a position that compromises our value in terms of labor, or environmentally. Land is so valuable.”
El Resilerador course starting in January
Starting in January, our Spanish-language course, el Resilerador, will get underway with a fourth cohort of Spanish-speaking farmers. The course covers frameworks for assessing business resilience with an emphasis on taxes and cash flow management. The course is a supportive environment where participants learn from each other, instructors, and past participants. Participants walk away with knowledge and roadmap toward greater business resilience.
One farmer graduate reported, “The course definitely exposed the blind sports for me and reinforced some of the work we're already doing…definitely worth the time investment.” Another common reflection is that the topics covered had often been neglected, given the day-to-day demands of running a business.
Available spots are almost full, and we encourage Spanish-speaking farmers in the Monterey Bay region to apply. Business service providers are welcome to refer people. The course will start on January 31 and meet weekly in Salinas on Wednesdays at 5pm. Learn more and enroll here.
Disaster Relief Grants
The winter storms of 2023 impacted almost all FarmLink borrowers, as many fields were flooded and infrastructure was lost. Particularly in the Monterey Bay region, flooding was bad enough, but it was followed by springtime temperatures much cooler than normal, resulting in longer periods with difficult, muddy fields and slow-growing transplants and sprouts. It was not uncommon for replanting to be required: expanding costs while delaying income.
With fires and other climate-related stressors becoming more frequent, we have been assisting clients to overcome the financial impacts. Those efforts included helping people get information required for USDA relief programs by setting up a legal clinic to help clients establish Dun & Bradstreet numbers. We have also been deferring loan payments for borrowers impacted by natural disasters. The winter storms of 2023 were especially impactful for the community of Pajaro, which once again experienced historic flooding largely due to limited public investment in flood protection. In order to support disaster relief grants for borrowers impacted by this year’s disasters, including in the Pajaro Valley, our partners at Community Foundation Santa Cruz County and the Community Foundation for Monterey County together contributed $300,000 in disaster assistance grants for FarmLink’s client community. Our staff facilitate the clients’ applications and deploy grants based on disaster impacts. We’re grateful for our local community foundations’ abilities to mobilize support in times of need.
FarmLink’s work to connect clients with disaster relief assistance will continue in the coming weeks. When natural disasters strike again we are ready to quickly deploy the options we have available to assist clients.
We’re helping business advisors to support small farm business resilience
For the second year, 30 business service providers completed our six-week, 12-hour course, Evaluating & Supporting Farmer, Rancher, and Fisher Clients. This year we had a great range of participants, including tax preparers, bookkeepers, accountants, and business advisors from Small Business Development Centers, Women’s Business Centers, and nonprofit partners.
The course is part of a larger vision to help the professionals become part of our referral network and get prepared to serve the needs of small, owner-operated farms. This year there was an emphasis on recruiting tax professionals who speak Spanish, since good tax preparation is essential to running a resilient business. “We really want to make sure that we have those folks in the fold and can connect our clients to them. And now they better understand the nuances of working with agricultural small businesses,” reported Asia Hampton, Business Skills Advisor at FarmLink.
With each set of graduates, we’re building a broader and deeper network of professionals and partners available for client referrals. Not only is this network vital for advancing client success, it creates a community of people brought together by an interest in helping small farm and fishing businesses throughout California. The course covers a lot of ground, with meaningful context for how tax structures and other fundamentals have changed. “I like the intersectionality of finance, law, culture, history, and identity when it comes to running a farm business, especially small-scale farming,” wrote one participant.
Our team of staff and consultants will continue to work with participants and support our growing alumni community. Asia explained that our follow-up is rooted in monthly alumni meetings, where our trainers and consultants will also be in attendance. “The purpose,” she explained, “is to answer some of the nittier, grittier questions specific to tax and bookkeeping questions. Our follow-up also continues the peer-to-peer learning and connecting the service providers, often from different professions, to each other.”
Do you know a bookkeeper, tax preparer, or other business services professional looking to work with more farmers and fishers? The next Evaluating & Supporting course will take place in mid-2024, and it’s offered online. We welcome farm and fishing business advisors to join. Look for updates here.
Impact Profile: Leonard Diggs and Pie Ranch building equity for farmers
When incubating small farm businesses, myriad challenges facing farmers are daunting and the solutions are complex. The challenge is not only advancing social and racial equity, but also generating financial equity for participants in the program.
The vision for farmers operating in Pie Ranch and its Regenerator at Cascade Ranch in San Mateo County is for the farms to manage 10-20 acres and foster collaboration among tenants, such as intercropping flowers with food crops. Leonard Diggs believes that operating at a scale around 20 acres is both impactful for the community and for the ability to economically viable businesses.
“Pie Ranch centers its work around social justice, considering things that are not always acted on as clearly and intentionally as other entities,” Leonard explains. As he helped create the program, he wondered, “How can they [gain equity] from the get-go?”
By working with FarmLink’s Investment Notes program, one solution is that a 20% portion of program fees paid by the farmers, such as rent for land and housing, equipment, and irrigation, are set aside in FarmLink’s loan fund as financial equity. The farmers will receive it in a lump sum when departing the program.
With an opportunity to access 418 acres near its headquarters in “coastside” San Mateo County, Pie Ranch secured a long-term lease with a vision to create what is now a farm incubator, the Regenerator at Cascade Ranch.
With more than 30 years’ experience in California agriculture, Leonard Diggs was chosen to lead the program in a new role at Pie Ranch, Director of Farmer & Rancher Opportunities. It was not long after that he sparked an idea for deepening Pie Ranch’s long standing partnership with California FarmLink.
Leonard wanted to create the means for farmers to build access to credit, qualify for loans, and one day, potentially, to buy land. “Right from the beginning, it was obvious that farmers needed to develop some capital,” Leonard reflected, “...a modest amount that they might save while they're in the program.”
It was at a meeting convened by a common funder that Leonard and Reggie Knox, FarmLink’s CEO, discovered an option to expand our collaboration. When Leonard heard an update about the FarmLink Investment Notes, he envisioned a solution for the Regenerator farmers: Could Pie Ranch invest in FarmLink’s loan fund supporting other farmers?
It was not long before Pie Ranch invested a portion of the farmers’ capital in an Investment Note, the second nonprofit to do so. On behalf of FarmLink, Gary Peterson, Director of Communications and Philanthropy, met with the Cascade Ranch farmers to discuss their roles in supporting affordable farm loans. The Investment Notes enable social impact investors to support the loan fund without having to be an “accredited investor,” which requires a net worth exceeding $1 million, not including housing, or more than $200K annual income as an individual.
In 2018, FarmLink created the Notes as an opportunity for more Californians to be part of our mission-based lending. With the assistance of the Sustainable Economies Law Center, we made it happen with a state-licensed Direct Public Offering. At the time we didn’t foresee how the Notes could help farmers of color and beginning farmers be part of supporting access to fair and affordable capital for their peers.
Challenges facing coastal growers
Among myriad challenges, “Finding affordable housing in the region, whether it's on a farm or near farms, is a big deal. And it's come home to roost this year for the farmers and for us,” Leonard explained. In coastal areas where potentially lucrative crops, such as strawberries, can produce over a very long season, the shortage of affordable housing is acute.
California’s overall affordable housing crisis contributes to the stresses that agricultural communities face statewide. But in coastal San Mateo County it took a tragic turn: It’s believed that housing stress contributed to the January 2023 mass shootings, which took seven lives, on mushroom farms in Half Moon Bay. Pie Ranch is aiming to build a shared housing project to help alleviate housing needs, and working with local agencies to find or create more housing opportunities.
At California FarmLink, we’re pleased to partner with Pie Ranch to support the farmers’ equity building. We’ve also commissioned a research project to help inform the development of farmworker (and farmer) housing loans. We have the ability to make housing loans, but land use and permitting processes are highly complex, including factors like zoning, water, and septic. But together with partners like Pie Ranch we stay informed about people’s experiences.
If you’re interested in the FarmLink Investment Notes, inquire here to get the Offering Memorandum, and if you want to build on-farm housing or learn more about FarmLink’s housing loans, get in touch by email.
Expanding access to capital with the FarmLink Investment Notes
Our community-based social impact investment, the FarmLink Investment Notes, are once again available! Designed to be accessible to most Californians, it requires a minimum investment of $1,000 with terms ranging from 2 to 20 years. The Notes are a valuable source of unrestricted loan capital, enabling us to deploy flexible loan capital to meet the needs of farmers and ranchers with few options for flexible and affordable loans. Learn more about the FarmLink Investment Noteshere and submit an inquiry to receive the prospectus.
Welcome to the team: Melissa Gordon
Join us in welcoming Melissa Gordon to the team! Melissa supports our educational programs: the Resilerator, el Resilerador, and the Employment Resilerator. She brings more than 8 years' experience in food systems work to FarmLink, with a master's degree from the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. When joining the team, she expressed, "I am passionate about building a more equitable food and land system by supporting farmers, fishers, and ranchers to find and afford the land they want to run their businesses."
Giving in 2023: Investing in the New Year
California FarmLink is growing its impact as a Community Development Financial Institution, and we plan continued growth in the year ahead. As an agricultural CDFI, we’ve shaped mission-based lending, education, and assistance for people with limited access to financial resources, and who depend on natural resources for their livelihoods. We consistently hear from people interested in our business model.
In 2024 we will begin to share resources with groups who want to deploy similar strategies to support farmers of color, beginning farmers, and healthy local food systems. We have also developed innovative policy proposals aiming to deliver more flexible capital to farmers and ranchers. Unrestricted gifts from individual donors help us to advance our policy work. Every gift matters!
Please consider making a donation to FarmLink before December 31st to support more innovation and advocacy in 2024. Thank you.
Spread the word: We’re hiring!
We’re looking forward to welcoming new members of our team in the coming weeks. California FarmLink’s work as a nonprofit CDFI is creative, meaningful, and impactful. We welcome candidates for:
- Senior Loan Officer
- Project Manager, Cooler Pilot, Business & Innovation
- Senior Accountant, Grants & Contracts
- Development Manager
- Communications Manager