Kristen Draz and her partner Will Holland had been on their 10 acres for three months when Reggie Knox and I stopped by FogDog Farm in early June, the second day of a heat wave due to push the mercury to nearly 100 degrees on their farm at an elevation of 1500 feet near Placerville. Kristen and Will were unfazed, with their fields irrigated earlier that morning and tender vegetable starts under shade cover.
Their journey to more secure land tenure started when they chose to look eastward from Sonoma County in 2015. “I couldn’t rent a shared room in Sonoma for what I was going to be paying to at least have this opportunity to start a farm,” reported Will. With immense effort and FarmLink’s technical assistance to shape a land lease, they started their Foothills farming careers in Nevada County. But despite several conversations to establish a final lease, they ultimately got underway without signing one.
“We weren’t able to get in the same room to just sit down and answer questions. And the type of bootstrap farmers we are, and in the situation that we were in, we had low risk,” explained Will. Despite challenging circumstances for everyone involved, including serious health issues for their landlord, they started the farm, entered the Nevada City Farmers’ Market, developed restaurant-direct sales, and sustained the business.
Kristen summarized by saying, “When we were just starting out, and we didn’t really know what FogDog Farm was going to become, those [lease] things were less important. And then, as our business and our risk grew, that’s when we started to see how finishing that process at the beginning would’ve served us. But hindsight is 20/20.” Will and Kristen report that they parted ways with their landlord on good terms, with a handshake in the same spirit as when they started. “The context was objectively difficult on both sides, and we were all able to come through it well,” said Will, and Kristen added, “We learned a lot.”
With three seasons in Nevada County under their belts, and having built a good network of farmers in the Foothills, they caught wind of a new land opportunity. A land trust in nearby El Dorado County, the America River Conservancy, was looking for a tenant at its historic Wakamatsu Farm near Placerville. As expressed by the Conservancy, the place serves as a “community place to appreciate natural resources, sustainable agriculture, and cultural history.” It is a special place: formerly the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, the first Japanese colony in the United States, founded 150 years ago, and birthplace of the first Japanese-American citizen.
Reflecting on the transition from Nevada County to Wakamatsu Farm, Will explained that not completing a formal lease before starting the farm had downsides. It might have illuminated questions that may have challenged the idea of starting their farm. “What happened may have been the best possible solution for everybody because we were able to start a farm.” Despite the transition they kept the same farm name and maintained their customers.
With FarmLink’s support, they’ve secured a five-year, evergreen lease, which means that on each anniversary date of the lease, the term is automatically extended by one year unless, of course, either the tenant or landlord objects to the lease extension. It means that if the lease is terminated without cause, the tenant still has nearly a full term to find a new location. Kristen said, “For us to be able to plan our future for five years, ten years, and what does our farm look like in a decade? We could never have had that [before], and this actually allows us to do that, which feels huge and takes some of the pressure off this year…and allows us to think a little bigger.”
Reflecting on this past winter, Kristen said, “I did the Finding Farmland workshop with Liya Schwartzman [Central Valley Program Coordinator for FarmLink] and the National Young Farmers Coalition. And it was really illuminating because I’d had this very idealistic thing. ‘Our next move is going to be to purchase. That’s what I want to do, that’s what we’re working towards.’ And really having all of the options laid out in a room, with the land affordability calculator and the different scenarios, I was like, ‘Oh maybe we can’t actually afford it.’ I think we would’ve been able to bootstrap it, but was it realistic? It’s kind of hard to be on your own.” Will also reflected, “We just want to grow food. And turning vegetables into money is kind of ridiculous. [laughs] It’s kind of structurally made to be, and we love it for that fact, but putting a mortgage on that…I don’t think I would surprise anybody, it just changes the context.”
In their fourth year as farmers, Kristen and Will are an inspiration, and deep thinkers. Will concluded, “I think there’s a real hunger for a way to shift capital into something that’s generative. But the structural mechanisms that even just allow people to do that aren’t there. There’s beauty in having the land in a trust, and having the opportunity for individual wealth and equity-building on the land, and having the infrastructure held in common. That’s the agricultural system that we need.”