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.

Image courtesy of Laura Petersen Media

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