Gaining a Comprehensive Idea of What Being a Farmer Is Like: An Interview with Jennifer Taylor of the Center for Land-Based Learning
In our final interview with the directors of programming for the Center for Land-Based Learning, Jennifer Taylor introduces us to the California Farm Academy (CFA). Working with aspiring farmers, CFA trains, mentors, and certifies new farmers interested in agricultural production, business planning, and marketing of specialty crops.
An introduction from Jennifer Taylor
I arrived to the Davis area in June 2011, having most recently been co-director of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, a program of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There I worked with students who were often young people (high school graduates) who had grown up in farming and were there to receive certification in business planning, pasture-based farming, and nutrition, reproduction, and agronomy. But we also had an increasing number of older students, and folks who did not grow up on a farm. I coordinated the WSBDF for eight years, having actually gone through the program its very first year in 1995 while I was a graduate student in Dairy Science. My undergraduate degree was in biology and I spent several years working in laboratories before discovering agriculture. After finishing the WSBDF program I farmed in rural Wisconsin, first as an intern and then with another farm family -- then on my own small pasture-based Jersey cow dairy farm. So, I'm very familiar with the journey into farming from personal experience and from hundreds of students' situations, and the various challenges and opportunities that arise along the way. This knowledge makes me both empathetic toward and passionate about helping other beginning farmers get into and succeed in farming!
Edible Schoolyard Project: How did this program come about?
Jennifer Taylor: California Farm Academy (CFA) started as a result of Mary Kimball writing and receiving a three-year grant from the California Department of Food and Agriculture to hold a beginning farmer training and incubator program. She and Craig McNamara, the land owner and founder of Center for Land-Based Learning (CLBL), saw the need to help get more farmers into agriculture at a time when the average age of farmers and ranchers in the state (and across the nation) is approaching 60 years old. Craig and CLBL had already leased land to a beginning farmer, Toby Hastings, to grow diversified mixed vegetables and fruits. Seeing this young man from Davis become successful at direct marketing to restaurants and a small CSA no doubt inspired them to expand their efforts and bring in other would-be farmers. CLBL hired me in May 2011 to put together and direct the program.
ESYP: Do participants receive a certificate upon completion of the program?
JT: Yes, students who finish the program receive a certificate if they have met the requirements of attendance, participation, and completion of assignments.
ESYP: How is the program structured?
JT: Currently, the first session of the CFA meets for 24 weeks total, in three eight-week terms from February 2012 through August 2012. Classes are held Tuesday and Thursday evenings from 4:30-7:30 pm and Saturday afternoons from 1-4 pm. We have about 1/3 classroom time, 1/3 hands on activities and field work, and 1/3 field trips to farms and other sites. Qualified graduates of the program may then participate in our incubator program and lease land from us in 1/4 acre to one acre parcels (depending on availability and their crop and business plans).
ESYP: What are you looking for in the applicants selected to participate?
JT: A strong desire to farm, clearly stated goals and/or steps in that direction, and preferably at least a year of farming or growing experience of some kind. Some students have apprenticed on farms, others grew up in and around agriculture but pursued other careers, and some are urban residents who have done considerable gardening and wish to expand to community gardens aurban or rural farms.
ESYP: How is the program funded and are there improvements that you wish to make to the program?
JT: Through the California Department of Food and Agriculture grant mentioned above, tuition paid by students (currently we charge $1950 for 24 weeks), some donations by individuals -- and recently from the Columbia Foundation. Since we are only halfway through our first session we are still talking about what changes we might like to make to CFA in the future. We are likely to make a few modifications and offer the second session starting early in 2013.
ESYP: How do you measure success?
JT: First and foremost: whether our students/graduates pursue agricultural careers after the program and especially start, manage, and/or work on farms and ranches. Over the years we will follow our alumni and their longevity and success in farming, as measured by profitability, staying power, and/or contribution to their communities. As a program, other measures include number and type of applicants, their evaluation of the usefulness of the program, partnerships with other organizations, farmers and agencies (we currently have many, including an advisory committee of over 25 people), and the ability to raise money and keep the program going.
ESYP: What is the typical trajectory of a graduate? Do they successfully become farmers?
JT: Remains to be seen.
ESYP: How does the farmland lease work at Russell Ranch? What is the objective behind having graduates lease instead of own?
JT: In addition to five acres for lease here at CLBL/Sierra Orchards, the incubator program has three acres of certified organic land for lease at the Russell Ranch site. The students will essentially be subletting from us, as CLBL has a contract with UC Davis for the land and assistance by Russell Ranch staff. Often leasing is an important first step in getting into farming since land prices are very high. A beginning farmer is better off making investments in start-up supplies, seed, equipment, and irrigation than sinking a lot of money (if they even have that capacity) into the purchase of land. Also, accruing debt, especially too much too early, can be a big problem for beginning farmers who are still learning their trade, unsure of expenses and income, and need cash flow in order to keep the business going.
ESYP: What do you find is the greatest value of land-based learning?
JT: A lot of learning to farm or ranch comes by experience and hands-on learning. For the students who work in our field -- we have a 1/2 acre plot set up and managed by CFA in which the students learn the basics of row vegetable crop production by receiving in field instruction and then doing the work -- plant growth, irrigation, pest management, and harvest techniques are important for their education. The lectures from guest speakers who are experts in these and many other subjects give them some of the scientific background to what they experience in our plot and at other farms. Farming is a science, an art and a craft, and while it takes many years to become proficient and know how to handle the myriad problems and challenges that arise, we hope our approach gives students a pretty comprehensive idea of what being a farmer is like and a network of resources and people to whom they can turn for answers and support once they finish the program.