Small farmers discover the hands-on secret to success at farm academy

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California Farm Academy
A farmer shares his love of the land with his young son. Photos: Kristi Garrett 

The small, niche farm is not dead, thanks to an innovative training program for newbie and would-be growers at the Center for Land-Based Learning. The California Farm Academy is a seven-month program that provides an intensive overview of what it takes to succeed as a small farmer. It’s held part time at the Center’s farm on Putah Creek Road in Winters, a small town in the agricultural heart of Yolo County in Northern California.

Immediate success

Having grown up on a large farm in Oregon, Jason Cuff thought there was no point trying to farm anything less than 1,000 acres. “I thought small farms were not possible, that they couldn’t exist because they couldn’t make money,” he said. So he made a career as a special education teacher.

But after moving to California Cuff noticed that some were actually making a living from their small farms, and that started the wheels turning. He heard about the farm academy and joined the 2013 program. “Everything changed as soon as I got in the farm academy,” he says enthusiastically.

Within a couple of weeks he was visiting farms and meeting small farmers. “They were successful, they were happy, and they loved what they were doing. They introduced me to a whole world of small farming that I didn’t know existed,” he says. “The whole experience totally changed my life.”

The academy taught Cuff how to make connections with other farmers and built his confidence. He jumped in with both feet, working a small plot of land, immersing himself in the business of specialty farming. Before the program was over Cuff had quit his job and was a full-time farmer.

With the support of the academy’s incubator program, Cuff started Hearty Fork Farm in Winters with fellow graduate Glen Baldwin. The farm currently sells at local farmers markets and contributes to others’ CSAs. Cuff says they plan to expand production to eight acres next year.

A comprehensive overview

Over 30 weeks from February to September, students gather at the model farm to learn and practice basic crop planning and production, soil science, pest management, irrigation methods and other field and greenhouse work. They even learn to drive a tractor.

But that’s not all. The academy also spends considerable time on the business aspects of running a small farm successfully: writing a business plan, obtaining financing, risk management, record-keeping, food safety, and even decision-making and problem-solving.

Visits to regional farms are a regular part of the curriculum. Classes visit some organic farms, whether certified or not, as well as conventional farms, to learn different ways of farming. “Each individual decides how they want to farm,” says academy director Jennifer Taylor.

Certainly no one can learn everything about farming in seven months, but that’s the beauty of the California Farm Academy program.

The curriculum is designed to provide, as the academy says on its website, “the next generation of motivated, hard-working farm entrepreneurs” with the support and connections they need to contribute to the $20 billion specialty crop industry.

David Kaisel, a 2014 academy graduate, is focused on bringing heirloom grains back to the valley. Wheat varieties like Sonora White, brought to California by Spaniards before the Gold Rush, is rarely grown. Yet, it’s ideally suited to the state because of its drought tolerance and disease resistance. Its glutinous flour is prized by bakers and is great for making large tortillas. Which makes perfect sense, since historically the wheat was grown in the Sonoran desert where burritos and chimichangas are popular dishes.

“I want to bring back the grain culture to California,” says Kaisel, who points out that the state used to be the largest exporter of wheat in the country until about the Second World War.

Sustaining the farm community

Recent academy graduates can’t say enough about the value of connecting with other more experienced farmers.

“The community building aspect of it is incredibly important,” says Kaisel, who lives in the Capay Valley. “I’ve found the farmers to be very supportive of new farmers.”

Apply now for 2015

The academy is accepting applications now for the 2015 term, which begins February 10 and runs through September 17. Classes are small, with only about 20 students, to maximize the time and attention each gets from instructors and other agricultural professionals. Additionally, each student is assigned a section of the farm’s one-acre plot where they’ll practice what they learn.

The program will accept applications until the first day of class, if all the spots aren’t filled. Some financial assistance is available, says Taylor, so no enthusiastic future farmer should be dissuaded because of money. The 30-week program costs $3,300, which covers about half the cost of the program. Sponsors and supporters help cover the rest.

Learn more about the Center for Land-Based Learning and its mission to create the next generation of farmers at landbasedlearning.org.

Kristi Garrett

Kristi Garrett is the Publisher, Editor and Chief Veggie Enthusiast of Little Green Wheelbarrow. After 16 years in journalism and corporate communications, she figures it's time to get some dirt under her nails.

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