Wine and Water Watch Team

New Farmers Big Challenge: finding land

Food security in wine regions should be a top priority. This article suggest it is the homeowners that are pushing out young farmers but here in Sonoma, Napa, Lake and Mendocino counties it is the wine and the new emerging cannabis industry. Tourism also has huge impacts on local business and vacation rentals drive up prices for locals vs. investors. 

No more vineyards until food security is addressed. In Sonoma County,  GoLocal did a study and found 96{5fc40a96f14c4a6aa4c2a32569b0a57dcc67c0b31eb04c341474283f11b6cdd2} of food is imported. Don’t call us an agriculture county, we grow alcohol.    

New Farmers Big Challenge: finding land

by Jonathan Kauffman

Gillyflower Farm in Capay (Yolo County) is so new that owner Laura Reynolds has no tractors, employees or spare cash. By late fall, she has only planted one-third of her 1-acre plot. On harvest day for her weekly customer deliveries, which focus on greens and salad-friendly vegetables, she cools the produce in a generator-powered freezer that she unplugs before ice crystals form.

The recent UC Davis grad and longtime farm intern does have good land, though, and the ear of her landlord, Sherri Wood, when problems arise. That’s because Wood is building her house a few hundred feet away.

Reynolds is not alone in farming land in, essentially, someone else’s yard — particularly in this state. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s August 2017 Land Values Summary, the average price per acre of farmland in California was $8,700, among the highest in the country. Just as significant, land prices here rose 10.1 percent over the past year, faster than any other state.

“Land access is one of the most difficult issues that young farmers face across the country,” said Lindsey Lusher Shute, executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition.

Homeowners are outcompeting farmers for rural land. At the same time, many of the newest generation of aspiring farmers don’t come from farming families who offer the prospect of one day taking over their parents’ fields. These two intersecting shifts in the profession are leading new farmers in Northern California to lease land from owners who live on the property.

The advantage of this arrangement is that new farmers can spend their scant income on essential equipment, and their landlords have someone to manage their large tracts of land, sometimes gaining fresh produce as a bonus.

But renting farmland from homeowners can be a tenuous existence: Without careful negotiation and realistic expectations on both sides, novices can find themselves bouncing around, struggling to make a profit.

The 2012 National Resources Inventory found that between 1982 and 2012, 1.84 million acres of agricultural land in California was converted to residential use. As the sale of Star Route Farms, Warren Weber’s 100-acre plot in Bolinas to the University of San Francisco for $10.4 million in August, demonstrated, some once-agricultural areas of Northern California have almost become too valuable to farm.

As farms flow out of Northern California’s more rural areas, they are being replaced by homeowners.

One of them is Wood. After the longtime San Franciscan’s husband died and she left her job in banking, she asked herself, “What do I want to do with my life with the time I have left?” The question brought her to Capay, where she bought 27 acres of farmland in 2016. She commissioned plans for a house and tore out 600 neglected and diseased almond trees.

Her aim wasn’t only to better see the surrounding hills from the kitchen window. “It’s a beautiful piece of property that needs to be farmed,” she said. County pesticide records showed no chemicals had been applied to the trees for years, so she quickly obtained organic certification. Wood replanted 3 acres with lavender, and has begun looking for tenants for the remaining 20. She named the project Patchwork Farm.

She found her first tenant, Reynolds, through California FarmLink, an organization that helps older farmers plan for retirement and assists beginning farmers with sustainability-minded practices to find land and capital, even negotiating leases. A recent graduate of UC Davis’ International Agricultural Development program, the 29-year-old Reynolds has interned on farms for five years. “I knew that I wanted to start a farm, but I also know that I change my mind sometimes,” Reynolds said. The challenge: finding a parcel tiny enough to get her going.

A Craigslist post first put Reynolds in contact with another homeowner. He wanted her to text every time she entered the property, but it would be free. The morning she planned to move her equipment onto the land, he called the deal off.

Talk to farmers who rent residential plots of land, and you hear similar stories. Some homeowners find their bucolic fantasies of country living don’t match up with the tractor dust, ragged-looking fields and exposed equipment of a real, working farm.

Across the country, 39 percent of all farmland is rented, the USDA reports, a figure that has remained relatively unchanged since the 1960s. Within those figures, 44 percent of small family farms rent some land to expand their operations, and that percentage rises as the size of the farm does. Farmland costs are high; rental prices for agricultural land, though, can be “pretty minor,” according to Farmlink’s Schwartzman.

What is new, though, Schwartzman added, is the blending of residential and agricultural. And rural homeowners do not always make stable landlords. Ryan Abelson, owner of Pajaro Pastures, raises chickens, goats, rabbits and occasionally pigs on pasture outside Soquel (Santa Cruz County), selling both meat and chicken eggs. He has spent six years bouncing from rental property to rental property.

Abelson says he has been forced off properties he was renting due to reasons that were as unconventional as the plots themselves: neighbors complaining about his dogs barking at night; a landowner who locked Abelson out in the hopes of taking over his business. “It’s just a nomadic lifestyle I’ve come to accept,” he said. He recently signed a 2½-year lease on 12 acres. “That’s more stability than I’ve had since I’ve started.” 

Reynolds finally spotted Wood’s listing on Farmlink. The organization helped the two negotiate needs most homeowners and beginning farmers might not think about, such as water access and space in a barn to store her equipment.

Much of the farmland for rent, too, comes in parcels too large for a new business to take on. “It is harder to find small properties,” says Juan Vergara, whose 4-year-old J & F Farms grows organic herbs in Watsonville. That’s why residential land offers so much promise for new enterprises like his.

Vergara struggled to find fields with less than 10 acres until he was able to locate 6 acres of organic land on a property whose owner rents out the house on-site to other tenants. The site has its challenges — Vergara has to pay city prices for water — but he’s also closer to urban markets, too. He has a year-to-year lease, but feels confident enough in the relationship to plant acres of perennial rosemary and thyme bushes.

Not all homeowner-farmer agreements are so short-term.

Chris Hay founded Say Hay Farms with his mother in 2010, raising both chickens and more than 70 varieties of fruits and vegetables. Like many farmers, he has found that diversification isn’t enough to be profitable: Scale is key. But he hasn’t had the capital to invest in land and convert it to organic. His most stable rental has been 20 acres in Capay Valley, a few miles south of Wood’s property, which he has had to farm as intensively as possible.

In 2015, though, he began negotiating with Pat Meade and her husband, Jon Robbins, who had been living on 50 acres since 1987. The two former pilots and airplane engineers, now in their mid-60s, purchased the site because it had an airstrip, but have built several houses on-site and rented out 30 acres to farmers. Meade was looking to transition the land to organic, and approached Hay, who had rented a half-acre orange orchard from her since 2013.

The two parties liked each other. They felt like their goals were in sync enough to sign a 34-year-lease. Yet the negotiations, aided in part by FarmLink, took 16 months.

It required considerable financial investment on both sides. The landowners needed to fallow their property, forgoing income from previous tenants or Hay, for several years to certify it as organic. Hay needed to pay $150,000 for a well to be drilled and $80,000 to renovate a barn, not to mention buying extra equipment. “It was the start of a relationship in which our landlords aren’t financial partners but are invested in what we do,” Hay said.

“Our philosophy has always been, we’re not trying to maximize every penny,” Meade said. “If we can make this financially work for us, doing what we thought was the best and most sustainable thing, it happened to work.”

The lease agreement also gives Hay the option to purchase the land at some point from the couple, who do not have children. “Having the conversation ‘So, when you die …’ — you have to have a rapport with someone to just go there,” Hay said.

Hay’s mother now lives on the property. Her horses graze with Meade’s alpacas. The long lease has given Hay the confidence to plant a larger citrus orchard, which won’t pay for itself for eight or nine years. The older couple pitch in on Say Hay Farms from time to time. They see each other every day.

“It’s not a commune, but we realize it’s like an extended family relationship,” Hay said. “We’re fortunate to have met them.”

Jonathan Kauffman is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @jonkauffman