For generations, farmers and ranchers have been producing local food and fiber for the residents of Sonoma County and beyond. Farmers and ranchers are the heart and soul of this county, which is recognized by the first word on the County Seal, “agriculture.” Care of the land and animals has been passed down from one generation to another and that is still true today. Unfortunately, 165 years after the creation of the County Seal, our long-time farmers and ranchers are no longer held in such high esteem and their importance as food producers has been lost. The focus now seems to be on small-scale producers, who also have a place in the local food system, but, by themselves, cannot support a growing population, especially those who are hungry.
There is a “growing issue” in Sonoma County that local farmers and ranchers can take leadership to solve, and that’s hunger. Hunger exists in Sonoma County, though it may not always be evident. Many Sonoma County residents are food insecure, meaning they don’t know where their next meal will come from, and that number continues to rise. Some of us may have a hard time picturing this because we’ve neither experienced nor witnessed it. In Sonoma County, 64,790 people, or 13.4 percent of the population, struggle with hunger. In our county, three out of 20 people are food insecure.
The good news is that there are people and organizations making a difference in the fight against hunger. The California Association of Food Banks (CAFB) has a “Farm to Family” program that encourages producers to donate and/or sell excess produce to them. That produce is then distributed to participating food banks in California. “Shared Harvest” is a similar program in Yolo County that also partners with local farmers and producers. The program allows farmers to donate annual proceeds from a portion (one acre) of their land to the Yolo County Food Bank. In 2012, Karen DeWitt, a member of the “Farm to Family” program as well as a representative from the California
Association of Food Banks Director, said, “Sadly, growers often receive national media attention only when a negative event occurs. We are committed to helping the general public develop a better understanding of the role that generous growers play in feeding people in need in our country.”
In Sonoma County, The Redwood Empire Food Bank (REFB) helps feed over 82,000 residents: 34,000 children, 11,800 seniors and 13,500 working families each month. Sonoma County farmers and ranchers have the opportunity to work with the REFB to help provide local food and address the growing hunger problem. When it became apparent that it was difficult for REFB to procure enough protein, the Sonoma-Marin Cattlemen initiated a beef donation program called “Range to Table” in partnership with the REFB, Oak Ridge Angus, Bear Republic Brewing Company, Golden Gate Meat Company, Inc., Bud’s Custom Meats, Marin Sun Farms and Redwood Meats. Because of this program, thousands of pounds of beef have been donated to lower income families through the REFB. Emma Briggs, one ofSonoma County Farm Bureau’s scholarship recipients, donated two beef animals to the program. This program was implemented with little effort but has made a big impact. As a local agricultural community, we need to build on this momentum and create our own local food donation program provided by the farmers and ranchers who have made Sonoma County the heritage food producing county it has been for over 150 years.
University of California Cooperative Extension, Sonoma County, (UCCE) encourages Sonoma County farmers and ranchers to create “Give a Crop” or “Grow a Row” programs, inviting more Sonoma County fruit, vegetable, dairy and poultry producers to donate extra product to the REFB; thus providing local, healthy food to our food insecure and hungry neighbors. This program can create an opportunity for producers to demonstrate the true spirit of the local agriculture community to all Sonoma County residents. What a perfect time to give back to our community with the holiday season approaching.
The second opportunity UCCE gives our long-time agriculture producers is to become a mentor for the next generation of farmers and ranchers. Emerging beginning farmers and ranchers, and newly established ones, need the experience and training that experienced farmers and ranchers can provide. UCCE recently finished a three-year “Beginning Farmer and Rancher” program, and it became evident that these inspired individuals would greatly benefit from the knowledge and skills that our local agriculture base has the ability to provide.
Mentoring is an essential component for the development of new farmers and ranchers for the next generation as well as rejuvenating the aging farming population in the U.S. The most authentic mentor model is the generational transition that happens with families already farming and ranching. According to recent data, however, family farms evolve into the second generation at a rate of only 30 percent. This leaves a widespread need for new farmers and ranchers who have not been raised in an agricultural environment. A sound mentorship model must be developed for this need; one that explores not only traditional agriculture, but added value such as agricultural tourism, cheese, ciders, salsas, preserves, etc.
We must transfer the wealth of knowledge of established farmers and ranchers to the next generation before it is lost. New farmers and ranchers, not raised on the farm, must learn farming skills in other ways. That said, they are creative and seeking new enterprise pathways in addition to traditional or heritage products as well. Connections need to be made between aspiring beginning agriculturists and established ones.
UCCE, working with Farm Bureau, plans to create a mentor and internship continuum model building on the knowledge of our local established farmers and ranchers. It will be a model in which they can share their knowledge of fruit, vegetables, and livestock, along with value-added enterprises such as cheese, butter, preserves, fiber, art, and agricultural and ecotourism. We’re looking for “a few good mentors,” so if you’re interested, please let Stephanie Larson know.
Participation in either of these programs can leave an agricultural legacy for generations to come. And wouldn’t it be a wonderful legacy if new farmers and ranchers were instilled with values that motivated them to donate agriculture products to a local food bank? It would be all about giving, whether it’s providing your agriculture products to the needy or your experience to an aspiring young farmer or rancher, who in turn, can give their agriculture products when their skills are honed. You can be assured that your efforts will be noticed, appreciated and remembered for the next 150 years of agriculture. And maybe, just maybe, we could make a big dent in our ability to feed the hungry, at least in Sonoma County.
For more information on developing a local food donation program or mentorships, please contact Stephanie Larson at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 707-565-2621.