Master Farmers and Ranchers Helping Support the Next Generation

Written By: Linda Peterson
Published: July 1, 2012


By the time this story goes to press, the first group of Sonoma County Agropreneurs will have completed four of nine Beginning Farmer and Rancher Training classes. This USDA funded program, overseen by Sonoma County UCCE, will educate up to 75 new farmers and ranchers for Sonoma County (25% disadvantaged) over three years, increasing access to fresh locally produced food. We refer to these folks as new or beginning, rather than “young” because it may be their second career, and it’s the level of experience that actually determines whether one is a beginner.

A very important component of this program is connecting these aspiring agriculturalists with experienced farmers and ranchers, who we proudly refer to as “Masters”. We utilize their expertise through panel discussions, visits/tours to their operations, one on one time with those who want to specialize in their niche market, participation in on-line forum discussions, and more.

This program component really enriches the experience for the Agropreneurs, and as Program Coordinator, I set up the “intersessions” (which happen independently of class time) and tag along whenever I can. The opportunity for them to ask questions face to face; talk amongst themselves; and see these operations in action is illuminating for these novice farmers and ranchers.

So far, we’ve had outings to three different vegetable operations of varying scale, focus, value-added, markets; a fruit & berry farm plus flowers & veggies, hydroponic tomato operation, and two dairies (each with a different niche). Other scheduled opportunities will give the students a chance to learn about vegetable CSAs, cattle ranching, and season extension using hoop houses.

How does one get into a Farmers market?

In June, I joined three beginning farmers on an “intersession” outing, who wanted to learn what it takes to get into, and be successful in, farmers’ markets.

Each of these beginners comes from different backgrounds and with their own knowledge base, but all have the drive to learn and be successful.

Alina is a fourth generation member of a cattle ranching family. As is sometimes the case, the younger generation is not encouraged to go into farming because of its many challenges, and that was the case for her.

Alina tried working in an office, but realized she loved what she’d done growing up – mending fences, cleaning stalls, gardening, riding horses, and now is back, working the family land, eager to learn the right questions to ask her grandfather so he can mentor her.

To be successful at keeping the family land in agriculture, Alina knows she needs to learn both the ranching skills and how to run a viable business. She wants to add value, experiment with different crops, and is connecting with the local ag community – Farm Bureau, the Grange, Young Farmers & Ranchers, and attending workshops.

Kendra came to us already with some good experience, having worked on three farms, completed the Santa Rosa Junior College Sustainable Ag Certificate program, and experience with a major fresh produce delivery operation, which helped her understand what it takes to grow for a distributor. She’s currently taking horticulture classes at Merritt College in Oakland, while also enrolled in our program. Her goal is to make connections, nail her business plan (with targeted markets in mind) and find land to farm.

Annya has been a serious backyard food gardener for several years and now works as Culinary Gardener at John Ash’s restaurant, where she manages four gardens of fruit, vegetables and herbs.  She wants to expand her knowledge and hopes to partner with her brother-in-law on a large property available for lease. Having significant acreage would mean adding sheep, chickens and cattle to their vegetable/fruit operation. This opportunity means getting her business plan together asap!

Downtown Sonoma’s Farmers’ Market
The four of us showed up at The Epicurean Connection in downtown Sonoma to get a primer on farmers’ markets from Sheana Davis, who owns this delightful cheese shop/deli/meeting place. Davis has 20 years of experience as a chef, caterer, and is now also a cheese maker, marketer, consultant, instructor and skilled community connector.

This petite woman is a dynamo. Her energy and enthusiasm are palpable. Even though we arrived an hour early, she managed to juggle handling customers and overseeing her staff preparing for a large group, with printing out information for us on their market setup and then talking at length about key issues to consider when targeting farmers’ markets. Many beginning farmers and ranchers want to get into markets as a way to meet customers and build their businesses.

Davis shared some excellent points for success:

  • Research and visit various markets
    • Talk to our Master Farmers and Ranchers about which markets they attend and why
    • Part of research involves knowing what the costs are: city/county permits, health department. (Need to recoup that amount and then some, through sales)
  • Once you’re in a market:
    • Must be an “engaged seller”, smiling, friendly, knowledgeable about products and prices
    • Share your story!
    • Don’t undercut your retail accounts by selling cheaper at market

Lastly, Davis shared how she was able to grow her business, moving from a small shop far from walk-in traffic, to downtown Sonoma, less than a block from the plaza. Strong connections with her community and a longtime friendship and mentorship with legendary cheese maker Ig Vella have been cornerstones of Davis’ success. A group of local investors and supporters stepped up to help her financially. She appears to be on the right track.

With access to this caliber of Master Farmers & Ranchers, our Agropreneurs are learning rich and invaluable lessons that will help them to be among the success stories of the next farming and ranching generation.

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