Rains may yet head off a full-blown drought crisis in Sonoma County. But no amount of water will solve one of the toughest problems facing America’s most picturesque, productive and pricey farmland regions. That is getting new farmers access to land. Listen to the Story
It’s a late Saturday afternoon and the sky has been darkening all day, casting Sonoma County in a sheet of gray the color of cement. The sky means rain and that’s good news to the farmers here at the Sebastopol Grange Hall. California is in a drought, the worst in recorded history. Reserve ponds are drying up and the pastures are brown and barren.
Dairy farmers and ranchers are cutting into their slim profits just to feed their herds. They’re culling deep into their stocks, selling or butchering entire herds. The organic dairies worry they won’t be able to sell their milk because they can’t pasture the cows much longer. A liter of organic milk from one of nearby dairies already goes for $5. The ranchers have it even worse with the shutdown of the only USDA slaughterhouse within a three-hour radius. You can’t have grass fed beef and lamb without pasture. And now they’re feeding their herds and having to drive further to slaughter. This might be enough to make any farmer get out of the business. But these new farmers in skinny jeans and flannels were here because they wanted in. To farm they need land. And in Sonoma County that’s a big problem. With the average age of farmers now at 59, it’s a problem that reaches deep into the future of farming in America.
That’s why I have come to the Sebastopol Grange Hall, a one story sage green building on Highway 12 that runs through grasslands dotted with wooly white sheep and row after row of grapes grown for some of the country’s best known wineries. The temperature was dropping when I arrived and the wind whipped the edges of a white tent pitched outside, behind the hall. Inside the hall, a stream of women threw open their arms and lurched up to hug a man who turned out to work for the USDA, the agency that oversees our food system. Normally this would be enemy territory for the USDA. But his long blonde hair and big eyes seemed to melt resistance. “Hey! Glad to see you in the big city,” one woman said, laughing. Sebastopol is hardly a metropolis but compared to a farm, it can seem like jarringly busy.
They sipped glasses of Mission Hardware Old Sonoma Red and Highway 12 Sauvignon Blanc, named for the road that connects the town with the rest of Sonoma County. This was the annual meeting of the Farmers Guild, an organization catering to young farmers trying get started. So it wasn’t surprising that these young agriculturalists looked more like baristas in the Mission District in San Francisco than our classic image of farmers “straight white men on tractors” as one woman put it. No one showed up in dreadlocks but they wouldn’t have been out of place. A few wore cowboy boots but if there was a cowboy hat it would have been an ironic flourish. The crowd held plates piled with salad greens, pulled pork and meat-free maple sausage — all organic and local of course, from a place called the Happy Pig Farm.
Evan Wiig, the organizer of the event, was trying to round up the crowd for what he called farmer speed dating. “This is chaos,” he said, ringing a cowbell. “It’s like herding cats.” The first time I met the red-haired Wiig he was dressed in a three-piece plaid suit that looked like it came straight from the rack of a vintage store. He wore cowboy boots and a straw cowboy hat. He left the New York publishing world for a 600 acre farm where he raised chicken and now lives on the Green Valley Village cooperative. He has 17 pigs including the litter born that morning.
“I am not sure people will be reading books in five years but they’re still be eating,” he told me on a January afternoon. The sky was cornflower blue and yaks and cows bellowed in the field behind us. The breeze made the grapevines curled around the trellis above us move just slightly. Most small growers have to subsidize their earnings with a second job or marijuana he said. “Cause you ain’t eatin’ local otherwise,” he said.
Land in Sonoma County can go for tens of thousands of dollars an acre, more if a vineyard is planted there. That’s out of reach for young farmers. “The cost of land is the number one obstacle,” Ariana Areguzzoni told me. She works for California Farm Link to help new farmers get access to land and capital. Rent and housing prices skyrocketed, she said. “And that’s really spilling over to ag land.”
People who have land to sell are holding on to it because they know they’ll get more money from a developer than a farmer. Ask anyone who has lived in Sonoma County long enough and they’ll tell you land is expensive because of city slickers moving in from San Francisco or Silicon Valley. They are chasing a back to nature fantasy of owning some land and planting a few acres of grapes to make their own wine. Vineyards are “in a whole different economic bracket. They just have more access. They have more options,” Ariana said. Some of them want to show off to their friends or make a little money.
The county’s agricultural commissioner, Tony Linegar, called it a dangerous hobby because when the prices of grapes go down they give them away. There are growers who rely on their grapes to make a living. Linegar said the hobbyists don’t have bonds to the community. They pick up after a few years when they get bored or disillusioned — or both — and sell off their land — for ever more money. It’s a $14 billion industry. “There’s a lot of money involved and a lot of influence,” Linegar said.
Even families whose ties to the land goes back to the Spanish-Mexican days couldn’t buy an acre today. They call themselves land rich and cash poor. The new farmers at the Grange are mostly just poor.
Like David Cooper. He works the Oak Hill Farm in Glen Ellen, a storied piece of land profiled in the book “Field Days.” Oak Hill’s 700 acres are protected because they are of the Sonoma Land Trust. Cooper could never afford to buy into Sonoma County. “Not in this area. Not a chance,” he said. It’s so expensive someone starting out couldn’t make enough money to cover the mortgage. Paul Wirtz and Bob Cannard, two of the country’s leading organic agriculturalists probably couldn’t afford their land either if they were getting started today, he said.
Owning the land means security and not losing the value that farmers put into the soil and surroundings. But Evan, David and the others like them know that 80 percent of the nation’s land is held by non-farming landlords. If you’re getting started you rent. But just getting capital to start is an uphill battle. “It’s not worth your time to talk to a bank,” a red-haired former software executive said. There are option, like Slow Money and Farm Link.
It seems like a pretty hopeless picture and land prices are troubling, which is why they’re playing a game of speed dating, after all. Yet these are some of the most optimistic people I’ve ever met. Farmers like Andrea Davis-Cetina.
She grows organic vegetables and popcorn on her Quarter Acre Farm in the Sonoma Valley. She studied agriculture at Hampshire College and started her own farm “because no one else would hire me.” Six seasons later she has expanded to three-quarters of an acre. She’s optimistic but said part of the problem is the lack of connection shoppers have with farmers. Fewer than 2 percent of Americans farm. “So it’s understandable people don’t know what a farmer looks like because they don’t know one,” she said. But to make the local food movement work shoppers need to shop from one, Andrea said. “No middle man” she said. “Get to know your farmer,” David added. They turned and walked back in side. A few minutes later the sky opened up and raindrops pinged off the cars like tin bullets.
It was a welcome sound.