A version of this blog post first appeared here on the San Diego Food Systems Alliance’s ‘News’ blog on April 9th, 2016.
By Colin Cureton, CHIP Food Systems Director, SDFSA Member
San Diego County has more small farms than any other county in the country, over 400 organic farms, and has the 12th largest farm economy of any U.S. County, which produces over $5 billion annually. So farming here must be a breeze, right? Wrong. From high land prices to continued development pressure to the drought to an extremely competitive market, keeping a farm afloat in San Diego County (much less making a decent living) is as hard as ever. These are just a few of the reasons why San Diego County lost almost 1,000 farms between 2007 and 2012 and why the average age of farmers continues to climb (it’s now nearly 60 across the U.S.).
Part of growing the good food movement is supporting our local and regional food producers. That means sustaining farmers already on the land as well as helping the next generation of farmers succeed. And indeed, against all odds, a brave group of new and young farmers is emerging across the country, including in San Diego County. Who are these new farmers? What challenges do they face? How can the good food movement support them?
In Spring of 2015, the San Diego Food Systems Alliance’s (SDFSA’s) Reducing Barriers to Farming Workgroup conducted a needs assessment of new and young farmers in San Diego County to answer exactly these questions. Data was gathered in person at several farmer mixer events at the Leichtag Ranch in Encinitas, CA and through an online survey. We received 80 usable responses from new and young farmers. For anyone who’s ever tried to survey busy farmers, you know that response rate is not bad!
As intended, respondents were young relative to the average U.S. farmer: 85% of respondents were under age 40 and 95% were under age 50. Most but not all are farming in San Diego County or Southern California. Almost 90% have less than 5 years of experience farming, with about a quarter (23%) in their first year. The most frequent growing practices cited were organic but not certified (71%), then certified organic (13%), then conventional (10%). Notably, and more on this later, over half (56%) of respondents were female.
What overarching trends emerged from the results? Of particular interest to SDFSA’s work group are the top barriers that these farmers face. The top cited barriers cited included access to affordable land (68%), access to credit and capital (48%), and business and marketing skills (32%). The top support strategies included farming mentors (65%), farm organizations and networks (51%), and beginning farmer training programs (46%). Also, a full 70% of respondents want support with business planning. Over half (52%) of respondents have no business plan.
As you might expect, barriers vary by the respondents’ years of experience. For example, new farmers (<1 and 1-5 years) are more likely to cite access to affordable land (76% and 50%, respectively) as a top barrier but this disappears in this sample with more experienced farmers (>10 years). Conversely, student loans don’t emerge as an issue until farmers reach >5 years of experience. Notably, access to credit and capital is an issue for farmers regardless of experience.
Returning to the gender breakdown, why is it an important result that over half (56%) of new/young farmers surveyed are women? Well, because nationally (according to the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture) only 13.5% of principal farm operators (PFO’s) are women. In California it’s 18% and in San Diego County it’s a little higher (19%). Furthermore, according to the USDA, between 2007 and 2012 the percentage of female PFO’s went down (6%). Even if many of the women farmers in our sample are not PFO’s, our sample suggests that there are many more women going into farming in San Diego County compared to State and national trends. This data matches local farmer training programs like Wild Willow and Seeds@City Farm, who tell us their incoming cohorts are increasingly female dominated. Either we have an extremely biased sample, or the future of farming may look very different gender-wise in San Diego County.
Moreover, there are some key differences among respondents when examined by gender. First and foremost is a difference in land and business ownership: 55% of male respondents own a farm business compared to only 38% of females, and 29% of male respondents own land compared to 18% of females. Mirroring this trend, 53% of women respondents work on someone else’s farm compared to 35% of male respondents. Furthermore, while the breakdown of barriers cited are roughly similar by gender, there are differences by gender in preferred support strategies. More specifically, females cited farm apprenticeships, farming organizations and networks, and farming mentors as effective support strategies at a higher rate compared to males.
SDFSA’s new and young farmer needs assessments results have provided all this and lots more useful information, and SDFSA members and partners are already using these results to take a data-driven approach to supporting the next generation of farmers. Stay tuned for SDFSA events and resources to reduce barriers to farming in San Diego County!
Survey was designed and implemented by SDFSA Reducing Barriers to Farming Workgroup including Leichtag Foundation, San Diego County Farm Bureau, Community Health Improvement Partners (CHIP), SDFSA staff, and SDFSA member and new farmer Laurel Greyson, and more. Survey design and analysis was led by Colin Cureton, CHIP Food Systems Director.