News from the Farm | October 27, 2014

I had the honor this week to serve on a University of California Cooperative Extension hiring committee.  Cooperative Extension plays an important role in fostering the university’s applied research for the direct benefit of agriculture.  Cooperative Extension dates back 100 years as a federally mandated agricultural extension service administered through individual state land grant colleges and universities.  Coop Extension, in one capacity or another serves every county and every state in the country.  With a mandate to address the practical needs of agriculture, extension agents or advisors are essentially university field agents providing scientific information for the needs of agriculture.  Small farmers in our area, with our distinct issues have been under-recognized and underserved. 

I am thrilled to report that for the first time ever, a Small Farms Advisor will serve Yolo, Solano and Sacramento Counties.  Forty-seven candidates from more than 4 countries, 10 states and territories and numerous parts of California applied for this position. We interviewed 6 highly qualified individuals with advanced academic backgrounds, extensive small farming experience, and proficient outreach skills, intent on finding someone to fit a very broad and demanding list of qualifications. As is much the case in farming, this person must be a “Jack/Jane of all trades”, fielding a wide spectrum of small farming issues: agronomic, horticultural, entomological, business, marketing, etc. Unlike most extension posts, which are specialist positions, the small farm advisor wears more of an umbrella than a hat. 

This extension position could be a remarkable asset for agriculture here in our region, as well for the community at large. Given the demographics of Yolo County, as a significant and diverse farming community, you might assume that small farm issues would be part of university and government nomenclature and discussion. This unfortunately, has not been the case. That is why the hiring of an advisor to address the unique and particular issues of small farmers has not only important pragmatic implications, but also signals a broader acknowledgement of the value of small farms in the agricultural landscape.

As a Full Belly Farm CSA member, you know intimately – one bite after another – that small farms don’t just exist on the periphery. Because of your direct relationship with our farm you know first hand the significance role that small farms play both in terms of production and socio-economics.  As a group, you folks are way ahead of the curve, especially ahead of university, government and institutional thought, which has for many years been committed to industrial efficiency with little regard for diversity of scale. Think agribusiness – the box stores of farming. 

The refreshing backlash is that with all the great steps forward that we have made in agriculture – namely an infrastructure of abundance and access – we are coming to recognize that these improvements have not come without critical personal, environmental, and cultural consequences. Yes, the pendulum does swing both ways and this is at the heart of the ongoing  “reinvention” of farming. The very good news is that step-by-step, small farms are finding stronger and more secure footholds and becoming less marginalized in the agricultural landscape. Think “local food” and how every supermarket across America boasts that moniker.  Green washing aside, small farms are at the very least part of the conversation again.

After sitting through 2 full days of interviews with the “best and the brightest”, I take stock that agriculture is truly dynamic and that the future has a lot of wiggle room. I am pretty optimistic that some of that room will include diversifying and strengthening small farms in our urban, peri-urban and rural communities. With that development there will be a better understanding of how food is produced. Because of proximity and transparency, small farms are a vital part of a healthy agricultural sector.

–Andrew Brait