January 7 - Sonoma Press Democrat: RPCV Steve Schwartz founded Farmlink to help save family farms

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By Admin1 (admin) on Wednesday, January 09, 2002 - 10:25 am: Edit Post

RPCV Steve Schwartz founded Farmlink to help save family farms

Read and comment ont his story about RPCV Steve Schwatz and his organization, Farmlink, that is helping save family farms in California at:


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Jan 7, 2002 - Press Democrat Author(s): Tim Tesconi The Press Democrat

Melissa Larson yearns to be a farmer and hopes to be on her own land this spring growing butter lettuce and broccoli.

The 29-year-old woman, who previously farmed in Oregon, is working part-time on a fruit farm in Sonoma County while developing a business plan so she can buy a small farm on the North Coast.

"Most people think I'm crazy because farming is such hard work and so financially risky," Larson said. "But they don't understand that it's my passion to dig in the soil and grow good food."

While Larson is versed in growing organic vegetables, she's a novice when it comes to writing farm business plans and maneuvering in the world of finance. She's more comfortable with compost than computers.

That's where FarmLink comes in.

California FarmLink, a Sonoma County-based organization, tries to find retiring farmers and put them with newcomers like Larson.

"Our first priority is getting young people on the land to keep farms viable so we can continue California's agricultural heritage," said Steve Schwartz, 36, the founder and executive director of California FarmLink.

The most recent figures from the U.S. agricultural census show that the farm population is aging and there are fewer younger farmers taking their place.

The number of California farmers aged 34 and younger decreased 51 percent between 1987 and 1997. Statistics for the same period show 29 percent of the state's farmers are over the age of 65.

FarmLink, a nonprofit founded in 1998, hopes farmers will sell or lease their farm land to others when they're ready to retire.

So far FarmLink has facilitated 10 successful matches in farming areas throughout California and is working on several dozen more projects, Schwartz said.

No such luck yet for Larson. But the group is assisting her as she goes through the process of finding and buying a farm of her own.

FarmLink hired an agricultural management professional to help Larson develop a farm business plan that she can present to lenders. A strong business plan is essential because Larson is a single woman and self-employed farmer -- factors raising concerns on loan applications.

But she has the desire, money for a down payment and several years of farming experience.

Larson said land prices are high in Sonoma County so she is looking north to Mendocino County to buy property. She is working with a real estate agent to find a 10-acre farm, preferably in the $250,000 price range.

"I plan to intensively farm five acres of fruit and vegetables, but I would need a total of 10 acres to sustain a crop rotation plan," Larson said. She plans to sell her produce at farmers markets and directly to people in the community.

Schwartz said the challenges faced by Larson are typical of other young people trying to break into farming. He founded California FarmLink as a way to ease the transition of farmland stewardship through direct sale, leasing or share-cropping.

"The farm population is aging which means a significant change in farm ownership and management in the years ahead," said Schwartz, who grew up in San Diego and served in the Peace Corps.

After earning degrees in economics and public administration, he decided to focus his energy on saving the state's dwindling stock of farmland by founding California FarmLink.

California FarmLink is fashioned after organizations in 20 other states that assist in the transition of farms from one generation to the next.

Schwartz said 28 percent of Sonoma County's farmers are 65 years and older.

"Many of those older Sonoma County farmers are on farms that have been in their family for two or three generations. They would like to see the land stay in production of agriculture," Schwartz said. "There may be ways we can help them do that."

The agricultural census shows that as Sonoma County farmers retire or go out of business not all of them are being replaced. The number of farmers in Sonoma County declined by 9 percent between 1987 and 1997, going from 3,039 to 2,745.

The high cost of land in Sonoma County and the low returns for most agricultural crops makes it nearly impossible for beginning farmers to get started.

That's why Schwartz is looking at alternative ways to get young farmers on the land. He is now working with the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District to lease public land -- forever protected from urban development -- to farmers for agricultural production.

Schwartz also hopes to link beginning farmers with the wealthy people who buy a Sonoma County apple orchard, cattle ranch or other farm property. While the owners may not want to farm it themselves, they might allow a tenant farmer to tend the apple trees or produce speciality crops for up-scale restaurants.

FarmLink continues to build a database of people who want to get into farming and farmers who want to get out.

In addition to linking retiring and beginning farmers, FarmLink offers free information and technical assistance about estate planning, conservation easements and other techniques to keep land in agriculture.

"We do everything we can to keep farmers on the land and land in agriculture," said Schwartz.

You can reach Staff Writer Tim Tesconi at 521-5289 or ttesconi@pressdemocrat.com.

Visit the Farmlink web site at Farmlink

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