California-based First Generation Farmers (FGF) has been working to grow and support young and aspiring farmers through training and education programs since it was founded in 2013. FGF offers farm tours and runs summer camp and after-school programs for kids, introducing its visitors to biodiverse and organic farming, composting, and sustainability. FGF operates its farm stand on a “take what you need, pay what you can” model with hopes of engaging diverse populations in conversations about the importance of locally-grown, healthy food for all.
FGF offered ad-hoc training and mentoring of individual farming apprentices in its first years, but launched a formal farmer training and incubator program in 2017. The program, called Urban Edge Sustainable Farming (UESF), will both train and nurture young farmers and their young businesses through their early development stages and beyond.
Erin Brown, FGF’s Development Director, says FGF’s intention to offer a formal training program is nothing new. “We’re passionate about supporting the next generation of farmers, and we feel we have a lot of resources to share: a big plot of fertile land that’s close to booming Bay Area markets, plus the wisdom and camaraderie of a 4th generation farming family that’s in it for the long haul.”
The program is called Urban Edge because of the farm’s proximity to changing and expanding urban markets, allowing the farm to easily tap into the increasing demand for locally- and identifiably-sourced, sustainable produce. FGF calls the challenge of urban edge farming “one of the most exciting economic opportunities in the agricultural sector today.”
In addition to training and mentorship, the UESF program, funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program (BFRDP), will provide space for aspiring farmers to hone their skills on small plots within a 550 acre parcel of protected farmland in East Contra Costa, California. FGF ultimately aims for this parcel to serve as the home to 30-50 independent farming enterprises who can benefit from shared resources as well as the established farm infrastructure, connections to markets, and ties to the region’s existing farming community.
Brown explains, “as farmers, we’ve been taking individual apprentices under our wing ever since the beginning, but UESF will enable us to have much greater impact. With BRFDP funding, which began in the fall of 2017, we’re bringing together a team of professional instructors and agriculture sector experts who can really give beginning farmers the tools they need to succeed. Plus, the program creates a space for peer-to-peer learning and knowledge sharing. The image of farming is very independent, but it’s really important to have a support network. We see UESF as a place for beginning farmers to start building these relationships.”
This residential, full-time program is open to aspiring organic specialty crop farmers, and no farming experience is required. The Year One nine-month intensive program provides beginning farmers with a close connection to traditional family farming as well as proximity to expanding urban markets.
Brown says recruitment has been a challenge. “We’ve allocated 80 percent of our budget to train aspiring farmers with limited resources and those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, but traditional media channels are not that useful for connecting with these communities.” She further explains, “You can’t just take out an ad. It requires a lot of direct outreach and building relationships with other service organizations. It’s going to take time to really get the word out about this opportunity.”
Hands-on training is integral to the UESF program. Participants, which FGF calls “beginning farmers in training” or BFTs, learn production skills, participate in classes on the fundamentals of farm business, and are guided in establishing and maintaining urban-edge farms.
The production skills range from sowing seeds to loading trucks for market to managing the greenhouse, and FGF warns of the strenuous physical work involved.
Brown says, “a lot of people have a romantic idea about farming, but they don’t realize what a huge commitment (and challenge) it is to run a farm business. We try to be really candid in the interview process, not to discourage people but to make sure they know what they’re getting into. A lot of applicants come to the realization that they want to grow vegetables as a hobby, but they’re not willing to stake their livelihood on it.”
The training program runs from February to November of 2018 (and over the same nine-month period in years to come), during which time BFTs will live and work on the FGF 13-acre organic farm plot in East Contra Costa, alongside fourth-generation family farmers who have farmed the land for more than century. The BFTs will also market produce from the plot, working within FGF’s existing channels.
As well as sustainable growing practices, the program will teach sustainable business practices, emphasizing the importance of marketing skills. BFTs will be expected to participate in and learn from the marketing of FGF produce, including pricing, customer engagement, and product presentation.
The incubator program, part two of the UESF program, is available to first-year participants desiring to continue into what FGF calls an “independent study.” Interested participants will develop business proposals for growing and selling produce from a half-acre plot they independently manage over the next calendar year, with feedback and support from FGF.
FGF is expecting about one in three first-years to continue to the incubator, but is prepared for the proportion to be higher. Brown says the “first cohort is looking like a focused, goal-oriented group,” with many members expressing interest in the incubator.
The incubator will also be open to budding farmers who didn’t go through the first year of intensive training with FGF. According to Brown, “one of the great potentials of UESF is that we have enough land to offer extended incubation space to beginning farmers who’ve gotten their core production skills elsewhere. If we can partner with other programs (whose acreage may be more limited) and position UESF as a graduate program for the folks they train, hopefully we can help a lot more farm start-ups get their footing.”
Although the final incubator design is still in development, FGF hopes to give incubator-phase participants the opportunity to grow and transition their plots into long-term leases.
Brown feels that “the character of the program will be greatly shaped by the people and organizations who connect with it.” She says FGF is “eager to collaborate with others who are invested in creating a more sustainable and just future for farmers and for our food system,” and urges potential partners and collaborators to reach out.
FGF is a female-run, non-profit organic farm, producing vegetables and cut flowers. Founder and Executive Director Alli Cecchini is the daughter of third generation asparagus farmers, and the UESF parcel sits on part of her family’s century-old farmland. Cecchini was recently featured as one of Food Tank’s 16 Young Entrepreneurs Revolutionizing Food and Farming.
Visit their website to find out more about FGF, register for a half-day farmstay, find out about community harvest days, learn more about UESF and the incubator program, or even book a camping trip.