The Greying of California Farming: Success and Succession


As farmer’s markets explode all over California and people start to view food as a form of medicine, family farms are emerging as the backbone of a blossoming “shop local” movement and the desire to reconnect with both neighbors and nature.

Yet an aging California population also means that older adult farmers – “agrarian elders” – are retiring at a record rate and taking decades of irreplaceable wisdom with them.

A California farming organization is now on a mission to help keep these small farms in the hands of family members or trusted employees to retain this important heritage.

For the past 15 years, California FarmLink has been fostering farm succession using a team of advisors around the state and “toolkits” to help with the process.

“There are a lot of farmers out there who do not have heirs,” says Reggie Knox, who heads the Santa Cruz-based organization as it focuses its succession efforts on those farmers who will be retiring in the next 10 years.

Only about one-quarter of farm successions are passed along to a family member.

The national statistics for aging farmers are staggering. The average age of the American farmer increased from 58 to 60 between 2007 and 2012. Of these agrarian elders, 70% will retire in the next 20 years. And there are demographic challenges to succession: there are 10 farmers over 65 for every one under 35.

California ranks fifth nationally in oldest farmers.

The barriers to family farm succession are extreme. Besides the economic stresses of estate taxes, managing debt load and building equity, there are also the problematic family issues of trust, communication, vision and technology: new owners often want to overthrow convention and cut their own path.

Mike Naylor, owner of Naylor Organics in Dinuba just south of Fresno, said neither one of his two sons wanted to take over the family farm, which grows stone fruits like peaches and plums. Instead, he leased half of his land to a commercial enterprise, and the other half to a woman who has helped Naylor sell his produce at local farmer’s markets.

Yet Naylor’s story isn’t necessarily typical.

“Every succession story is completely different,” says Knox.

A “fertility agreement” might seem like a contract from a baby clinic. But it’s precisely what Jennifer Branham signed when she took ownership of the 25-acre Laguna Farm in Sebastopol from its aging owner.

“I never imagined I would have the opportunity to buy the business I worked for,” says Branham.

Like many long-time farmers, Scott Mathieseon wanted to sell his business to someone who would provide the same tender loving care as he did… while still getting a fair price.

Mathieson was tired of the daily demands of farming.

“Scotty wanted to know ‘What do I not have to deal with?’” jokes Branham.

Their succession process, fostered by California FarmLink, was long and stressful. Everything on the farm was inventoried, including seeds. Attorneys “vetted all our crazy legal documents,” says Branham. And when first year revenue was lower than expected, the payment schedule was revised. Finally, the fertility agreement ensured that the land would remain healthy.

“I’m financially poor but my life is rich,” says Branham.

For the past 30 years, a dwindling number of family successions have occurred, according to agricultural consultant Rod Carter. But that trend is slowly changing.

“In the past three to four years, I’ve seen it reverse,” says Carter.

More children have established successful careers elsewhere, he says, and today they have both the financial stability and desire to farm now that crop prices are more attractive. Emerging foreign markets like India, China even the Middle East have insatiable appetites for products like walnuts and almonds that is driving prices skyward.

The spotlight on agrarian elders began two years ago when farmers Michael Ableman and Eliot Coleman hosted the “Agrarian Elders Project” at Big Sur’s Esalen Institute retreat center. During the six-day conference, 24 farmers with over 1,000 years of collective experience explored the complex issues of succession, often citing the two biggest challenges: low pay and the minimal experience of those in succession.

Documentary filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia – widow of Grateful Dead lead guitarist Jerry Garcia – filmed the event for her forthcoming documentary “Agrarian Elders: Harvesting Wisdom” – capturing the often contrasting issues of farm succession. Despite the low pay and hard work, young farmers are still flocking to the fields.

“So many young people want to make contact with the land,” said Hui Newcomb of Potomac Farms, in the documentary-in-progress.

Andrea Davis-Cetina is one of them.

Davis-Cetina studied sustainable agriculture in college and is committed to finding her “forever land” – a plot of land that isn’t exorbitantly priced that she can tend into her elder years.

“It’s really hard to find land to lease,” says Davis-Cetina, who operates Quarter Acre Farm in the city of Sonoma. Her farm – actually three-quarters of an acre – grows organic vegetables and seedlings, as well as her most popular crop: popcorn.

At just 32, Davis-Cettina is looking at both ends of the succession spectrum – not just as a new, young farmer but eventually one who will pass her business along to someone else.

“I’m in it for the long-term,” says Davis-Cetina. “When I’m 65 to 70 years old I want to be able to be in the position to retire.”

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