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David Mancera grew up in a farmworking family in Chualar, located in the heart of California’s Salinas Valley. Like many others across California’s agricultural system, his parents migrated to the U.S. as farmworkers from their native Guanajuato.

Beginning at the age of eight, David began to support his family in the fields. Weekends, vacations, daylight hours after school were dedicated to supporting the family’s income. While it was backbreaking work, and at the time not how he was excited to spend his childhood free time, David reflects on how the work brought the family together. 

“In the fields, when someone was tired and fell behind, someone else would be there to pick up the slack. It made us work together as a family, as a unit… and it taught me the value of hardwork, responsibility, teamwork, generosity, and helping others.”

It wasn’t until he reached high school that he began to consider a future career in agriculture. David began in agricultural marketing, and eventually moved into an operations, then finance, focus. However, he craved a more direct connection to individual growers, and an opportunity to impact families like his own. While working for Driscoll’s, David was immersed in production data, aggregated from their growers to share with management and board members. He was curious about what this information looked like to the individual growers. He knew that while Driscoll’s might be making money, the farmers might still be struggling. The data was detached from their reality.
 

Photo credit: Sarah Trent

Photo credit: Sarah Trent

In 2015, David Mancera joined Kitchen Table Advisors as the organization’s first official Farm Business Advisor. He focused on serving farm and ranch clients throughout the Central Coast, including those based around the community where he grew up and continues to raise his own family and many of whom share a journey into agriculture that mirrors his parents’. Farmers like Javier Zamora, owner of JSM Organics, who David supported through the purchase, and ongoing growth, of a 195 acre property in Aromas, CA. 

“David Mancera has been like an older brother for me because I can give him a call about issues that I'm having financially and how am I going to be able to overcome certain aspects of the farming operation. [He] has helped me understand that when it comes to winter, you’ve got to make sure you prepare yourself when there is a lot of money coming in during summertime and fall. Not only has it helped me to stay afloat during wintertime, but also has helped me purchase land.”
-Javier Zamora, JSM Organics

David’s Impact, by the Numbers
 

Through working with Kitchen Table Advisors, and consulting with additional small farms (which he happened to squeeze in between his three sons’ extracurricular activities, family functions, taking on the role of president at a local youth soccer-focused non-profit, soccer coaching), David was able to leverage his experience to support farmers and ranchers that dedicate their lives to feeding their community. And who, with the right access to resources, can make a living and in turn support their families. At the same time, he learned from the farmers’ resiliency and resourcefulness. “Farmers speak to the basic human element of survival: despite odds, a lack of resources, they keep working and make it work. It’s a reminder to keep at it.”

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Posted
AuthorKitchen Table Advisors
CategoriesTeam Updates
 

By Nicole Mason, Kitchen Cabinet member

 

We have so much to celebrate in 2018- not just in what the organization has accomplished in five years, but by how the organization has grown, and strengthened and flexed.  I’ve decided to share a few words in the form of a recipe-- in part because we’re all here bound together by farming and therefore food, in part because Kitchen Table Advisors is still something we are adding to, changing, seasoning, and transforming, much like a shared meal.
 

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Serves an entire community of farmers, volunteers, business owners, funders, leaders, and families.

 

First, set the dial to 2013.  

 

Next, bring Anthony, Pei-Yee, and Paige into the mix.  Combine with a heaping cup of humility, drive, vision, and hard work.  Make sure there is no central office and that work-life balance is at the center of everything.

Mix in to the organization’s culture: a love for food, games, entrepreneurship, and a true passion for elevating farmers and ranchers.  Foster inclusion, support, and trust.  Push against organizational hierarchy, support shared leadership and a common vision.

Infuse with the wisdom and guidance of a zillion leaders, role models, elders, mentors, and teachers. Sprinkle with the foresight of individuals whose influential roles have transcended the institutions in which they’ve worked like Tony Moraga, Sallie Calhoun, Esther Park, Cynthia Wong, Michael Roberts, and many, many, many others.  

Whisk together good ideas, early funding, true collaboration and thoughtfulness.  Look to organizations like California FarmLink, ALBA, CUESA, RSF Social Finance and others, and learn from them. Get businesses on your side like Coke Farm, FEED Sonoma, Veritable Vegetable, Bi-Rite , Straus Family Creamery, and Clif Bar.  
Add dashes and pinches of ideas from other shoulders on which you stand: Swanton Berry Farm, Morris Grassfed, The Perennial, CalCan, MALT, and the Farmer Justice Collaborative.  

Finally, blend in financial assistance from funders and supporters, like New Priorities Foundation, Bank of the West , the 11th Hour Project, and Gaia Fund.  Don’t forget the individuals (many of whom are here today) that made meaningful gifts to KTA through the years.  

Reduce the mission to a clear, digestible statement: to support the economic viability of farmers and ranchers. 

Form your one on one business advising program.  Scramble together with your first cohort of farmers.  

Turn up the heat. 

 

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After 2 years, bring on David Mancera, and then Thomas Nelson as farm business advisors.  Expand your programs to include more farmers.  

Add tablespoons of hard work, pounds of networking, and gallons of hustle.  Keep stirring the pot.  

Turn the dial to 2017.  

 

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Add Daniella Sawaya to engage community through powerful storytelling, and then fold in Sarah Gearen and Deb Nares as farm business advisors, and Noelle Fogg-Elibol, to nurture our growing community of partners.  Let them marinate.  

Let the organization rest in knowing that each cycle of growth brought the right people with the right skills, talents and experience to build a better, stronger organization.  

Shape your board, pepper them with questions and strategic implementation, let them rise.  

Mound in the center the knowledge that you successfully completed your pilot, and are able to see the tangible benefit of your work in the lives of your clients.

Add yet another cohort of farmers, bringing your services to 50 clients.  

Finish at 2018.

 

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Layer with a strong theory of change, even more of a focus on diversity and inclusion, and an ever-strengthening values proposition.

Place the organization in a broader context, draw your community together, deepen your relationships.  

Bake for 5 years with a few core concepts:

  • Always have a north star, one that says farmers & ranchers are thriving leaders of a vibrant, community-based economy rooted in equitable distribution of power & resources.
  • Treat people fairly, support your community and let them support you.
  • Focus on getting good at what you are trying to achieve, stay nimble.  
  • Value the uniqueness of everyone and embrace the racial, gender, socioeconomic and cultural diversity of the local food system. Maintain a sense of humor, remain thankful.
  • Celebrate successes.
  • Invite two alumni farmer clients to join your board.  Relish the cyclical nature of giving and giving back.

Chill enough to take the time to celebrate.  Serve to your community on a farm on a sunny day in February with a side of good food and ice cream sandwiches.  

Enjoy with friends, colleagues, strangers, and family.

 

Happy Birthday Kitchen Table Advisors!  

 

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This recipe was presented by Kitchen Cabinet member, Nicole Mason, during Kitchen Table Advisors' 5th Anniversary Celebration at Green Valley Farm + Mill. It is shared here alongside photos courtesy of Sarah Trent. 
 

Posted
AuthorKitchen Table Advisors
 
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As we reflect on Kitchen Table Advisors’ 5-year anniversary this January 2018, we have been inspired to appreciate and give respect to the people, businesses and organizations that we stand on the shoulders of in fueling the economic viability of sustainable small farms and ranches. 

Our piece of the puzzle - helping a diversity of farmers and ranchers more equitably access the business tools, resources and support they need - builds on the hard work and legacy of hundreds before us. Our work would not be meaningful without the struggles and achievements of pioneering farmers and ranchers, organic produce distributors, natural food grocery stores, chefs and restaurants honoring farmers, farmers markets, farm incubators, technical assistance providers, policy and advocacy groups, philanthropists and foundations, and more. Our focus on the economic viability of the next generation of sustainable farmers and ranchers only matters in the greater context of a healthy ecosystem that supports land, markets, financing, regulations and ecological farming practices for farmers and ranchers.

Since our inception, Kitchen Table Advisors’ work has drawn inspiration, knowledge, talent and resources shared by many leaders in the sustainable food and agriculture movement. We wouldn’t be here if we had not had the privilege of connecting with, learning from, and forming formal or informal collaborations with the following: 

  • Organic family farming and sustainable ranching pioneers like Full Belly Farm, Swanton Berry Farm, Straus Family Creamery, Joe and Julie Morris of Morris Grassfed
  • Organic produce distributors like Veritable Vegetable, and regional food hubs like Coke Farm, Capay Valley Farm Shop and FEED Sonoma
  • Natural food grocery stores like Bi-Rite Market and Good Earth
  • Farm to table chefs and restauranteurs such as Jesse Cool at Flea St. Cafe, Karen Heisler at Mission Pie, Anthony Myint and Karen Leibowitz at The Perennial
  • Farm incubators and training grounds for beginning farmers like ALBA and CASFS at UC Santa Cruz
  • Regional sustainable food and ag technical assistance providers, convening groups, and policy groups like CalCAN, CAFF, CCOF, EcoFarm, Farms To Grow, Farmer Justice Collaborative, Cooperative Extension, Marin Organic
  • Nonprofits that run farmers markets like CUESA and the Ecology Center
  • Farmer-focused lenders such as California FarmLink, Farm Service Agency, and Farm Credit, Slow Money
  • Land trusts preserving agricultural land such as MALT and POST
  • Conservation and regenerative agriculture focused groups like Carbon Cycle Institute and local RCDs
  • Farms and ranches whose land-based programs influence and shape the field of regenerative and sustainable agriculture, such as Pie Ranch, TomKat Ranch, and Paicines Ranch
  • Individuals whose influential roles in the space have transcended the institutions in which they’ve worked, such as Esther Park, Poppy Davis, Tony Serrano, and Bill Fujimoto
  • Sustainable food and ag nonprofits in other parts of the country that have influenced who we are, such as Hudson Valley Agribusiness Development Corporation, Coastal Enterprises, New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, Vermont Farm Viability Program, Holistic Management International
  • Local economic development nonprofit leaders in other sectors, such as La Cocina, Inner City Advisors, El Pajaro CDC, and Opportunity Fund
  • Values-aligned funders such as Sallie Calhoun, Heather Blackie, Gaia Fund, 11th Hour Project, RSF Social Finance and more

Kitchen Table Advisors was originally conceived to build upon the important work that many before us have done for decades; to add another piece of the puzzle that complemented the work of others; to join the fight and hopefully make our regional sustainable food and ag ecosystem. 

As we reflect on our ecosystem and a bigger picture collective vision for a more equitable, resilient and healthy regional food economy, we are so grateful to know that we are all in this fight together, and that we all have an important role to play, individually and as part of the collective. 

We know there are many challenges ahead of us - including racial equity and representation in the movement, the need for stronger pipelines of talent into the field, the need for additional financial resources to do the work.

And, we are so grateful for the work done before us; for the shoulders that Kitchen Table Advisors stands upon; for your partnership in this journey; for the opportunity to join this fight 5 years ago and to continue pooling our people, financial and social capital for the collective fight for years to come. 

 

Photo by Jonathan Fong

The (secret) journey of a head of lettuce
 
You’re seated at your favorite neighborhood restaurant, getting ready to dig into a crisp summer salad. You can just picture how, earlier that day, a grinning, overall-clad farmer—let’s call her Maria—picked that perfectly curly head of lettuce, placed it gently in a handwoven basket, walked over to her red pickup truck, and headed to the city to hand it over, still glistening with morning dew, to Chef John.
 
Well… let’s pause there for a second. The reality is that many of us who didn’t grow up on a production farm have a deeply romanticized vision of farming. That’s not to say that farming isn’t beautiful or that feeding people isn’t romantic; but it also requires extended, often monotonous labor and generates quantities of fresh produce that, as individual eaters, we cannot quite comprehend.
 
When Maria harvests several pallets worth of lettuce in a day—and still has to tend to the other 20 crops on her farm, repair the shed, and balance her books—she cannot possibly deliver that lettuce a few pounds at a time to thirty restaurants. And on the flip side, a chef who is scrambling to prep for the dinner service cannot afford to visit a separate farm for each ingredient on his menu. 

So how does that lettuce make it to Chef John’s kitchen, and why does its journey matter?
 

Food distributors: master choreographers
 
To answer that question, I visited Veritable Vegetable, also known as VV, a San Francisco-based distributor of fresh organic produce that has been in operation since 1974. (Yes, that’s more than four decades!)
 
Every single day, the staff of Veritable Vegetable - some 135 people in total - put on a flawlessly choreographed performance to get that lettuce from the farm to your plate. That performance involves 65,000 feet of warehouse space in SF’s Dogpatch neighborhood, a green fleet of 30 trucks, an extensive pricing list, banana boxes stacked like Jenga, and innumerable customer calls.

It’s a performance you may never hear about: food distributors like Veritable Vegetable work behind the scenes to aggregate, transport, store, and then redistribute produce to smaller buyers, such as restaurants, food cooperatives and independent grocery stores.
 
But even though they are out of sight, food distributors are absolutely indispensable to the health of our food system. In the words of Veritable Vegetable’s CEO, Mary Jane Evans, “Food distributors are like the gear in the middle that makes the wheels move in the same direction.” And according to a 2015 USDA survey, along with institutions such as schools and hospitals, distributors are responsible for as much as 39% of the direct farm sales of food nationwide. [1]

Just ask Krystin Rubin, co-owner of San Francisco’s Mission Pie and a VV customer for more than ten years: “Farmers’ markets are sexy, but honestly, if I need to buy 400 pounds of peaches, I'm not going to buy them at the farmers’ market. I don't have a big enough hand truck.” She adds, “We continue to feel like, ‘Wow! What a resource to our business this is.’ We couldn’t do what we do without them.”
 
Veritable Vegetable: a food hub on a mission
 
Given their role as intermediaries, food distributors can have a big impact on their surrounding foodshed. For instance, they can decide whether to pick up from remote locations, what the minimum quantity is that they will purchase, and what kind of certification they require. Decisions like these can impact whether or not a farmer has a profitable season through greater access to markets.
 
Thankfully, the produce that passes through Veritable Vegetable is in good hands. Initially operating under the tagline, “Food for people, not for profit,” Veritable Vegetable was the first organic wholesaler in the nation. At a time when the National Organic Program didn’t even exist, VV’s founders were visiting farms to understand how the produce was grown and make sure the shed wasn’t full of chemicals. This is important, because while many of us associate organic with ‘sustainable’ or ‘good for the planet’, certification is also associated with higher farm profitability. [2] VV also educated farmers about food distribution to ensure that they were preserving the quality of their produce by picking at the right time and using the right packaging, for example. 
 
Today, the company remains values-driven: it is a certified B-corp, is women-owned, diverts 99% of its waste from landfill, has invested in a zero-emissions truck fleet, strives to pay workers a fair wage, and so much more. To ensure that it can continue to do things right, Veritable Vegetable works hard to remain independent by virtue of a diverse client base, in which no single customer accounts for more than 5% of business.
 
Perhaps most importantly to the Kitchen Table Advisors audience, Veritable Vegetable continues to be deeply invested in the well-being of farmers. Christine Coke of Coke Farm, a Veritable Vegetable vendor since the 1980s, describes the distributor as “very supportive of growers”. Staff works with growers on crop planning for the following year to ensure that they are growing fruit and vegetables they will be able to sell and remain economically viable. When a farmer unexpectedly finds himself with triple the volume of honeydew melons he expected to harvest, the purchasing team picks up the phone, calling everyone in their network to place the surplus. More broadly, Veritable Vegetable strives to represent all of a farmer’s product that does not go into direct marketing, such as CSAs or farmers markets. 

This work is invaluable for the health of our foodshed. Christine Coke explains, “One way Veritable Vegetable (and similar businesses) really impact the food system is that they support the small growers, the niche growers and give them an opportunity to thrive by giving them access to the market. They are interested in having a thriving, diverse agricultural community - smaller and larger, specialty and mainstream.”

Food activist, vegetable lover
 
By this point, you must be wondering who is behind this too-good-to-be-true enterprise.
 
I first heard the story of Bu Nygrens—Veritable Vegetable co-owner and director of purchasing—at a Real Food Real Stories event. That evening, Bu and fellow co-owner Karen Salinger shared their journey into organic food distribution with an eager group of listeners, speaking not just about produce, but also about collaboration, passion, and transparency. It was there that I learned that Bu first started thinking about the movement of food when her family was driving through one of the tunnels that connects Manhattan to the rural areas that supply much of its food. Looking out of the window, Bu wondered, “What would happen if the tunnel collapsed? Where would we get our food?” 
 
I was thrilled to catch up with Bu again on July 4th. This was the only day she could catch her breath, as many of her customers were lighting up their grills, instead of placing orders for pallets of watermelons. We were sitting in her office, a stack of eclectic books balancing in one corner, a couple of peaches lounging in a bowl nearby, and the intercom periodically announcing customer calls.
 
Bu has been with Veritable Vegetable since the beginning, and I wanted to understand what keeps her going forty years later. Perhaps it’s a love for fresh produce. Bu loves English peas, cucumbers, and ripe tomatoes; she also has a soft spot for passion fruit. “Virtually any vegetable tastes good when it’s fresh! I thought I didn’t like green beans until I started tasting them here at VV to check their crispness. It turns out, I do like green beans! I just didn’t like my mom’s green beans,” she exclaims, laughing.
 

Photo from left to right: Mary Jane Evans, CEO, Karen Salinger, Director of Sales, Bu Nygrens, Director of Purchasing.

Photo from left to right: Mary Jane Evans, CEO, Karen Salinger, Director of Sales, Bu Nygrens, Director of Purchasing.

In reality, Bu explains that what keeps her going is the opportunity to touch so many different aspects of society and culture through food. Food carries memories, it brings comfort. But it is also a powerful tool for achieving social justice: “Nobody ever wonders who are the bus boys, the truck drivers, the apple pickers—they’re just not part of the public discourse. We need to empower them to tell their story.”
 
Bu has been a lifelong food activist, working toward a more equitable food system. She urges, “We need to understand how money flows in the system—it’s not just about who grew this, but also about who owns the land it grew on, and who earns the profit.” She has a point. Remember that lettuce we’ve been talking about? According to the National Farmers Union, a farmer earns just 26 cents out of an average retail price of $1.69 for a pound of (conventional) lettuce. [3]

This lack of transparency drives Bu and her team to work extra hard on information sharing, something their customers clearly value. To quote Christine Coke once again, “[Veritable Vegetable’s] communication is just really good. They don't play the market, they don't try to profit at the expense of growers. They make you aware of information they have. There's honest discourse, which we really appreciate.” Krystin from Mission Pie refers to VV as a “brain trust” that has educated her along the way.
 
My conversation with Bu meanders through other big topics, including the importance of democratic infrastructure, the loss of farmland to development, the role of agriculture in alleviating climate change, and the power of female decision-making. These are the kinds of issues that motivate Veritable Vegetable’s work and bring Bu to the office on Independence Day.
 
With such inspired and thoughtful leadership at the helm, it is only natural that we can see Veritable Vegetable’s commitment to improving our food system extend beyond its direct business. The company has inspired many others and has built long-term partnerships with like-minded organizations to serve the community. You hardly even need to ask, and the praise starts pouring in:
 

Food is the root of civilization; without farms, there is no food. For the past 40 years, Veritable Vegetable has pioneered efforts to support organic farmers and bring eaters closer to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables. In the past four years, Kitchen Table Advisors has increased the long-term economic viability of our region’s small farmers. I am honored to be a part of both of these organizations and to support farmers in the vital work they do each day to feed our communities and build a thriving and resilient food system.
— Nicole Mason, Director of Marketing & Community Engagement at Veritable Vegetable, Kitchen Cabinet Member at Kitchen Table Advisors
Veritable has been an extraordinary partner and inspiration for Bi-Rite for years. Our relationship goes so much deeper than just a mere transaction. From collaborating on EcoFarm presentations to better understanding how we can use B Corp Certification to better measure and improve our positive impact, VV has fueled our mission of creating community through food. Their sourcing and farm relationships were instrumental in guiding our product sourcing mission, and their impact in the greater community continues to inspire our community engagement, and furthering the positive impact we can make on our people and planet as we pursue our B Corp mandate to be a business as a force for GOOD.
— Sam Mogannam, Founder of Bi-Rite [4]

Be curious, be persistent
 
So what can you, as a reader and as an eater, do to support the journey of the lettuce? Bu offers some wisdom, ranging from the extremely practical, to the more philosophical:

  • Keep shopping with your eyes, your nose, your hands. Look at the produce, touch it, smell it.
  • Show up politically at the local and regional level. This is where you can really make a difference and make sure people get the kind of information they need to choose the food they buy.
  • Be curious, be persistent. If you stay curious, that means you are interested in the world, in people, in nature. If you are persistent, you won’t give up in the face of disappointment, which is inevitable when there is so much work to be done.

In the meantime, Veritable “still has so much to do,” according to Bu. She lists education, systems improvements, the adoption of ever-safer practices, new developments in green tech, and support for underserved communities.
 
But the area of need she underscores most is succession planning—not just for Veritable Vegetable, but also for other organizations in the food and agriculture space, as well as for farmers. The food movement relies on a handful of leaders who are “great”, but Bu wonders what will happen once they step down. Similarly, many older farmers are looking to retire and—with their children now living in the city—looking for ways to transition their operations. USDA expects 10% of farmland to change hands by 2019. [5] We need solutions to support this transfer in a way that prevents further loss of farmland to development.
 
Whether we are talking about young farmers, food activists, or warehouse operators, we have to develop ownership paths for people that prepare them to take the lead. Only in this way can we ensure that fresh, ethically-grown lettuce will continue to reach our plates. Luckily, this is also top-of-mind for KTA, so I’m sure there are exciting opportunities for collaboration ahead.

Photos courtesy of Veritable Vegetable. To learn more about Veritable Vegetable, please visit their website or contact Jennifer Doan with questions.

Kitchen Table Advisors is grateful for Veritable Vegetable’s generous support of this year’s Grazing at the Kitchen Table. The fundraiser will take place from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, October 5, 2017 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets go on sale August 10. Follow #GrazeAndGive2017 for updates.


[1] USDA, “Direct Farm Sales of Food: Results from the 2015 Local Food Marketing Practices Survey,” Dec. 2016, available from usda.gov.
[2] http://www.pnas.org/content/112/24/7611.abstract
[3] National Farmers Union, “The Farmer’s Share,” available from nfu.org.
[4] This testimonial was kindly made available by Real Food, Real Stories. Learn more about them
here
[5] AgWeb, “Did You Know? 10% of Farmland Will Change Hands by 2019”, Aug. 29, 2016. 

On February 28, 2017, 300+ people gathered at UC Davis for the annual CalCAN (California Climate and Agriculture Network) conference. Farmers and ranchers, government and non-profit agencies, policy advocates and funders came together to learn, share best practices, and problem solve around agriculture and climate change.

I had never been to the CalCAN Summit before, but left feeling blown away by the quality of people and conversation. I clearly sensed the deep intersection of our work supporting the economic viability of sustainable small farms and ranches with CalCAN’s coalition and policy work supporting ecological land stewardship and climate resilience on farms.  Several of the farms we support at Kitchen Table Advisors had a presence at the conference: Javier Zamora of JSM Organics was on a farmer panel in the opening plenary; Emma Torbert of Cloverleaf Farm participated in a workshop; and Alexis and Gilles Robertson of Skyelark Ranch hosted a farm tour.

It was great to be in dialogue with seasoned farmers like Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm and Albert Straus of Straus Family Creamery; non-profit partners like POST, California FarmLink, Point Blue, and the Carbon Cycle Institute; thoughtful policy advocates like Renata Brillinger at CalCAN and Dave Runsten at CAFF; and key supporters like Sallie Calhoun of Paicines Ranch, Michael Roberts and Joanna Lehrman at 11th Hour Project, Susan Clark at Gaia Fund, and Nancy Schaub of New Priorities Foundation.

The day after the CalCAN Summit, 70+ people spent the day visiting three farms in the Capay Valley to walk the land, touch and feel the soil, and hear from farmers on the ground about healthy soils, agriculture and climate change, and how they understand the connection between operating an economically successful farm while stewarding the land.

The first stop was at Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation Farm & Ranch, owned and operated by the Wintun Nation tribe, to hear from ranch manager Adam Cline about his efforts to raise cattle while improving soil and ecosystem health. Co-leading the tour was Corey Shake, a partner biologist with Point Blue who is part of a statewide rangeland monitoring network providing advice and conducting wildlife and plant species monitoring to learn about the impacts of grazing strategies on soil health.

The group moved on to Full Belly Farm to enjoy a delicious organic lunch prepared on farm with their fresh organic ingredients. Co-owners Judith Redmond and Paul Muller shared their experiments and experiences with minimizing soil disturbance, using various cover crop mixes, and rotating livestock to enhance soil organic matter and carbon sequestration.

The last stop on the farm tour was with Kitchen Table Advisors client Skyelark Ranch, a 40-acre pastured livestock ranch operated by Alexis and Gillies Robertson who receive business advising from our Farm Business Advisor based in Yolo County, Thomas Nelson. Alexis and Gilles are a young couple who have been farming since 2010. They sell their pastured lamb and pork through the Davis and Oakland Jack London Square farmers’ markets, and their pastured eggs to institutions like Airbnb through food hubs like the Capay Valley Farm Shop.

We walked under the canopy of an old almond orchard where Alexis and Gillies rotate pigs and chickens next to fields where they grow hay and graze their sheep. The focus of the conversation was, of course, around how they manage the animals and their land, and how the land stewardship practices of farms like theirs are helping fight climate change.

After we walked under blue skies to the top of the hill that overlooks their farm, Alexis and Gillies reminded us that this conversation about their efforts to steward the land, sequester carbon, and battle climate change has to be considered in the context of the long-term viability of their farm business and their ability to make enough to support their family.  They have a one-year-old daughter, Isla. The family has been working hard and fighting an uphill battle to build Skyelark Ranch to be a farm business that raises livestock in a humane way that is in balance with the land and their community, and provides a living for their young family.

It’s more than clear to Alexis and Gillies that they need to have a farm that is economically viable in order to be sustainable. They need to be able to cover business expenses and investments in long-term farm infrastructure; cover their family’s living expenses; and hopefully have the chance to eventually save a little money. Because if they can’t do that, then despite their best intentions, they will not be able to continue stewarding the land in a way that is in line with their values, incorporating practices that sequester carbon, and building healthy soils.

As the sun was getting low in the sky, we closed our conversation surrounded by sheep in one of their pastures. We talked about how long-term farm viability is a necessary piece of the puzzle to nurturing ecological farm land stewardship, and how farmers like Alexis and Gillies need to focus on running their farm as a business AND build a network of support. It became apparent that all of us gathered together at the CalCAN Summit, standing in a circle around Alexis and Gillies in their pasture, were part of that network: seasoned farmers who provide advice and support; groups like the Capay Valley Farm Shop and Fibershed that market, aggregate, and distribute their product; non-profits like Kitchen Table Advisors and California FarmLink that provide business advising and financing; and organizations like CalCAN that advocate for policy solutions that create an environment in which farms like Skyelark Ranch can thrive. And we each rambled off into the lazy sun of the afternoon to go back to where we came from to play our part in this ecosystem.

Photos courtesy of CalCAN.

Blue House Farm crew

Blue House Farm crew

In 2016, Bertha Magaña of Magaña Farm in Watsonville lost roughly 14,400 pounds of strawberries. The loss wasn’t due to pests or weather woes. It was due to a lack of manpower--a challenge many Kitchen Table Advisors clients and farmers across the nation are facing.

“There are not enough laborers is basically what it comes down to,” says David Mancera, a business advisor with Kitchen Table Advisors. “Our farmers are struggling.”

For Magaña, no labor to help harvest one acre of strawberries for three consecutive months meant missing out on some $16,000 in profit. Magaña is not alone. The lack of labor has forced many farmers across the country to cut back production or even sell portions of their land.

On the campaign trail, President Donald Trump drew a hard line on immigration, claiming in a speech on August 31st that, “…most illegal immigrants are lower-skilled workers with less education who compete directly against vulnerable American workers, and these illegal workers draw much more out of the system than they will ever pay in.”

The reality is that many of the roles undocumented immigrants fill would otherwise go unfilled. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, small business owners say that U.S.-born workers don’t want the jobs these immigrants are taking on. There is a serious labor shortage across the nation, and it’s hitting agriculture especially hard. The American Farm Bureau Federation estimates that 70% of all field workers are undocumented.

Mancera explains that right now it’s a laborer’s market. “If you walk around the Salinas Valley, you’ll see signs all over the place advertising for labor.”

Blue House Farm

Blue House Farm

What’s behind the shortage? Mancera notes a number of factors, including stricter immigration laws, an increasingly costly — and dangerous — border crossing, new economic drivers to stay in Mexico, and increasing work options in industries with easier, safer conditions like hospitality and landscaping.  

The result of this shortage is unharvested crops and even forfeited land. According to a report by the Partnership for a New American Economy, a nonpartisan group that aims to influence immigration reform, the labor decline has reduced produce and tree nut production by $3.1 billion per year. The group reports that in California, the number of full-time equivalent field and crop workers declined by about 85,000 people between 2002 and 2014.

The desperate need for more hands on deck puts farm owners in a relatively powerless position. “The farm workers are jumping from place to place,” says Mancera. “They know they have the upper hand, so if there’s something they don’t like, they just leave.”

With a commitment to sustainability, many of the Kitchen Table Advisors farmers find themselves in a particularly difficult position owing to the fact that their farm operations are labor-intensive. Non-mechanized harvests and avoidance of pesticides mean that small farmers are more reliant on individuals to support their production. Rising wages across industries and a shrinking pool of farm workers makes it increasingly challenging for small farm owners to reach economic viability.

Mancera notes that raising wages isn’t a viable option for most farmers due to economic constraints. At the same time, for many laborers, higher wages aren’t the ultimate goal as they don’t want to lose benefits like childcare services.

What they are interested in is year-round work. Some farmers are joining forces to offer long-term work via labor shares. For the workers, it means having work for several harvests lined up instead of just one. Mancera praises the farmers’ creativity, but notes the complications with this approach: “It gets tricky because they also have to try and plan their production and planting cycles around the shared labor.”

Another common approach Mancera sees is farmers looking to relatives and the community. Social gatherings, be it Sunday church or soccer, become a way to find help. Because the people in these networks of friends, family, and neighbors typically have day jobs, they’ll go to the farm in the evening to help harvest. Payment varies from cash to vegetables or even a big group dinner.  

Blue House Farm

Blue House Farm

Looking ahead, Mancera sees the financial advising that Kitchen Table Advisors offers as being more vital than ever. By providing his clients with a deeper understanding of their finances, Mancera hopes to help them make more informed, empowered business decisions. He is also eager to support them in utilizing the federal H2-A visa program which provides temporary visas for foreigners who’ve secured seasonal agriculture work.

As for what we can do to help, Mancera feels that the answer doesn’t lie so much in talking to Congress as it does in talking amongst ourselves: “By talking about [agriculture], maybe we can become more appreciative of those who produce and harvest the food that we eat and that nourishes our body.”

He’s hopeful that if the dialogue around food and its growers was ongoing and alive at every dinner table, things would start to shift. He muses that perhaps curious teens — aware that their food comes from the Salinas Valley, not just the grocery store — would even consider harvesting produce as a summer job.  

One thing is for certain: We owe it to our farmers to talk more about the labor shortage, not the misplaced fear of Mexicans stealing American jobs. “I don’t know why we’re not talking about it more,” says Mancera. “I don’t know why it’s not the conversation.”

Photos courtesy of Blue House Farm.

In 2013, we began advising 10 sustainable small farms. In 2016, these original 10 farms graduated into our alumni program, while we simultaneously began a three-year journey with 15 new farms and ranches. And now at the end of this year, we are welcoming an incoming group of 14 new clients, tripling the number of small farms and ranches served since our inception. By assessing our program impact from the pilot project, we have been able to refine our program model and expand our services to a greater number of farms and ranches in the region. With greater reach, we are introducing new metrics to assess our clients' impact on soil health, food access, and social justice. Not to mention, we're also planting our stake in the ground to represent our support for diversity in the leadership of our food system, specifically among Latinos, women, and LGBTQ farmers.  

We are in a wonderful place right now--similar, yet different to the place many of our new clients are in when they join our organization.  Kitchen Table Advisors will be turning four years old this January 2017–-having just passed the starting line for our three-year pilot project--and now scaling up in Phase 2 of our growth. This is an exciting time, with the challenge of ramping up while staying thoughtful and true to our core values and priorities.  We are also setting the foundation for a humming organization--through planning for our current and future clients and improving systems for our team to have better efficiency without losing the personalized relationships that have proven to be the secret sauce of our work. Our team is changing and growing, which only means one thing: we are creating a better organization--collaborating on the best of our collective ideas, inspirations, and perspectives. 

During our New Client Gathering in November, we had the pleasure of bringing (almost) all of our new clients together to get acquainted, and ask questions, and harness the energy of the group. This cohort was game from the start, jumping in immediately and sharing challenges that they are facing right now and their overall visions for their farms. Farmers spoke about wanting to create a meaningful workplace for their employees--a place where their employees are happy to go everyday and find fulfillment in their contribution. We heard themes surrounding access to land, markets, and capital--these are many of the same challenges that young farmers face. In addition, there are the ever present challenges that are completely out of a farmer's control: weather, water, time, technology.

Our new cohort of clients are asking themselves big questions as well as finding themselves at inflection points that we are excited to support.  One set of new clients is a budding partnership where two farm owners are bringing on two new partners. They are thrilled for the expansion of their farm family, and are committed to supporting everyone and clarifying a common vision. Another client is currently determining the best legal structure for his business entity as well as preparing his business to hire employees. For all of our clients, deciding the right path forward for their enterprise comes at a time when the landscape of how business is done in our country is changing.  With already extreme labor shortages in the farm sector, the outlook for the future is unknown. Additionally, proposed changes to Agricultural Labor Laws are coming down the pipeline and the cost of land in the Bay Area continues to rise steadily.

One piece of what we do through our advising program is to help our farmers understand and manage risk. Some of that comes with planning for known risks, and some is creating resilience in their surroundings (labor pool, vendor relationships, lenders) that will sustain them through the unanticipated storms. Sometimes, simply creating the space and practicing looking up from the daily work toward what's ahead is enough to help our clients plan for success.

In the midst of these challenges, our new clients are also extremely well-poised for this success. There is a network of support available to them--food hubs like like Coke Farm, FEED Sonoma, Capay Valley Farm Shop, and Veritable Vegetable--that champion their farm treasures and stories. There is also a growing number of corporate food service companies offering healthy local farm to table food. From amazing chefs at celebrated restaurants to retailers who highlight farm sourcing to destination farmers markets, the local farming community is cherished and lauded by many folks in and around the Bay Area.

Our new and existing farmers will need all sorts of support to change the tide towards resilient and diverse farming communities, because everyone who eats is a part of the story. Continue voting with your fork! Purchase directly from your farmer: through a CSA, an animal share, from a trusted restaurant or retailer that sources from local farmers. Share with your neighbors and your kids about why local food and transparent sourcing is important to you. Support our incredible local network of organizations who work daily to create opportunities for triple bottom line farmers--ALBA, California Farmlink, POST, and CUESA. Most importantly, get to know your farmers and be a champion of your local farm scene.  

Without further ado, here is our wonderful new cohort of clients! And don't forget to check out our 2016 cohort and alumni, as well! 

Photos courtesy of Jeff Spirer.