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.

Photo credit: Jonathan Fong

Photo credit: Jonathan Fong

Today, there are tens of thousands of organic, regenerative farmers in the U.S. Organic food is available in 3 out of 4 conventional grocery stores, and sales are growing by more than 10 percent per year, reaching almost $40 billion annually. There is soaring consumer interest in farmers’ markets, natural food stores, and restaurants that feature locally-grown organic produce and pastured meats. Alongside this boom in consumer interest in the farm-to-table movement is another story being told about our heirloom tomatoes: the failure of small farms.

The now-famous New York Times op-ed by Bren Smith, “Don’t Let Your Children Grow Up To Be Farmers,” made waves in the agricultural community two years ago by stating that being a small farmer was not a great way to make a living. Afterwards, many celebrity farmers (Joel Salatin being included in that list) rose to the challenge to make the case that farming can be a profitable and desirable profession. Just a few months ago, Civil Eats published an article entitled, “Quitting Season: Why Farmers Walk Away From Their Farms.” The story follows the closing of Walking J Farm and its two farmers, Tina Bartsch and Jim McManus, as they realize they have been losing money for five years and make the difficult decision to quit.

Despite the hard and heartbreaking stories of young farmers closing down shop, there are sustainable farmers and ranchers like Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California. Full Belly Farm has spent over 30 years building a resilient and successful business while restoring natural habitats, sequestering carbon in the soil, creating over 50 jobs and economic opportunities for farmworkers, and educating families on where food comes from.

So what are they doing differently? They are running their farm like a real business. Successful small farmers are using Quickbooks, creating crop enterprise budgets, applying for USDA grants, making purchasing and investment decisions based on taxes, analyzing marketplaces, anticipating returns and adjusting, always adjusting, to make smarter business decisions.

Full Belly Farm co-owner and farmer, Judith Redmond, believes that creating a financially viable business begins with something that doesn’t come naturally to many farmers, “None of us at Full Belly Farm have training in financial matters, but over the years we have learned that we need those tools as much as the others that we use out in the field. Of course we use economics as one way to analyze how we are doing from year to year, but we have also figured out that we need to be on top of the financials so that we can deal with taxes and the regulatory world in the most advantageous way possible.”

There is a new generation of sustainable farmers like Fifth Crow Farm, a seven-year-old organic vegetable farm in Pescadero, California that is also figuring out that financial tools are as important as farm tools. Fifth Crow Farm has gone from barely scraping by to making a comfortable living farming. They are growing food for thousands of families and maintaining farmland in an area rife with urban sprawl. They have created more than a dozen jobs and strive to be a model business through working towards providing healthcare to employees, donating to the local food bank, and starting a scholarship fund for the children of local farmworkers.

Photo credit: Jeff Spirer

Photo credit: Jeff Spirer

Fifth Crow Farm could have been Walking J Farm a few years ago had it not been for a combination of support from their community, their families, and rigorous business planning. They had to spend time and energy to adapt by analyzing their financials and adjusting to the market. Wholesale wasn’t working so they shifted to direct sales through a CSA and farmers’ markets, which proved to be a profitable model for them.

Teresa Kurtak, one of the owners of Fifth Crow Farm, explains the company’s own struggle finding time to business plan: “The work we do is so all consuming that it's easy to get lost in the unending list of right nows. But, truthfully, the most important time we spend is sitting down and really working through what our bigger picture goals are. It's easy to find yourself working for the farm instead of the other way around.” Fifth Crow Farm hasn’t made it out of the woods, yet but they are on track to be as successful as Full Belly Farm.

As consumers, we often see the purchase of food as a simple financial transaction instead of what it is: a critical relationship with the people who produce our food. Our grocery choices determine the health of our families, our land, and our planet. What we need to do, as consumers, voters, and advocates, is recognize these farms as they are starting out and better support them. Let’s build on the good food movement of the last 40 years to support increased social, environmental, and economic justice for farmers and farmworkers. Walking J Farm shouldn’t be the standard for the story of a beginning farm -- Fifth Crow Farm should be.

There are free resources for small farmers to assist with business planning, legal advice, land access, and food safety, offering a chance to make a difference in their financial success. The next time you are shopping at a local farmers' market, ask your farmer what they need help with and how they can succeed. Learn about their struggles and try to offer help through buying food or sharing educational resources. As Redmond believes, “when people talk about sustainability, they think of environment, community, and economics — the financial side has to be integrated into the decision making.“

For an opportunity to meet Fifth Crow Farm and learn more about the financial tools that helped to empower them to become a better business, join us at our upcoming Grazing at the Kitchen Table from 6.30pm to 9.30pm on Thursday, September 22, 2016 at Dogpatch WineWorks in San Francisco. Tickets are on sale now. Follow #GrazeAndGive2016 for updates.