Liz Kellar

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July 9, 2010
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Living Lands lends helping hand

Making a living as a farmer, even in eco-friendly Nevada County, is an uphill battle.

It's hard enough for an established grower to succeed. It's exponentially more difficult if you're just starting out.

The farmers of Living Lands Agrarian Network have made it their mission to smooth the path for folks interested in local and sustainable agriculture, helping with training, support - even finding patches of land just crying out to be tilled.

"There are so many components," admits Tim Van Wagner, as he explains what, exactly, the non-profit endeavor is all about.

Simply put, Living Lands functions as an umbrella, non-profit organization under which the farmers operate autonomously.

While the scope and the number of projects are ambitious, the over-arching goal is simple.

"We want to expand opportunities for new farmers," said Maisie Ganz, a Living Lands member who formed the Soil Sisters collective with Willow Hein. "We saw that it's difficult to get access to land, to capital, to infrastructure and support, in order to start a farm, especially as a young person getting into this vocation. We need as many young farmers as we can get."

And that's why Living Lands has chosen to host a farm tour Sunday where the curious can tour three different farm sites: Soil Sisters, Harmony Valley and Bluebird Farm.

"The point of the event is to get our concept more into the public eye," Ganz said. "It's a super-local movement - and in order to do that, we need people to think about supporting the local economy and local food."

The Living Lands farm tour and membership drive begins at Pioneer Park in Nevada City. Participants get to meet farmers, enjoy appetizers prepared by In The Kitchen, and see farm demonstrations like horse-drawn plows and goat milking. After the tour, there will be a picnic at Pioneer Park with music and games.

Anyone who becomes a Living Lands member on Sunday will receive ice cream from Nevada City-based Treats and will be entered to win prizes such as a $50 Peaceful Valley gift certificate or a home-garden consultation with a farmer.

Memberships, which range from $45 to $100, include such perks as free admission to the farm tour, an end-of-season appreciation dinner and e-mail updates at the lowest level, and then add extras such as discounts on workshops and events and "glean alerts" where members can take advantage of extra produce straight from the field.

Living Lands is not just about supporting local farmers; it's also about educating community members about growing their own food.

Van Wagner teaches monthly workshops for home gardeners, covering topics pertinent to the season such as composting, weeding and harvesting.

Leo Chapman has inaugurated an education program through local schools, making classroom visits and hosting a summer camp.

Living Lands' next big event is a gourmet Dinner in the Field on Sept. 9, a local-vore dinner on the farm where the fresh and tasty ingredients were grown, featuring Peter Selaya, owner of New Moon Cafe in Nevada City.

Network provides training, access to land and support for farmers

Land is a vital part of the equation for a new farmer, and Living Lands has created a land bank where it recruits landowners and facilitates leases with prospective farmers.

"The non-profit is establishing and maintaining those connections, and providing access," Van Wagner said. "We all contract with Living Lands to lease the land."

In return, farmers agree to host interns, participate and help run fundraising events, and commit to a work day once a week. The work days rotate among the farms, so that each farm gets a work party once a month.

Farmers can do a cash lease if they don't want to participate in the network - but as Ganz commented, collaboration is the whole point of Living Lands.

"It's so little to give," Ganz said. "What we have is an abundance of energy and passion for what we're doing. It makes it easy to put together a work day, and have the rest of week to run our own farms and projects."

Training is another huge barrier to neophyte farmers, hence Living Lands' internships and journeyman program.

"Ninety percent of new farmers are not trained (to farm)," Ganz said. "There's a lack of confidence. We're learning everything," from cultivation to marketing.

An eight-month internship helps train future farmers in small-scale, ecological farming, including all elements of cultivation from seed to seed, as well as farm animal integration and management.

The interns also have the opportunity to learn about and experience a variety of market models, including community-supported agriculture, farmers market and restaurant sales.

"By rotating among the different farms, it's like interning for five farms," Ganz said. "You get a real varied experience, a holistic experience."

After completion of the internship program, continued mentoring is available through the journeyman program, where budding new farmers can begin their own farm with guidance and support.

The third major factor in assuring success is support - and Living Lands has that covered as well, with structured work days and community potlucks.

Feeling isolated is a typical problem for new farmers, Hein and Ganz said.

"There's so much to do," Ganz said. "It's daunting."

"There's no time for creating community," Hein agreed.

"I see farming more as a lifestyle than as a job," Ganz explained. "We want to be really intentional about valuing the parts of farming that don't make money, like eating together ... and taking the time to actually enjoy what you're doing."

To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, e-mail or call (530) 477-4229.

Time: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Be at the Pioneer Park Amphitheater in Nevada City between 9-9:30 a.m. to get a muffin and map for the tour. The Alliance for People Powered Transportation will be organizing an optional bike tour from farm to farm, departing the park at 9:15 a.m.

Date: Sunday, July 11

Cost: $25 per person ($30 the day of tour) or tour free with a $45-$100 Living Lands membership

Contact: Tim Van Wagner, 205-8817, e-mail or go online at

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The Union Updated Jul 9, 2010 07:57PM Published Jul 9, 2010 12:01AM Copyright 2010 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.