COMMENTARY: Now is the time to support local farms |

COMMENTARY: Now is the time to support local farms

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Show up on opening day in June at the Saturday Nevada City Farmers Market, and you’ll find local farmers with their tables laden with freshly picked strawberries, broccoli, chard, arugula, spring onions, carrots, beets, lettuce and much more.

It doesn’t take much to consider, though, that the beautiful produce you’re seeing didn’t spring from the ground the week before. Farmers will have been hard at work for months preparing for that market, much of it under remarkably adverse conditions.

You may remember the endless string of warm days in February when the sun was shining, and you’re sure to remember the beautiful blossoms on the fruit trees in early March. It’s possible, however, that you’ve forgotten that nighttime temperatures in March dipped below 30 degrees, and there was snow March 6.

You may also have forgotten that in the last week of May of each of the past three years it froze or came close to freezing, just a couple of weeks before the market opened for the season.

“Farmers in Nevada County face uniquely difficult conditions compared to most California farmers,” Nevada County Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Pylman said. ”Frost, hail, even snow can come in May with little or no warning, damaging or destroying carefully tended crops before there’s been a chance to sell those crops.

“Wet springs with heavy rainfall like we’ve had the last couple of years can delay planting, which delays sales. Whereas, farmers in other parts of California may be picking tomatoes for five months, the local season for tomatoes is about half that. This reduces the period during which local farmers can earn a living from agriculture.”

The short season for sales also means that farmers are working for months to prepare for that season but with little or nothing to sell. On many local farms, onions are seeded in January, five or six months before those onions will be sold.

The first seedings of broccoli, cabbage, kale and chard are in February, peppers in March, tomatoes in April and so on. This means local farmers are working for as long as six months to prepare for a season, spending much of the money they’ll spend over the course of the year, yet with nothing to sell.

Anthony Chang is director of lending at California FarmLink, a Santa Cruz-based nonprofit that provides farmers with short-and long-term loans for infrastructure and operating costs.

According to Chang, many small farms experience cash flow problems that may make it difficult, if not impossible, to stay in business without loans from lending institutions or without selling future shares of produce to local customers.

“Small farms may not make enough in one season to carry them through to the following season without access to loans to buy seeds, fertilizers, pay labor, build infrastructure and do all that’s required to maintain a farm while growing what will later be sold at market,” Chang said.

That capital can come from banks and other lending institutions like FarmLink, or it can come from loyal customers who support local agriculture.

The nationwide groundswell of interest in local agriculture has opened up strong, new markets for farmers. Consumers are enjoying farmers markets in unprecedented numbers, encouraging young people to consider starting new farms and sell direct to their customers.

That interest is also providing support to established farms across the country.

At the Saturday Nevada City Farmers Market, most farmers who attend reported increases in sales last season, even double the sales from the year before. The market enjoys as many as 800 patrons in a day at the height of the season.

But is that enough?

“Unbeknownst to most consumers who see smiling farmers with full tables at the farmers market, most new farmers and even many established farmers are struggling to stay in business,” said Chang.

“Small farms are more fragile than most people recognize. Much of that fragility comes from lack of capital, but borrowing money is only part of the solution. What makes a difference for those farmers? More patronage by local customers.”

For many small farms, selling future shares of produce to their customers is an alternative to an institutional loan and provides them with the capital they need to get the season started.

Several local farms earn part of their annual income providing weekly prepaid boxes of produce during the farm season in what is commonly referred to as community-supported agriculture.

With CSA, customers pay in advance of the season for produce they will receive weekly during the farm season, usually about 22 to 25 weeks long.

Sweet Roots Farm is a local farm that offers future shares of produce to residents of Nevada County. Owners Deena Miller and Robbie Martin farm together on Old Auburn Road near Wolf Creek.

Deena looks forward to providing her customers with a weekly box of gorgeous produce and flowers all summer long.

“We hope to expand the number of CSA shares we provide this season. Our CSA customers are critical to our survival. Sign ups start in February, and we continue to accept new customers until we have sold all our shares. The payments we get from our CSA customers carry us to our first market.”

In addition to Sweet Roots Farm, Riverhill Farm, Boxcar Farm and Mountain Bounty Farm are other local farms selling future shares of produce.

All of these farms also attend local farmers markets where the same produce can be purchased during the summer and fall.

By supporting farmers with capital during the spring, consumers can play an active role in ensuring that farmers can cover the early costs of production.

This helps to ensure that come the summer farm season, their shares are full and their farmers market tables are loaded with produce.

“Many of our local farms are too small or too new to be able to get an institutional loan,” said Jeff Pylman.

“What it comes down to, in the end, is that if consumers will buy what local farms have to offer, farmers will grow what consumers want to buy. Farms will have to be supported by the local community to be successful.”

Alan Haight farms with his wife, Jo McProud, at Riverhill Farm in Nevada City.

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