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Molly Nakahara: Learning to farm in the Sierra Foothills

By Molly Nakahara
Special to The Union


Every winter, managers of land-based businesses are busily creating a year-long road map to turn soil, water and sunlight into food, flowers, fiber and medicine. These dedicated business owners have one chance each year to get it right as the seasons turn. A farmer who has farmed for 20 years has only gone through this cycle of planning and producing 20 times! Even the US Department of Agriculture categorizes a farmer or rancher with fewer than 10 years of experience a beginner. Learning the craft and business of farming is no easy feat.

Fortunately, in Nevada County, a number of organizations provide learning opportunities for farmers and ranchers to improve their skills in the field and in the office. On Feb. 1, Sierra Harvest’s Farm Biz course begins. This six-week class is a primer on small farm financial management and a great place for beginning farmers to launch agricultural businesses. On Feb. 3, the first of the Sustainable Food and Farm Conference “In the Field Series” kicks off with an all-day workshop focused on the use of prescribed burning to improve pastures, increase beneficial insect populations, and rejuvenate farm margins. The Farm Conference series continues with a workshops on farm infrastructure and tools on March 3 and a deep dive into compost and soil organic matter on March 31.

For farms and ranches looking to gain access to new markets and higher prices for their products, the Sierra Harvest Organic Certification Intensive begins Jan. 20. The intensive provides an in-depth understanding of the certification process and pairs interested farmers with Organic experts to walk them through the paperwork and process of certification. To learn more about these programs, and the many ways in which Sierra Harvest supports beginning farmers and ranchers, visit http://www.sierraharvest.org/farmers.

The University of California Cooperative Extension is another great resource for commercial farmers and ranchers in Nevada County. Dedicated advisors host workshops, complete farm and ranch visits, and publish resources providing well-researched information to farmers and ranchers in the foothills. They are hosting a number of upcoming workshops with a focus on livestock. On Jan. 15, University of California Cooperative Extension is hosting a Sheep Husbandry Field Day — a hands-on workshop with information about foot health, vaccination programs, ewe nutrition, and more; and a Pasture Lambing Day on March 5. University of California Cooperative Extension hosts workshops throughout the year focusing on business and production skills so be sure to check the Foothill Farming website for details: http://www.ucanr.edu/sites/placernevadasmallfarms/

Why does farming matter to Nevada County? It turns out that these beginning farmers working hard to create Nevada County grown products are doing so much more than feeding us! In December of 2020, the Nevada County Food Policy Council published an assessment of the regions food system. This assessment looked closely at the complexity of how food ends up on our plates, from the farms and ranches near and far where our food is grown, to the miles that food travels to reach our grocery stores and restaurants and food pantries, and all of the people and businesses involved along the way. The assessment discovered that only a small fraction of the food we eat in Nevada County is produced here – less than 3% — which doesn’t get us too far in the face of a crises or natural disaster.

The assessment also makes clear why we need to increase the amount of food we purchase from local producers. When we purchase locally grown food compared to food brought in from out of our area, an additional $0.50 of every dollar spent stays and recirculates in the community! Locally grown food is more nutritious (as it tends to be much more fresh) than food trucked in from elsewhere. This also means that it will last longer in our refrigerators. Farms provide critical fire breaks around our towns and create important habitat for wildlife. Local farms create jobs. Local farms and ranches increase well-being, health, and the resilience of our community.

Recent winter storms reinforce the importance of resilience of our region. Our ability to feed ourselves is a key component of our ability to take care of each other in times of need. When the power was off and the roads were blocked by downed trees, many folks in our community were within in walking distance to a farms where fields of sweet carrots and crisp cabbages lay patiently under a blankets of snow – no refrigeration required!

To read the entire Nevada County Food Policy Council Food System Assessment, or to join the efforts to support small farmers in our region, visit https://sierraharvest.org/connect/food-policy-council/

Molly Nakahara is the farm institute director at Sierra Harvest

Farm tractor under a blanket of snow the morning of Dec. 27, 2021 at Dinner Bell Farm.
Photo by Molly Nakahara
Farm to Table

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