Learning to farm: Farmers educate peers in effort to change Nevada County’s agricultural landscape
The 10th iteration of the Sierra Harvest’s Food and Farm Conference presented real-life examples of farmers who are nourishing their community’s bodies and minds through integrated growing practices.
In Nevada County, fourth-generation farmers tend to livestock on land their forefathers claimed during the Gold Rush, while modern day cannabis cultivators — many newcomers to the state — try to make the most of one of the agriculture industry’s last viable cash crops in Nevada County.
Sierra Harvest’s Farm Institute Director Molly Nakahara said as agriculturally oriented as the county is, a recent study conducted by her nonprofit indicates that only 3% of the food consumed by locals is grown here. To top it off, food farmers are getting older.
The average age of farmers in Nevada County is 57 years old, Nakahara said, one of several reasons why Sierra Harvest hosts its annual Food & Farm Conference.
“Since our mission is to transform lives and strengthen the community through fresh, local seasonal foods, we want to support producers in our community because they are the cornerstone in our local food system,” Nakahara said, adding that aside from collaborating with many public and private agencies on the Nevada County Food Policy Council, Sierra Harvest creates opportunities for beginning ranches to learn their craft and relevant business skills. “With that comes helping create local markets for products and accessing local resources farmers need to receive land and capital. The farm conference helps on all those fronts.“
Nakahara said the conference is meant to be a nexus between hobby gardeners to those seeking to make their American dream a reality.
This year’s event took part over three months via three separate, immersive “field days,“ Nakahara said.
People gathered on farms in January, February and March to be taught by farmers.
“We try to include peer-to-peer education whenever possible,” Nakahara said, adding that each of the three educational outreach events touched on the necessity of prescribed fire “and its increasing use on private land and farmland to both create more firesafe communities.”
Prescribed fires, and their ecological benefits, was a focal point of discussion at Sierra Harvest’s first event at Richard’s Grassfed Beef in Oregon House, Nakahara said.
There, teachers discussed how fire is used to control invasive species and can regenerate pasture for grazing animals.
The next event in February took place at the Sierra Friends Center and featured educators from Bluebird Farms, who focused on the tools and infrastructure farmers starting out should know how to use and may need.
“It was a great opportunity for people to get their hands on some tools they would potentially invest in on their own farm,” Nakahara said.
March’s event taught sustainably oriented growers how to scale their compost, like how it’s done on Fulcrum Farms.
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According to Nevada County’s earliest agricultural report on record, the county’s land-based businesses made neary $5 million in 1956 — $53 million today if adjusted for inflation.
The 2020 report from the county’s Department of Agriculture indicates there are 365 farms that make over $2,500 annually and occupy just over one-fifth of the 958 square miles the county encompasses.
The 2020 report indicates that the total gross value of all agricultural commodities in the county was $19.7 million. The report attributes the gross value of livestock falling 33%. The report notes strains on the supply chain over the course of the pandemic, and noted that the total value of fruits and vegetable crops increased 7%, or $175,900.
Nakahara said the conference helps the nonprofit contribute to community resilience at large, an issue that has only grown since recent fires and climate change.
Sierra Harvest supported the county’s Food Policy Council by creating a 50-page assessment that identifies where the food eaten here comes from, how much the county spends and how much the county produces.
“We only produce 3% of food purchases locally,“ Nakahara said. ”That’s a pretty small amount — you think about potential disruptions to supply chains and wonder do we produce enough? No, we don’t“
Nakahara said that degree of food security requires land security, water and a diverse skillset.
“It’s tricky to become a new farmer these days,” Nakahara said. “Even though you have a market to sell your product, it’s pretty risky to get into.”
Nakahara said Sierra Harvest asks itself how it can rally and facilitate the rallying of the supporting community to make these new food growers successful.
“We may not be able to bankroll someone’s entire farm, but we can be part of a community that believes in them and comes out to support them,“ Nakahara said, adding that the Nevada County Food & Farm guide, originally published by the Nevada County Growers Association, is published on her agency’s website.
“Farms and ranches can create a free profile every year, (where they can) list what types of things they grow,“ Nakahara said.
Nakahara said those looking to get involved should attend one of the eight farm tours Sierra Harvest has planned for the summer, including Nevada County’s MushBarn.
Nakahara said those interested will also find that Sierra Harvest is heavily involved in discussions around the Nevada Irrigation District’s Plan for Water.
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer with The Union. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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