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Spring 2020 Newsletter

Dear friends,

You’ll see in these brief articles that FarmLink continues to invest in the health and prosperity of the next generation of California farmers and farming communities. We’re slowly but surely expanding our geographic reach and thrilled to share, in these pages, the story of our partnership with Sweet Spot Farm in San Diego County. In 2019, FarmLink served farmers in 24 counties, providing individual business development assistance to 183 farmers; land access support to 205 farmers; originating 63 farm loans (including 40 microloans and nine land loans); and helping 49 farmers develop and negotiate leases. We appreciate the amazing work, against long odds, that these farmers are accomplishing to build healthy communities, and we appreciate the support of our partners and funders in making our work possible. Thank you.

Reggie Knox, Executive Director

Sweet Spot Farm: community-scale regenerative ag and ecological land management, by Kathryn Bailey

 “We had a compost delivery arrive earlier than planned so the first challenge of the day has already arrived,” Erik Hjermstad shared with a laugh during our phone conversation. It was 7am on a Friday and he was on the way to sort out one of the many challenges Sweet Spot Farm faces as a new business. Erik and his fellow farmers bring a wide range of perspectives, and grow certified organic garlic, herbs, moringa and turmeric.

Sweet Spot Farm, located near Ramona in San Diego County, is a worker-owned farm organized as an LLC focusing on environmentally sound agricultural practices that suit their ecosystem. When the farm began almost two years ago, there were seven founding members. Two have now left so the farm planned to bring on more farmers. Erik explained “We are prototyping a new collaborative model. [We] act like a whole organism, every member contributes the value that they are good at, like the right hand or left foot.” He stressed that each owner is equal, playing a significant role in the farm’s success whether someone is on the land everyday, or handling the farm administrative tasks and website management. Erik spends his time on the land, helping to implement the farm plan.

Before farming, Erik worked in media production and manufacturing, so while he is familiar with the challenges of running a small business, he needed more experience in agriculture before he could begin a farm. It took him a decade to prepare for a career switch to farming, entering through permaculture. The switch was predicated by concern for personal and global health. Erik shared, “It was really personal health that drove me to deeply consider how can I truly live a healthy life. And in consideration of how to live a healthy life, sooner or later you’re going to – or a person might – turn to the farm. I believe for the sake of the planet we are going to need hundreds of thousands or millions of farms, just in America alone, that are coherent with Mother Earth.”

The collaborative group who runs Sweet Spot Farm also shares Erik’s concern through a focus on the ecological health of their land. The farm was recently awarded a state Healthy Soils Program (HSP) grant and the compost delivery that happened the morning of Erik’s interview is a small portion of the HSP contract. Sweet Spot will also build a hedgerow and conduct a riparian habitat restoration. Their eco-centric farm plan will build a multi-layered agricultural system by emphasizing the importance of trees and herbaceous perennials. By using data and tracking market trends, they are able to choose plants that belong in the local ecosystem while growing a crop, turmeric, to provide income as the rest of the farm develops. Turmeric’s medicinal value and Southern California’s high demand has made it a useful cash crop for Sweet Spot Farm.

The partners spent years searching for property, followed by lease negotiations. “The process of coming to a beautiful agreement with our landowner is something that would have quite literally not been possible without California FarmLink’s assistance. Liya and Iris’ help was totally invaluable,” Erik revealed while discussing the lease process. California Farmlink acted as a trusted third-party in the conversation between the landholder and Sweet Spot, contributing to Sweet Spot’s desired collaboration.

Erik also shared thoughts about leasing agricultural land for aspiring and new farmers, “It’s a big deal to enter into an agricultural lease, so when the relationship with the landowner is new, it’s going to take time. It’s okay to be patient and diligent about creating opportunities to deepen the relationship.” It is advice that Sweet Spot has taken to heart as they continue to develop their new farmland. For the moment they are focused on being good stewards of the land and water table by planting trees and closely monitoring the farm’s water use.

Sweet Spot aims to develop a sustainable system that can adapt to a changing climate. The farm’s vision is to provide other farmers with an example and pathway of how to create a climate smart farm with community-scale, shared ownership. Through farm tours and educational opportunities, Erik explained, “other people can learn [from] this collaborative model and see how it applies to ecological land stewardship through the lens of a community farm so that it can assist the next…thousand farms.” It is an ambitious model, but throughout the interview Erik’s infectious spark and passion for better agricultural practices convinced me that Sweet Spot will be an important player in the Southern California movement to establish ecologically sound, healthy farms.

Kathryn Bailey was California Farmlink’s Farm Equity Correspondent in 2019. She guest writes for California FarmLink’s blog, focusing on farmers and landholders. A recent graduate of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, her interests include sustainable agriculture, environmental justice, and equitable access to economic opportunities.

Farm Finance Expo in the North Bay will be postponed.

Out of an abundance of caution in relation to COVID-19, FarmLink has decided to postpone the Farm Finance Expo that was scheduled for March 25th at the Petaluma Community Center. Our community’s health and safety are of utmost importance. Join us for the Expo in early fall on Wednesday, September 30. More information about the event can be found here.

POLICY UPDATE: Rural microentrepreneur program gets boost in 2020 federal budget!

It’s not often that we’ve had occasion to celebrate news out of Washington DC recently, but one small program with big impacts recently had a breakout moment. Within the federal spending bill signed in December, the Rural Microentrepreneur Assistance Program (RMAP) had its budget doubled to $6 million for fiscal year 2020. This achievement was made possible thanks to rural small business lenders nationwide, including California FarmLink.

Since the program launched in 2015, FarmLink has been able to use its combination of loan capital and technical assistance grants to support sustainable and organic farmers. With resources from RMAP, FarmLink has made 114 loans totaling more than $2.3 million, with an average loan size of $20,600 and ranging in size from $2,000 to $50,000, mostly for general farm operations with 8-12-month terms. Our involvement in advocating for RMAP over the years has been supported by our membership in the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, along with groups including Feed the Hunger Fund, Center for Rural Affairs and several others.

Iris Nolasco chosen for fellowship focused on Latinx leaders 

Congratulations to Iris Nolasco, Central Coast Program Coordinator! California FarmLink is thrilled to announce that Iris has been chosen to be part of the Pete Garcia Community Economic Development Fellowship for up-and-coming Latinx non-profit leaders, organized by the National Association for Latino Community Asset Builders (NALCAB). The nine-month program was created “to ensure that next generation Latino leaders build the practical, personal and professional skills needed to fill the increasing leadership gap in community economic development.”

FarmLink has created a vital niche providing affordable loans and one-on-one business technical assistance with Latinx farm entrepreneurs. Reggie Knox, executive director of FarmLink said, “Iris’ fellowship will be central to the development of FarmLink’s Wealth Building Initiative for Spanish-speaking farmers.” Describing the fellowship, Iris says, “I believe it is a great fit between my past experiences and my current role at FarmLink that ties together a lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as creative and innovative ways to distribute wealth and contribute to the personal and economic well being of our beneficiaries.”

The fellowship is important to Iris as an opportunity to gain leadership skills and tools from an organization that is led by people of color. Iris explains, “I am excited that the NALCAB fellowship provides a community of like-minded individuals who can share each other’s experiences, and build long-term relationships supporting Latinx communities all across the country.”

The FarmLink Business Resilience Intensive got underway last week in Petaluma.  It’s a small group education course that farmers tailor to their needs with a self-assessment of business skills and knowledge led by local farmers and Poppy Davis. Over the past 2+ years we’ve developed this strategy to provide in-depth learning, guided by farmers’ own priorities. The course is based on FarmLink’s BUSINESS RESILIENCE SELF-ASSESSMENT

Welcome new members of the FarmLink Team

Stephanie Stevens, Program Manager, is a California native who has spent the last eight years serving farmers in the Sierra Foothills region. She organized Sierra Harvest’s Sustainable Food and Farm Conference from 2018-2020 in Grass Valley and managed the Nevada City Farmers Market between 2016-2019. Due to her commitment to the agricultural community in Nevada County, she was appointed to the Penn Valley Area Municipal Advisory Council by county supervisor Hank Weston in 2017. She also served as secretary for the board of Community Legal in Nevada County. Stephanie organized the Nevada County Food Policy Council and continues to serve on the Coordinating Committee for the California Food and Farming Network. In 2020, she was nominated as a Top 40 finalist for Emerging Leaders in Food and Ag. She owns a small value-added farm with her husband and enjoys disappearing into the woods on weekends.

Phil Lee, Staff Accountant, joined the California FarmLink team in January 2020 bringing more than 25 years of experience in accounting, finance and taxation. A California CPA, Phil has worked in a variety of industries including: public accounting, specialty retail and heavy construction. Prior to coming to FarmLink, Phil served seven years as Controller for a large, education-based national not-for-profit headquartered in Santa Cruz, then as Controller with a for-profit startup in San Jose. He recently said, “I’m glad to be working with a well established local non-profit run by passionate and caring people.” Phil and his wife Lisa live in Soquel, where he enjoys mountain biking, road cycling, running, hiking, and guitar.  Phil also serves as a volunteer member of the Santa Cruz Community Credit Union’s Board of Directors.

We celebrate these sponsors & grantors supporting California FarmLink. Thank you!

Comerica Bank
Community Foundation for Monterey County
Farm Aid
Globetrotter Foundation
Union Bank, N.A.
Western Extension Risk Management Education Center
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