Skip links

Spring 2022 Newsletter

Spring 2022 Newsletter

Greetings From Reggie Knox, CEO

Dear friends,

Entering into 2022, California FarmLink continues its growth trajectory. In the coming days we will welcome two new staff members joining our Land Access and Farm Business Education Program. We remain focused on hiring additional colleagues who will provide business assistance to farms and ranches, and support our Farm and Ranch Prosperity Loan Program with a focus on client support, underwriting and loan services. Please help share these great career opportunities in your networks.

In addition to our growth in lending and education, this newsletter describes two great examples of our growing focus on Equity and Conservation on Working Lands (ECWL). By investing in this work through a new lens, ECWL combines our longtime focus on secure land tenure with financial tools and incentives to support all farmers in implementing climate smart practices. Our story about Hummingbird Ridge Farm details how financing from FarmLink can bridge the gap between when a farmer pays to establish conservation practices and when they’re reimbursed for those costs.

I hope you enjoy learning from the farmers and partners quoted in this newsletter as much as I have. Thank you for your support and involvement in our work.

Sincerely,
Reggie Knox
CEO

Investing in conservation at Hummingbird Ridge Farm

These days, you can’t talk to anyone involved in California agriculture without talking about water. Spoken or unspoken, the reality is that the natural conditions upon which agriculture was established in our state have changed, and they continue to change. Small farm and ranch businesses live this shifting reality every day.

Our challenge is to help make conservation and climate-smart practices economically viable for the farmers and ranchers we serve. That’s why public funding for conservation is important, so farmers can invest in conservation that has a longer-term payout than the farm would otherwise be able to afford. California FarmLink’s loans can help farm businesses to harness conservation programs that might not be accessible without our financing.

Recently we learned from one farmer working to reinvigorate an orchard not far from the crossroads at Somerset, California. At an elevation of 2400 feet lies Hummingbird Ridge Farm and its 18 acres of dry-farmed English walnuts. It’s a small operation in the care of Ryan Bell and his partner Skyla, who works in soil testing and management while Ryan starts an orchard management service. Together they share extensive experience in agroecology and ecological approach in their business model. 

Ryan talked with California FarmLink about his work to reinvigorate an orchard. It had been mostly neglected for the last three decades of its 80-year history. Its age and their water situation have resulted in a small annual crop, but enough to find ways to invest in its future. 

“The primary reason [for small yields] is that the trees are old,” Ryan explained. “But secondarily, the amount of water that we’re getting in California these days is really impacting us pretty heavily.” Their historical average rainfall at Somerset is around 38 inches; last year they had less than 17 inches of rain. “And this year so far we’re at 13 inches,” Ryan added.

Searching for solutions

With those realities Ryan and Skyla set about creating goals: build soil organic matter, improve the soil’s capacity to absorb and store water, increase the nutrients available for the trees, and decrease runoff during heavy rainfall events. When looking to invest in conservation practices to meet these goals, they found the state’s Healthy Soils Program (HSP) as a potential source of financial support. “It’s brilliant but, it also puts all the stress upfront on the farmer,” he points out that larger farms can probably front $10,000 or 20,000 in expenses to launch their HSP conservation practices, and then get paid back by the state some months later. “For our farm,” he said, “that was pretty difficult to do.”

In planning conservation practices for HSP, Ryan came up with a three-year project and a request for $42,000 to support compost applications, intensive cover cropping and the installation of hedgerows and riparian buffer plantings to support better absorption of rainfall. Ryan feels good about his experience, “The HSP project has helped a lot because we’ve been able to apply compost and put the cover crop in, which are two of the primary things we were looking to do…and I think we are building enough revenue over the last few years to be able to support those practices going forward.”

But when planning the project, Ryan determined that he would need to come up with enough additional funds to meet the program requirements, money that would be returned to him after the state verifies that the project is complete. That’s where California FarmLink’s conservation bridge loan was crucial, he explained, “We were able to get $10,000 from FarmLink to put in native plants, cages [to protect them from deer], and water infrastructure to be able to actually plant everything out. But we didn’t have enough revenue to do all that.”

“You all are super easy to work with, and that made the process really easy,” Ryan explained, ”I just called a couple people, and we worked through things, figured out what you all needed, and was able to basically cover that $10,000 upfront. That gave me time to get that check back from the state and that way I could pay off the loan entirely.”

Exploring the potential of building soil biomass

With the orchard not having been actively managed for about 30 years, Ryan’s actions opened up possibilities to recover and improve the condition of the soil and trees. He proceeded with a growing passion. “I developed my own cover crop,” he explained, “I could geek out on this all day long. I have eleven species in my cover crop mix,” and he quickly listed them: oats, wheat, barley, rye; legumes including clover, bell bean, field pea, vetch; and forbs including radishes, turnips and one native species. “There’s a reason why I decided to do that…Ray Archuleta’s research out of North Carolina…basically if you can get over a certain threshold of species in a cover crop mix, you’re likely to increase the amount of biomass production that you’re going to get.” The threshold, Ryan explained, is to combine eight or more species in the cover crop mix. “Something happens in the soil and in the interactions where the biomass all of a sudden clicks, and you get way more production of biomass.”  It’s a more elaborate approach, and a more expensive choice, that the HSP grant and FarmLink’s bridge loan allowed him to take to start influencing the orchard’s health.

Looking ahead; working in partnership

“We’re hoping that we get more water, obviously,” Ryan explained. “And then also trying to figure out…if there’s anything we can do to improve our water holding capacity on the farm, to improve our resilience in the face of climate change.” While Ryan works to grow his orchard management service, Foothill Orchard Care, he’s aiming to bring his family orchard’s production up to 10,000 pounds of in-shell walnuts, or about 4,000 pounds shelled. That level of production, he estimates, might make it possible to hire a full-time person to manage the orchard and organize the harvest, packaging and direct sales, perhaps one day creating maple-glazed walnuts as a value-added product.

Ryan then discussed how the farm business and the orchard care business might be integrated, and he acknowledged that there will be careful planning required. That’s one of the core elements of our Resilience program, and Ryan recognized how that could be a valuable learning experience: “That’s kind of my favorite thing about FarmLink. You have so many resources that farmers actually need, that’s kind of rare… you guys fit this niche perfectly. It’s super helpful.” He concluded, “You know, this is about as easy of a loan or a process that I’ve ever gone through. So, I’m just grateful that you all exist and are able to work with me.”

Hummingbird Ridge Farm’s certified organic walnuts are available by mail order.

Photos provided by Hummingbird Ridge Farm

Discussing the new “Guide to Regenerative Grazing Leases”
An interview with Mark Biaggi, Kendra Johnson, and Wendy Millet

To build on our many land tenure resources, California FarmLink and TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation teamed up to create a new guide to land leases that support regenerative grazing practices. This guidebook aims to empower private, nonprofit, and public landholders, as well as easement-holders and grazing tenants, to create leases that incentivize management that fosters and restores diverse and healthy ecosystems, just and thriving communities, and profitable farm and ranch businesses.

The guide provides a framework for grazing agreements that articulate shared agricultural, ecological, and social values of each party; foster effective communication to support adaptation and innovation; and align incentives so that the productivity and resilience of the lands are improved. Recently we had an opportunity to discuss the guidebook with its lead creator, Kendra Johnson, and two partners in the project, Wendy Millet and Mark Biaggi at TomKat Ranch. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The FarmLink team has been excited to co-create this resource for our land tenure work. What is regenerative grazing and why is it important?

Mark Biaggi, Ranch Manager, TomKat Ranch:

Regenerative grazing uses livestock to heal grasslands and ultimately the soil. Regenerative grazing is about managing cycles: the water, carbon, and energy cycles. It’s about being in tune with the natural functions of growing plants and cycling them through ruminants, the way a lot of grasslands developed. Ultimately, it can help address some of the basic problems that will help mitigate drought including improving the water table, water availability, carbon storage and sequestration in the soil, and greenhouse gasses.

There’s also the economic cycle. Those who have learned to regeneratively graze and heal their lands have seen big improvements on the economic side because they are working in sync with nature. After all, sunlight is the only free energy out there. If you’re doing regenerative grazing, you are capturing sunlight for plant growth and turning it into protein that can feed people, and at the same time, helps you manage whatever rain falls by helping water infiltrate into the soil and hold it for either for your land or your neighbors downstream.

Why did TomKat Ranch and California FarmLink choose to spearhead this project?

Wendy Millet, Ranch Director, TomKat Ranch:

In case you forget why we care about all this stuff, let’s go high-level: We’ve got a real problem on our hands. We’ve got drought and fire and climate and an old style of managing land that doesn’t respect ecosystems or think about land as a whole, and where the mindset is about what we can extract, not what we can give back [to the land]. This is true for our ranch and why we keep doing everything we do to care for it, and restore it through regenerative agriculture.  We see such a need in the world for tools and models that support landowners who want to get into this kind of work. We do this work, because this is the way we’re going to be able to create a different kind of food system and keep everything on this planet – people, animals, soil, air, and water – all healthy.

Mark: 

I could be wrong, but I believe rain falls on more acres of grassland than any other kind of acres in the world. Therefore, those who are managing lands through grazing have a huge influence on drinking water supplies. Rain that lands on ground that runs off isn’t potable water.  As our weather becomes more erratic, it becomes more important how we manage our lands. I see that there’s a real societal component, that it’s not just what you do on your land. It’s all the people downstream and all the neighbors.

There are places in the world where large swaths of land have been managed regeneratively and have actually started to have major and positive changes on the microclimate and the communities around them. We need more of this everywhere around the world. To help achieve that, a tool that encourages regenerative practices versus extractive grazing where you just take everything, is why regenerative grazing leases are so important.

The guidebook is a great new addition to FarmLink’s land tenure resources. Who is this publication for and how should it be used?

Kendra Johnson, co-author and program advisor:

This publication is for a lot of people, but especially landowners, whether they’re private landowners, land trusts or government agencies with grazing land. It’s for landowners that are realizing the value of bringing in regenerative graziers and regenerative practices, and are interested in creating lease agreements that further those goals, whether that is increasing biodiversity, addressing soil health, water infiltration capacity, and water quality, all sorts of ecological as well as social goals.

We took a broad definition of regenerative in this publication and really extended that systems thinking to also encompass some social and equity goals. Public or nonprofit landowners might be thinking about how to not only heal or care for their land, but perhaps honor the history and ancestry of that land, and think about the future viability of the next generation on that land and the local food system.

Wendy:

The way that we talk about the issue of regenerative grazing from TomKat Ranch’s perspective is that it’s a solution to multiple crises of our times. It sounds like a catchy line, but it’s true. Mark just wrote down [in the notes] “fire and water,” I would add biodiversity and healthy soil and soil carbon. These are all resources at risk in today’s world. Everybody is facing this, and regenerative agriculture is one of the ways to manage land in a way that can benefit these resources we care about.

Mark:

You can graze a piece of ground to make it fireproof, when you’re done it looks like a desert and you’ve damaged the water cycle. And you can graze it so that you don’t damage the water cycle. Grazing is a tool, and just as a hammer is a tool, you can build something or break something depending on how that tool is used. 

Tell us more about how people use these tools. What impacts can regenerative grazing leases have for landowners and tenants?

Mark:

Fire and water. It’s about our California context and people’s goals. If you are a landowner who wants a more healthy ecosystem, there are so many multiples of things to manage for.  If you manage for one thing, you may do so at the detriment to a whole host of others.  In regenerative agriculture, it’s about having the right animals at the right place at the right time at the right impact and success has a lot to do with recovery. In a regenerative grazing program, the very first thing you do is plan your recovery. How long should the land sit? In our Mediterranean climate, depending on elevation, water, aspect, etc, you may graze a place once every year or every 30 days in the growing season. The benefits for the landowner are multiple because grazing is a system tool that allows you to address crises and also allows you to build on things you want. 

Take native perennial plants, for example. At TomKat Ranch, starting in 2011, 75 pastures were monitored by Point Blue Conservation Science. In the beginning, only five pastures had detectable native perennial grasses due to years of conventional grazing. Within two years of changing our grazing program, 55 out of 75 pastures had native perennial grasses. Going through the drought of 2014-2018, it grew to 70 of 75 pastures. Nothing had been planted, we had not done anything but planned grazing with a focus on regenerating grasslands. There’s a whole host of other things that cascaded out from those events, but that’s just one.

We’re aiming to introduce this resource to a wide variety of landholders. Why are land trusts and other conservation groups interested in regenerative grazing?

Wendy:

Many people are beginning to know that it is possible to achieve more ecological and economic outcomes on working lands than is common today. Where there’s science, they’re more excited about adopting it.  We’re still working on getting enough science into the field so people are not still wondering and doubting, especially when they hear from a conventional producer that it’s too expensive. Those that are interested in it, they’ve seen the possibility and the potential for both their bottom line and the health of their ranch.

How does TomKat Ranch incorporate regenerative grazing into its own lease agreements?

Mark:

We have some leases and MOUs where people have asked us to manage their land because they see the way we graze. So there’s not even a financial transaction. In the MOU, we state that we will graze this way with specific goals in mind, so it’s very clear to the landowner why we move cows in and out, why we concentrate them, why we do what we do.  They understand the end product. They look at our fields and say, “We want our fields to be that healthy.” They may not understand the process, but it allows us to operate and not create friction with the landowner.

FarmLink focuses on creating win-win scenarios whenever possible. How do the leases create value for both parties?

Kendra:

The human dimension of this, again, is really what California FarmLink adds to the guidebook. A regenerative grazing lease that’s done well has a chance to weed out potential tenants that are not as creative and are not ready to think differently about their management practices.

But on the more positive side, it’s a way to lift up those creative, innovative, regeneratively focused graziers who, as Mark says, are ready to make a difference. And by having a lease that sets a high standard and high expectations — a regenerative grazing lease – we can put a competitive advantage out there for really excellent practitioners.

A regenerative grazing lease also has some… I wouldn’t even call them compromises, but has some principles that must come from the landholder as well, so that the grazing lessee can expect a certain degree of trust and flexibility so in a way that’s codified in the lease. It’s a safer and I’d say more conducive way for graziers to use adaptive practices than a standard, hard-edged, legalese lease that may or may not understand the need for that kind of trust, flexibility, and good communication.

Wendy:

Yeah, I think a super point, Kendra. I’m glad you beefed that up a bunch in the document because we were coming at it from the grazing side obviously. But getting that part of it in there, it’s such a healthier way to be in a transaction on a piece of land together.

Mark:

Trust is incredibly important. We’ve had that issue at Potrero Nuevo when they were concerned about certain weeds taking over. I told them “Hang on. We’re coming, we (cows) are hungry to eat them!”

More than 20 ranchers and conservation groups provided feedback for the guide. What were some of their contributions?

Kendra:

I learned a tremendous amount from the feedback that we got from a whole host of land trusts and independent landowners with regenerative grazing values. We’ve heard from a good number of fairly young, next-generation graziers who all had just so much insight in our first round of drafting this guidebook. UC Extension folks pressed us, asking “what’s different about this versus a standard grazing lease guide for annual rangelands? 

Also, we really wanted to speak to land trusts, but got advice early – like from Curt Riffle – that covering easements and leases would be too much for one publication. So we focused on leases knowing that land trusts that own land, and land trusts that are trying to share tools with their partner landowners, would be able to find language and an approach that would be valuable to them.

There were things I learned from younger ranchers or graziers who really resonated with that need for adaptive management and flexibility that we were just talking about. For example, excluding livestock from riparian areas. There were some really interesting comments from experienced graziers that said, “There might be unintended consequences if you just flatly exclude animals all the time from these riparian areas.” They pointed out certain outcomes that both parties might prefer, if you allow limited grazing in some riparian areas, for example. 

There were land trust staff and other conservation managers, Laura O’Leary, Cam Tredennick and Christy Wyckoff and others, who just had great feedback on the nuts and bolts of what kind of language could go into an agreement that they’ve seen work and how to approach it. We even heard from folks elsewhere in the country who have experience working with indigenous communities, and lifting up access to grazing opportunities for otherwise underserved ranchers.

Wendy:

One of the things I wanted to underline from the graziers’ side was how much it matters to them to set up a good relationship with the landowner from the beginning. I don’t think, probably, landowners hear that perspective that often. It’s possibly a blind spot, but it was really raised up, especially by some of the young graziers. I think that adds an element to it that it’s neat about how important it is that trust is in there. And I don’t know if we would’ve come up with that component and writing it led, I think, to a whole section [of the guide]. And sensitivity, you guys had to write about that, so a shout out to you, Kendra. But that came from those comments, I think that was powerful because, ‘This isn’t just a financial transaction. This is a piece of land that we all care about, doing the best that we can for.’

People are interested in being part of the solution. How can landowners find and engage tenants in order to incorporate these practices?

Mark:

If I was a landowner or looking for tenants,  I would reach out to organizations that are helping train and support people such as the local Resource Conservation District or NRCS. They engage with a lot of graziers. Do they know anyone that’s using these practices?  Who are the local certifiers in that area? Who’s gone through trainings to learn this work? 

On a bigger scale, you can reach out to groups like Savory Institute or Holistic Management International. Not all, but most regenerative graziers are somewhere on the internet in some kind of grazing group with one of these bigger organizations. There’s not a list out there of all the regenerative graziers that you can tap into and find out who’s in your area, but I think that’s where I would start.

Wendy:

Or you could work backwards, if you know a grass-fed beef producer. Or you check out your local farmers’ market, see who’s selling grass-fed beef. You won’t have a hard time finding people who want to talk about expanding their grazing, especially the way we [lack] rain in California right now. And farmers’ market managers would likely know who in your area might be doing this kind of grazing. Farmers and ranchers don’t have a lot of time to get off the ranch, so finding them through an organization that’s philosophically aligned, or going to markets and finding where they’re producing their product, is a way to find them. 

Mark:

Years ago, the way I found leases was finding out who was under the Williamson Act. In other words, who had their land signed up that didn’t have cattle? I pointed out to them that they could lease their land to me for a dollar a year and I could save them money on their taxes.

Kendra:

I can think of many times when I was on staff at California FarmLink, helping farmers and ranchers find landowners, where we would get calls from really excellent graziers. Several of them have made comments on this guidebook and are still grazing today. But sometimes, they’d call up really desperate for more pasture or rangeland. They’d be so creative, too. Some of these graziers are knocking on doors, just beating the bushes. They’re just asking everyone they can think of. They’re working really hard just to find a little bit more ground to keep their [head] counts up, just to have enough space to not have to buy feed, or to keep their operations viable.

This actually can be a critical issue for younger graziers that are trying to establish themselves in business who aren’t landowners themselves. California FarmLink and its Land Portal is one of several places to go for landowners and land trusts who are interested in finding some of these excellent practitioners.

California FarmLink Impact Survey: Reflecting on 2021 and turning towards the future

Earlier this year California FarmLink piloted our most comprehensive community survey in several years. Organized by, Jeremy Ginsberg, data and impact manager,  The Impact Survey was sent to clients who participated in our lending, land access, and/or our education programs. We received over 137 detailed responses that provided key insights in relation to how California FarmLink can improve its services over the upcoming year and beyond. Out of these responses, 100% would recommend our help with land tenure agreements and 93% of our clients would recommend our educational programs to other farmers.  The survey supports our fourth DEI Principle “As a nonprofit organization providing capital and business development services, we are an evolving institution that strives to maintain honesty, integrity, and humility in our work with all stakeholders. We acknowledge that collaboration, teamwork, and community input and influence are key to fulfilling our mission.”  We’re grateful for all the clients’ responses and Jeremy’s work on this initiative, with new tools that enable us to get a 360-degree view of each client’s ratings and comments. We’re looking forward to maintaining feedback loops with clients across the state, especially where it may be difficult for a staff member to meet with clients.

Updating our online tools and bilingual services

This spring we’ll launch new services for Land Portal members and farmers and fishers applying for loans. Last year we added pages written in Spanish by staff members Flor Blancas and Andrea Levy. We will soon launch a new version of the Land Portal to help build bridges among its 360+ members. In addition to Spanish-language land listings and landseeker profiles, our messaging app will use a Google service to translate private messages between members. We’re also adding new privacy features and other member services.

Our lending and data management teams are finalizing an online loan application process, and we’re creating bilingual guidance throughout that new system. We’ve also expanded our access to translation and interpretation services focused on Spanish-language resources for farmers, ranchers, and fishers taking part in our education and financing services.

Celebrating the conclusion of successful resilience programs

This past month marked the successful conclusion of two core Resilience programs. The Resilerator and its Spanish-language counterpart El Resilerador are 10-week business curricula, designed for farmers, ranchers, and fishers with at least two years of experience as business owners. We asked our most recent group of participants, What would you tell other farmers about what you’ve learned so far?” 

“I tell farmers in my region all the time they need to get on the waitlist for next year’s course… this is such an invaluable resource that is really hard to find- business courses tailored to farmers!” 

“I think this is a very useful course for any farm that needs help setting up their business properly. I would get involved with this course early on if possible- like in the first 2-3 years.”

“I would say so far the information I’ve gained in the Resilerator class has been very helpful. I’ve learned I have a lot to learn! The lesson on labor law has shown me the potential threats to my business. … The cohort learning has been invaluable.”

“That [it is] a great class to highlight what we DON’T know. We all tend to focus on the physical challenges of farming but need to make time for [the business side] of farming too”

This year marked the fourth overall and the first sold-out convening we’ve offered to farmers across the state. These courses provide farmers the guidance they need to mitigate risks unique to their business, define personal and professional goals and empower them to achieve goals with their peers in collective learning. We also offer topical workshops for graduates (aka “Resilerators”) to help them in their continued quest for farm, ranch or fishery business resilience.

Farmers, ranchers, and now fishers, are invited to learn more and sign-up today to join our waitlist and be amongst the first to know when our 2023 Resilerator cohort will get underway.

California FarmLink is Expanding!

California FarmLink is currently accepting applications for two full-time positions across the organization. These are rewarding, client-facing jobs with excellent benefits. 

Business Skills Advisor: The Business Skills Advisor is a core member of FarmLink’s Land Access and Farm Business Education Program, and will work closely with the Lending Program as well. The Advisor will provide business technical support to FarmLink clients to assist in creating and managing their businesses.

Loan Operations Associate, Credit and Collections: This position will play a key role in FarmLink’s lending as an agricultural and fisheries-focused CDFI, providing underserved farmers, ranchers, and fishers with access to capital and technical assistance.

We encourage you to learn more about these positions and share them widely! You can find more details on all of the open positions on our careers page.

Return to top of page