September 21, 2014

How a Young Farmer Got Her Start at the Cloverleaf Farm

Emma Torbert of the Cloverleaf Farm
Emma Torbert started the Cloverleaf Farm four years ago. If it weren't for Rick Collins and the California FarmLink, it would not have been possible. Young people that decide to go into farming face a formidable financial picture. According to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), between 2010 and 2014, farms with less than $100,000 in sales incurred losses each year. You read that right. Farms with less than $100,000 in sales make up 81% of all farms. These smaller farms are operating at a loss. Yet with no land of her own, Emma Torbert is moving toward profitability.

The first obvious obstacle that Emma faced was that she had not inherited any farmland. Many of those who might inherit a farm are leaving farming regions in droves. This represents a major disconnect. Young people who might inherit a farm are choosing to opt-out of farming. The remaining farmers are older - average age 58 - and need to consider what will become of their farms. And people like Emma, when they are considering a farming career, can't afford to buy farmland. In fact the cost of agricultural land has doubled in the past 15 years, making it even harder to break into farming. See Trends in U.S. Farmland Values and Ownership for the complexities involved in understanding this trend. How did Emma acquire the land she needed? She made use of California FarmLink. California FarmLink connects landowners and farmers. At first, I thought it might operate like an online dating service. But, they go much further than helping farmers and landowners find each other. They help both sides negotiate strong leases. And, they help with the transfer of land. In Emma's case, with the help of California FarmLink, she found Rich Collins. Four years ago, Rich was willing to help Emma start the Cloverleaf Farm by leasing 1 1/2 acre of his un-irrigated, Sacramento Valley farmland for free.

Even with such fabulous access to land, Emma had her work cut out for her. She started growing vegetables. This meant she had to run irrigation from an existing well, which was 1800 feet from her leased field. The flow volumes were not right, so she had to create a reservoir. She also wanted to obtain organic certification, which requires a lot of recordkeeping. And, she did not go into this alone; she had a partner. The two of them had to work out all the details before getting started. And lastly, Emma continued working her off-farm job with the Agricultural Sustainability Institute at UC Davis. That was Year One. Year Two she added two additional partners. Year Three, she bought out her three partners and farmed without partners. Sometime along the way, she transitioned her efforts away from the vegetable field to an existing four acre stone fruit orchard.

I was curious how these partnerships worked. Due to the capricious nature of the weather, the current year's pests, and variable produce prices, farm profits can be unpredictable. I asked Emma how she composes a partnership that is fair to all sides. Emma pays her current partner, Katie, $12/hour for her work. Katie gets paid at least this much, whether the farm makes a profit or suffers a loss. If there is a loss, Katie will make more than Emma. If there is a profit, Katie and Emma will simply split the total profits. Regardless of their underlying agreements, Katie and Emma's happy faces show that they obviously enjoy working together.

I asked Emma and Katie about the pests that are most bothersome to them as organic farmers. They have a problem with earwigs. Although spinosad bait is approved for organic farms, they would prefer not to use it. For their apricot crop, they decided to try duct-taping the base of the trees. If it works, it has the added benefit of being cheaper than spinosad. There is also a product called tanglefoot that keeps beetles out of a tree when it is wrapped around the base of its trunk. If it works for beetles, Katie is thinking it might work for earwigs. And then there are the birds that like to peck at the fruit. They haven't taken action against the birds yet. They put up owl boxes to target the moles, but they haven't seen any owls yet. They have released beneficial insects as needed. Basically, as they encounter each pest, Emma and Katie are experimenting to find out what works on this land with the crops they are growing.

As an organic farmer, Emma says she has to be more accepting of weeds. Her section of the farm is quite weedy compared to the fields surrounding it. That's because the neighboring farms are using the toxic pesticide, Roundup. She went on to tell me about a cover crop mix that they are trying out. The mix is made up of 20 plants, including dill, cilantro, lupines, calendula, mustard, vetch, clovers, and alfalfa. This brings a level of diversity to the orchard. Emma is hoping to lure beneficial insects and confuse specialist pests with this mix. It was developed by researchers for California almond growers. Emma intends to let the mix go to seed, before mowing it down. This way, the plants will reseed themselves next year. And hopefully, these lovely plants will provide some competition for the unwanted weeds already growing there. Whether weeds or a special mix developed by researchers, plants growing between the trees makes for weedy-looking rows.

By introducing the cover crop mix, Emma is hoping to control earwigs, thrips, and other infestations that turn lovely fruit into ugly fruit or even into unmarketable fruit. I walked into the refrigerator with Emma, where she and Katie had sorted their fruit into beauties, uglies, and somewhere-in-betweeners. Quite a bit of their fruit is imperfect, due to various pests and diseases. At my house, I call these squirrel-tested. If the squirrels like an avocado, it will probably taste better than the surrounding ones. I am happy to eat it, but they are harder to sell. Emma is educating customers about such ugly fruit and charging less for them. Not only does less food go to waste, but it's good for the bottom line.

The Cloverleaf Farm finished transitioning to certified organic status this year. This means Emma is able to charge a little more for her fruit. As a result, she is hopeful that she will break out above the minimum wage barrier this year. She enjoys significant advantages in her leasing arrangement with the Collins Farm. Rich Collins also lets her use his tractor, gives her a place to store tools, and makes refrigerated space available. Emma helps with the maintenance, repair, and fuel costs. Even with all these advantages, profitability is not a sure thing. Small farmers throughout the nation are not faring well financially. But Emma Torbert is hoping to break through the averages and become a young, successful farmer.

Where to find apricots, peaches, nectarines and figs from Cloverleaf Farm near Davis, California next year:
  • Collins Farm farmstand, just off I-80 at the Kidwell exit on the North side of Highway, Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
  • CSA (community supported agriculture) fruit-only, email to sign up.
  • Local restaurants in the Davis/Sacramento area including Fat Face, Ficelle, and Monticello Bistro.