Amigo Bob Cantisano — Amigo to just about everyone who knows him — was becoming frustrated. For three years, he had posted an ad on a site maintained by a nonprofit organization called California FarmLink. It described his farm on the San Juan Ridge northeast of Sacramento: 11 acres of registered organic land, heritage fruit and nut trees, hoop houses and a greenhouse, irrigation and equipment, a cabin ready to rent.
It was 2015. After 15 years working the property, Cantisano, who was 63, was struggling with cancer and wanted to step back from the daily work of a mostly hand-tilled farm. He hoped to find a younger farmer who would lease the farm from him, someone who he could train to take over. He expected applications to come flooding in. Instead, only two applicants even made the trek to take a look. Neither wanted to take on the business.
Cantisano has a bushy mustache, a booming laugh and dreadlocks that reach past his waist. He wears shorts and sandals no matter the weather, and always something tie-dyed. He is larger than life in person, and in organic circles he is famous, the founder of more than a dozen businesses that support the daily running of California agriculture and commerce.
But Cantisano needed to find someone to take over his farm, and he worried he was running out of time.
A lot of farmers are in Cantisano’s position. America’s farmers are growing older — their average age has been above 50 since 1974, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and now is 58. That means farmers are moving rapidly toward retirement age.
For organic farmers, the numbers are only slightly better: In the same recent USDA census, their average age is 53, and they have been operating their farms an average of 18 years. Those numbers are critical in California, the top agricultural state overall and first by far in organic production. Twenty-two percent of the United States’ certified organic farms are in California, along with 43 percent of all sales of organic farm products.
What the numbers add up to is this: Change is coming to California’s organic farms. The members of the generation who came onto the land in the 1970s — coincident with the founding of the first natural foods stores, the rise of the modern food movement and the beginnings of organic certification — would like to step back. They feel an urgent need to find new farmers to take their place.
Farm transitions are likely to be challenging anywhere in the United States. Anyone who has built a business wants to get the maximum price for it, or at least to take out enough cash to fund a retirement. Anyone who wants to buy a business needs it to be affordable, especially if they haven’t earned much money yet. But finding agricultural inheritors has become more difficult as the price of farmland has rocketed up — the average price of farmland in California has gone up 26 percent in the past five years, to $8,700 an acre, according to the USDA.
“Land access, with affordability and long-term security, is the No. 1 barrier for young farmers,” according to Kate Greenberg, Western program director for the National Young Farmers Coalition. “Farm income has not kept pace with the value of land.”
This is even more true for California’s organic farms. Any farmer can sell out for a much better price from developers of subdivisions, tech workers with money to burn, even land-hungry, newly legal cannabis farms, than he or she could from a young farmer with not much in the bank and no credit history.
Most organic farmers don’t want to sell; they want to secure the land they cherished so another generation can continue their legacy. But figuring out how to do that is a fraught, complex process, subject not just to financial negotiations but also to family dynamics, generational differences and the founder generation’s hopes for how they want to age. The men and women who created these farms may not want to work them with the same intensity they once did. But they don’t necessarily want to leave.
“For many farmers and ranchers, this is more than an occupation. It’s a lifestyle,” says Liya Schwartzman, the Central Valley coordinator for California FarmLink, on whose site Cantisano placed his ad. “They don’t see themselves retiring from their lives.”
THE SUCCESSION QUESTION
Cantisano is better placed than most to perceive the shift to the second generation of organic farmers, because he was one of the leaders of the first. A ninth-generation Californian, he started one of the first natural foods co-ops, in Lake Tahoe in 1972, when he was 20. A year later, he was a founder of California Certified Organic Farmers. In 1976, he opened an organic farm supply store in Nevada City. In 1981, he founded the Ecological Farming Conference, known as EcoFarm, the largest sustainable-agriculture gathering in the West. Simultaneously, he was an organic farmer himself, growing fruits, nuts, bees, olives and produce, first on a series of leases and then, after 2000, on his own Heaven and Earth Farm north of Nevada City.
In early 2014, as he began to think about his farm’s future, Cantisano got invited to an invitation-only workshop for 25 “agrarian elders” intended to focus on the next phase of organic farming. But when he arrived, he found that all anyone could talk about was the next phase of their lives.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to go there and be the lone wolf of how I haven’t created a succession situation on my farm,’” Cantisano says. “And it turned out that 23 of the 25 did not have a succession situation worked up either. These are famous people in the organic farming industry, with interesting, viable businesses, and though we’re all retirement age or older, we did not have it worked out.”
One of the two outliers was Dru Rivers, one of the four owners of Full Belly Farm in Guinda. Like Cantisano, Rivers is one of the faces of the organic movement. Literally. When National Geographic wrote in 1995 about a “farming revolution” of organic and sustainable agriculture, the magazine splashed an image of Rivers, clutching two buckets of sweet pea blooms, across the story’s opening pages. That was about a decade after she and her husband Paul Muller, and later their friends Andrew Brait and Judith Redmond, partnered to launch the farm on 108 acres in the Capay Valley, northwest of Sacramento.
The property has grown to 400 acres producing roughly 100 crops. It sells its products — nuts, fruits, produce, flowers, piglets, lambs, eggs and olive oil, as well as cooked and preserved goods, such as jams and a killer hot sauce — at three farmers’ markets each week, to 1,000 members of a CSA and through wholesalers. It stages farm dinners, hosts weddings and offers educational tours. Full Belly now has 90 full-time employees, at least 10 seasonal employees and five or six apprentices every year.
The four founders ran the business as a partnership, making decisions in common. But they are aging: Though they all still work 60-hour weeks, Muller is 65, Rivers and Redmond are 61 and Brait is 51. The family tree continues to expand: Muller and Rivers’ sons Amon and Rye live with their wives and kids on the farm, as does their younger daughter.
Full Belly recently transformed legally from a partnership to a corporation, allowing it to create shares that could be bought by the younger generation or gifted in a will. “This is still a work in progress,” Rivers says. “But it’s how we imagined the kids could come back to the farm.”
Rivers and Muller live in the main farmhouse, a sprawling building centered on a spacious tiled kitchen with tall windows. It is the farm’s center, physically and psychologically, where everyone gathers for lunch and anyone can walk in through the unlocked doors to ask advice.
The couple recently proposed that they build another dwelling and turn the main house over to some of the kids. “And we said, ‘No,’” says daughter Hannah — their youngest at 26, and the creator of the farm’s cut-flower business. “I love this house, but I can’t imagine being in the middle of everything. This is my parents’ house.”
But it will not, someday, be her parents’ farm. Full Belly has many inheritors-to-be and figuring out those relationships will be tricky. Like many farms, it is a legal crazy quilt: a business, a separate possession of the underlying land, and leases that confer the right to work yet more pieces of land, owned jointly or individually by the original partners and sometimes by the adult children as well. The farm is a web of possession and obligation, held together by the partners’ values and goodwill.
“This transition isn’t over with, and it probably won’t be for a very long time,” says Amon, 34, who created Full Belly Kitchen, an event space and prepared-products offshoot, and is now a shareholder in the farm. “Moving from one generation to the next is a challenging thing. But what my parents and their partners did is set up a process that allows for change.”
ENGAGING WITH THE LAND
As complex as it is, Full Belly Farm’s transition is something that other organic farmers speak of with envy because it includes parents and children, and the children want to keep doing — in broad strokes — what the parents did. When there are no children — or when there are children who do not see themselves as farmers — things become more complicated.
Just outside Nevada City lies Riverhill Farm, which Alan Haight created from nothing when he arrived in 2000. He had been a paralegal and landscaper in the Bay Area, but he wanted to return to a part of the state he had known as a teenager and to be in touch with the land.
“I wanted to believe that I was creating a farm for this community that would outlive my ability to farm, and that could continue to be a farm in perpetuity,” Haight says. “I believe very deeply that we lose something precious to who we are as a species if we aren’t engaged with the land we are dependent upon.”
Haight was 43 when he began to farm, starting small on two acres within a larger parcel. He now works 10 acres, raising more than 30 types of produce and fruit, almost all of which is sold within 10 miles of the farm. He is 61, and two years ago he began to think about changing his focus. He had no intention of leaving the farm — the house he built with his wife, Jo McProud, a landscape architect, was designed for aging in place — or to sell, since he and McProud have children who might wish to own the property, if not work on it.
What Haight envisioned, instead, was a renter who over time would operate the farm business, earn income from it and become invested in it. Through farming networks in Sacramento he met Antonio Garza, who had been an apprentice at a teaching farm. In 2016, Garza hired on full time as farm manager. At the end of 2017, Haight retired, and Garza signed a lease that gives him the use of the farm and equipment, as well as the sales relationships and farmers’ market seniority that Haight had built up. Garza, who lives in a yurt behind Haight’s farmhouse, pays Haight an ongoing fee out of the farm’s profit.
“I think this is a model for reducing barriers to access,” Haight says. “Someone like Antonio doesn’t have to come up with the full value of the purchase price. He gets the opportunity to manage a farm with all the equipment and all its established markets and reputation. He also gets to determine whether this is something he really wants to do and has the skills for.”
Garza, 39, has been working toward becoming a farmer for more than a decade. He wanted to lease land around Sacramento, but plots were expensive. He was caught in a conundrum common to young aspiring farmers: The jobs that let him learn agriculture paid too little to build up much of a nest egg, and even in his 30s he was still paying off his student loans. To amass the capital to start at Riverhill, he used a loan from FarmLink, another from a friend, some savings and some credit-card cash advances.
After two years, the men will revisit the agreement. If Garza has hit income targets and everything looks good, they will write a longer, more complex lease. The goal in such arrangements, says FarmLink’s Schwartzman, who helped create the contract, is to move by stages to a point where the tenant farmer can acquire the business.
Garza hopes one day to have something that belongs to him. “I like the idea of being in one place indefinitely and being able to build something,” he said. “And if I had a child that was interested in farming, having a way of transitioning it to that child.”
‘A DREAM COME TRUE’
By the end of 2015, Amigo Cantisano had given up hope of finding a successor. Then a friend of a friend mentioned a young woman who had come to California from Texas to be a farm intern, stayed to be an employee of a well-known farm nearby and wanted to establish her own place. She visited; they got along. In January 2016, Kristen Draz and her boyfriend William Holland, also a beginning farmer, moved to the cabin behind Cantisano’s farmhouse, taking over operations and dubbing themselves FogDog Farm.
“I hit a home run,” Cantisano says. “They’re a dream come true.”
The arrangement is more informal than the one Garza has with Haight — less of a contract and more of a handshake deal — and while it came with all the farm’s buildings and equipment, it did not include farmers’ market relationships or regular buyers. Cantisano’s local sales relationships had lapsed while he was tending to his health — he is in an immunotherapy trial for a recurrence of neck cancer — and the couple has had to build customer relationships on their own.
They sell greens and peppers and garlic at a farmers’ market and supply Three Forks, a restaurant and microbrewery in Nevada City. They are in their third year on Cantisano’s property. “We were looking for an opportunity where we were able to direct ourselves and build something that fit our vision, and we happened to land in a spot where the landowners were willing to let us,” Draz says. “That was what we needed to figure out if we could be successful on our own.”
The same desire to farm that led Cantisano and his cohort to create the original organic farms is driving the generation that is succeeding them to find properties they can call their own. Which may mean, in a few years, that Cantisano will have to hunt for tenants again.
“The dream is to be a landowner,” Draz says. “I feel like the path may not be as straightforward as it was when things were a little more affordable. The reality for us is that we’re in the very beginning stages of seeing how attainable that really is. But we haven’t relinquished that dream.”
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