To First Generation Farmers Executive Director Alli Cecchini and head farmer Eleanor VanHof, a 13-acre section of the prime farmland in the Bay Area’s east Contra Costa County is the site of the long-dreamed-of Urban Edge Sustainable Farming (UESF).
For the first cohort of students, many of them women, people of colour, immigrants, refugees, veterans or farmers-to-be with limited resources, the land is a classroom. Instruction comes from First Generation and experts from the National Center for Appropriate Technology and UC Cooperative Extension. Participation in the program represents opportunity and fulfills dreams the first-time farmers hold of agricultural avocation, economic stability, families, homesteads and permanence.
“Historically oppressed, underserved groups — women, refugees, LGBTQ, immigrants — they’ve been the labour force but never the owners,” Cecchini says. “It’s hard to be that labour force in agriculture, but the best people to be owner/operators are the labour workers.”
Cecchini, 29, says that for many people, but especially women and immigrants facing ongoing racial or social stigmas in the United States, entering the farm industry is formidable, even if money is available.
The curriculum is demanding: composting, organic practices, greenhouses, pest control, disease and healthy soil management, crop rotation, food safety, marketing strategies, financial record-keeping, business planning and more.
High-end restaurants and a food culture that favours locally-sourced organic produce make small farms on the urban edge more lucrative, VanHof suggests. Ultimately, transition to long-term land lease will be available to program graduates. Beyond strong business skills, Cecchini says that suitability for farming requires having love in your heart.
For young farmers who lack knowledge of how to drive a tractor, load implements onto the back of a truck, set up irrigation pipes or the ins and outs of organic farming (without pesticides), a widespread team is key. “That’s what these incubator farms are all about,” says fourth-generation farmer Cecchini, whose land has been cultivated by her family for more than 100 years. “The tools and new technology are not needed. Email, websites, social media, they make it easier, but information comes from old farmers. It’s the community of people you have. With that, you can pretty much do anything.”