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The hillside setting of Shelton's Market Garden west of Sebastopol would tempt just about anyone to seek out the open-air life of a small farmer.

Fair warning, grasshopper: It ain't as easy as it looks.

"It's a full-time sprint when the season starts," Ernie Shelton, 61, said Sunday morning prior to a busload of people arriving at his Sexton Road property for a tour arranged by the California Small Farm Conference.

The goal of the conference, which continues through Tuesday in Rohnert Park, is to give attendees a real-world view of the farming life.

When Shelton described the effort of growing dozens of varieties of veggies and fruits as a "pain in the ass," he wasn't writing for a brochure. He was simply telling it like it is to the 55 or so dreamers and pragmatists who walked up his long driveway.

Shelton stressed that people need to decide whom they are planning to sell their produce to before they plant a single seed. He and his wife, Susan, operate a farm stand on their property, and also sell produce to Shelton's Natural Foods Market in Healdsburg, operated by other members of the family.

Shelton, who along with his brother, Jim, sold three homegrown Food for Thought supermarkets to Whole Foods Market in 2000, said retailers "are not the bad guy. They're the channel."

He also defended getting third-party certification for organic farms, saying when he was in the retail food business, he couldn't always trust that what he was getting was, in fact, organic.

Clearly, there's much more to farming than planting and harvesting. Sacramento resident David Bonk conceded about halfway through Shelton's presentation that the dream he and his wife, Jamie Vohs, have of starting a small orchard when they retire "may not be a good idea."

Still, he said, "there's something compelling about it."

Paul Schwind and Kim Garner, who bought 13 acres in Berry Creek, about 12 miles northeast of Oroville in Butte County, hope to someday start a produce farm. Schwind is a Contra Costa County sheriff's deputy and Garner a retired police officer.

"When you're young, you don't have the money or know it's possible," Garner said of farming.

The California Small Farmers Conference bills itself as the state's premier gathering of small farmers, agricultural students, farmers market managers and others involved in the small-farm industry. The three-day conference includes seminars on topics ranging from water conservation to social media marketing.

"Hopefully, they're going to walk away with increased inspiration and access to the latest information about production, marketing and the increased amount of regulations coming their way," said conference president Casey Walsh Cady, who is with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

Sunday was devoted to five field courses at farms across Sonoma and Marin counties. The course featuring Shelton's farm was focused on specialty crops and products and led by Paul Vossen with UC Extension in Sonoma County.

Lennie Larkin, farm manager at Petaluma Bounty, said she signed up for the field course to network with her peers and to learn best practices for cultivating.

She agreed with Shelton that a farmer's life isn't always easy. "You have farmers who are trying to make ends meet, and consumers who are trying to stretch their dollars," she said.

Having to compete with large-scale and subsidized agribusiness adds to the challenge, she said.

The good news for small farmers is that the farm bill signed last month by President Obama increased funding for fruit and vegetable farmers and organic programs. The bill also intends to give small farmers easier access to crop insurance.

Many of the questions Shelton fielded Sunday, however, were more practical in nature, such as, "How do you deal with gophers?"

Cinch traps, Shelton replied.

He also answered a question about weeds by saying that this year he will be making greater use of the tractors he said he purchased over the years mainly for sentimental reasons.

"I don't like to spend money," he said. "Except on tractors."

Space is still available for conference seminars today and Tuesday. Onsite registration for today's programs begins at 8 a.m. at the DoubleTree Hotel.

More information about the conference can be found at www.californiafarmconference.com/.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.