First-time farming

  • Austin Blair, left, and Casey Beck stand in their backyard where they raise chickens and grow a number of fruit and vegetables, including corn, in Sonoma, California on Tuesday, August 21, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

The North Coast is criss-crossed with country roads bearing the names of stalwart farm families who proudly worked the same land over generations. Some of the scions of those families stayed with the land; others couldn't get away fast enough.

But within the past decade, a new generation of determined young farmers is laying down roots in the agricultural Eden of Northern California. Many grew up among suburban comforts in other parts of the country and bear degrees from prestigious universities — some graduate level — in fields that hardly prepared them for planting, propagation, harvesting and distribution.

Without inherited land, many are leasing small plots tucked amid a sea of grapevines, where they are eking out a living growing organic vegetables and fruits and raising chickens and sometimes other small barnyard animals, so dedicated are they.

Not having been raised on farm chores, 4-H and the Future Farmers of America, they are at a disadvantage. But what they lack in experience, they make up with passion and commitment as they fill in their knowledge gaps with apprenticeships and information gleaned from a growing number of online farming resources. Chief among them is California Farmlink, a small nonprofit that helps first-generation farmers access land and capital and learn the business aspects of farming.

For the past two years, Austin Blair has worked 12-hour days, six days a week, learning to farm from the ground up, starting with an acre plot in Schellville he shared with another neophyte 20-something farmer.

They dubbed the tiny patch, found through an ad on Craigslist, Lunita Farm. Even after raising $10,000 on Kickstarter to get it going, they still made no money and Blair, who grew up the son of a doctor and a microbiologist in Syracuse, N.Y., decided that despite his apprenticeship at the nonprofit Soil Born Farms in Sacramento, he had a whole lot more to learn.

"I really wanted to work for somebody who could teach me how to fix a tractor," he said.

He found a mentor in veteran grower Paul Wirtz. A highly educated but low-paid farmhand, Blair, 27, is happily learning the ropes one season at a time at Paul's Produce in Sonoma. Meanwhile, girlfriend Casey Beck, a budding filmmaker who he met at Tufts University, supports the household as a yoga instructor while working on a documentary, "The Organic Life," which chronicles the sweat and blisters behind those juicy heirloom tomatoes and beautiful peppers arrayed at the farmers market.

"Our generation was raised to believe if you want something you just go and do it," said Beck, an animated young woman with a ready laugh who doesn't farm but cans and helps tend the chickens on their tiny urban homestead in Boyes Hot Springs. "A lot of young people in all sorts of different arenas now don't realize the value of working for someone for a long period of time."

The face of agriculture has aged, with most farmers now between 45 and 64; the number under 45 dropped 14 percent between 2002 and 2007, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture. But a grassroots movement led by groups like the National Young Farmers Coalition and The Greenhorns is trying to turn that trend around, promoting, recruiting, supporting and fighting for policy change that supports young, new and first-generation farmers.

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