As he munched on the sweet crisp carrot, a rooster crowed and goats bleated from an area nearby where Van Wagner had cleared away a tangle of willow a few years ago. Speckled laying hens walked freely in the grass at his feet as he made his way back to the goat pen.
This pastoral scene on Wet Hill Road in Nevada City is the home site and central base for six young farms spun from the Living Lands Agrarian Network.
Here, a small band of farmers teach backyard gardeners and young enthusiastic farming interns how to grow a diverse spectrum of food in a sustainable way on a small tract of land.
In the groups' second year developing a new farming model, members are educating the public while giving young ambitious farmers a leg up by providing housing, affordable land and financial backing on a network of farms within a short bicycle ride of downtown Nevada City.
"Young people can't afford to buy land," said Leo Chapman, one of the group's organizers. "All they need is that support group… That builds their confidence enough to take that step."
The project links willing Nevada City property owners who want to lease their vacant fields to farmers. In return, young farmers, interns and volunteers enrich once fallow soil to grow flowers and vegetables sold to local restaurants and farmers markets and to fill weekly boxes of food known as CSA subscriptions (Community Supported Agriculture). This year, at least one farmer has shown interest in raising animals for a meat-CSA.
Community support for the project is swelling. When Chapman and Van Wagner began their project two years ago, they knocked on doors of prospective property owners with suitable land for agriculture. As momentum for local food grows, so too does the number of landowners coming forward.
"Now they're beginning to find us," said Chapman.
With newly acquired non-profit status, organizers of Living Lands can apply for state and federal grants and accept donations from the community to provide basic supplies like fencing, green houses and wheelbarrows.
"Other big farms are subsidized. Why shouldn't we be?" asked Van Wagner.
Another funding source is a workshop series held spring through fall targeting home gardeners who want to grow more food and wean themselves from tasteless grocery store vegetables shipped from hundreds of miles away.
Young and educated, interns in their mid 20's to early 30's without the constraints of a family or 9 to 5 job, come to the farm enthusiastic about learning how to farm and connect with their local food systems.
"They're really ambitious, really stoked about learning something real," Chapman said. While a traditional farming population is aging in Nevada County, the number of young people interested in farming appears to be growing. Roughly 26 people applied for four internships this spring through Living Lands Agrarian Network, up from 15 applicants last year.
"Local interest in farming is definitely growing amongst young adults," said Van Wagner, a Nevada County native who returned home after college with an environmental studies background combined with urban and small-scale agriculture. Chapman, the eldest of the bunch, is a retired contractor who said his life became richer and more meaningful when he started farming.
He and Van Wagner met on Bluebird Farm several years ago where together they formed a vision of a community-farming project.
"It's the talk, it's the foundation that people are hoping is everything that it is. There is a whole demographic that is truly inspired and desiring to reconnect with the land, and many see farming as a way to do this."
Besides serving as an outdoor farming school, the project provides a small living stipend and seasonal housing in the form of a trailer, spare room or loft cottage at each farm site. Affordable housing and access to land are essential ingredients needed to make a farm viable.
"Housing – that can make it or break it for a farmer," said Willow Hein, who learned the hard way last season.
A year ago, Hein started an experimental farming business, Honey in the Heart Farm, and struggled without support for basic infrastructure.
"I really wanted more support for the season." Hein said.
This year, she has teamed up with farmer Maisie Ganz at Soil Sisters Farm, a woman's collective farm offering a small CSA program.
Hein and Ganz are part of a larger movement of women farmers. Most of the 26 people who applied for an internship were women, Hein said.
"I think people are beginning to see that our economy is breaking down. Jobs are becoming scarcer and scarcer, and I think people are beginning to re-evaluate their priorities. The local food/ sustainable agriculture movement is definitely growing as people become more aware of how precarious our food system is," Hein said.
Organizers of LLAN are all relatively new to farming and are learning as they go.
"With farming and gardening there are so many ways of doing it," Hein said.
They acknowledge that it will take perseverance and years of hard work for serious farmers to get to a point where they can successfully sustain themselves and support a family.
"It's hard to make a living selling produce," Hein said, who also works part-time at Peaceful Valley Farm Supply for a steady paycheck. She has a dream of someday writing about her farming life.
With demand ahead of supply, regional farmers are far from feeding everyone in Nevada County. But with a hungry demand, farmers have more room to find niche markets, Van Wagner said.
"I think there's an opportunity to do more of everything," Chapman said.
Farmers must give themselves ample time to accommodate a learning curve that comes with understanding new things like managing soil fertility, planning for markets and effectively running a business.
Many of those entering the local food movement seem well aware of the struggles before them and are in it for causes and reasons bigger than any financial reward.
"The people that are able to give it the time and persevere past the first number of years, I believe, will eventually figure out what it is they want to focus in on and what scale they need to operate on to become viable. And this is different for everybody. The type of folks entering agriculture right now are idealists and they are driven by something deep down that they consider their calling," Van Wagner said.
It's not too late to sign up for the eight-part workshop series that runs through October. The second workshop will be held April 3. Students will learn about planting schedules, bed preparation, home composting methods, site selection, food preparation and preservation and more. Participants will tour different farm sites while learning practical ways of growing food on a home-scale. Each workshop will end with a farm-fresh lunch prepared by In The Kitchen (run by Wendy Van Wagner, Tim's sister). The cost is $500 for the individual.
To learn more about farming workshops contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-205-8817.
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