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Director's Column. California Small Farms and the Small Farm Program at the Beginning of a Millenium

by Desmond Jolly, director, Small Farm Program

Remarkably, despite all its challenges and vicissitudes, the clientele served by the University of California's Small Farm Program still persists. Most people do not realize that there are still 74,126 farms in California, according to the 1997 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

This number is down from the 77,669 farms reported in the 1992 U.S. Census of Agriculture. Even so, the 1997 figures are remarkable. These farms vary in size and value of production. As indicated below in Table 1, 20,662 farms, or 28 percent, were below 10 acres in size. Another 24,250 farms, or 33 percent, range from 10 to 49 acres, and 13,288 farms range from 50 to 179 acres. Farms with more than 180 acres totaled 15,926, with 5,084 farms, or 8 percent, with more than 1,000 acres. In terms of their respective incomes earned from farming, 19,423 farms earned less than $2,500, and 28,410 farms earned between $2,500 and $100,000, representing 38 percent of all farms.

Distribution of California Farms By Acreage and Sales, 1997

Total California Farms in 1997 74,126  
1 to 9 acres 20,662 21,485
10 to 49 acres 24,250 26,089
50 to 179 acres 13,288 13,883
180 to 499 acres 7,270 7,512
500 to 999 acres 3,572 3,702
1,000 acres or more 5,084 4,998

Distribution of California Farms By Acreage and Sales, 1992

Total California Farms in 1992 77,669  
Less than $2,500 19,473 22,692
$5,000 to $9,999 6,498 7,417
$10,000 to $24,999 8,621 9,324
$25,000 to $49,999 6,747 6,899
$50,000 to $99,000 6,544 6,360
$100,000 or more 19,727 17,817

Source: 1997 U.S. Census of Agriculture.

The Small Farm Contribution

Using the recent definition of small farms, provided by the National Commission on Small Farms as farms with incomes of $250,000 or less, California's small farms contribute $2.3 billion to California's agricultural output at farm gate. But small farms also can be appreciated in a multifunctional context -- not just the unidimensional context of dollar value. The National Commission on Small Farms enumerated many of these other contributions. Among them:

  • small farms represent diversity of ownership, cropping systems, biological organization, cultures and traditions
  • approximately 60 percent of all farms are less than 180 acres, indicating that the majority of farmland is managed by a large number of small farm operators
  • decentralized land ownership produces a more egalitarian society, offering opportunities for business ownership and operation
  • small farms nurture youth in becoming responsible citizens
  • small farms foster a more positive consumer connection
  • small farms contribute to the rural community's social and economic vitality

Role of the Small Farm Program

The UC Small Farm Program has been contributing to California's small farm sector since 1979. Research and outreach conducted by the program's farm advisors have enabled California's small farm operators to adopt new niche market crops, to utilize more cutting edge production practices, and to market their products in innovative ways that meet emerging urban consumer needs. The program serves both conventional and alternative production systems.

The Small Farm Program has been supportive of, and has partnered with, other organizations to facilitate the development and growth of farmers' markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), and other marketing alternatives. Through its co-sponsorship of Tasting of Summer Produce programs in various cities, the Small Farm Program helped foster the emergence and growth of California cuisine that focuses on fresh, locally grown produce.

The Early Years

Back in the early 1980s, with a cadre of farm advisors that included Pedro Ilic, Alfonso "Butch" Durazo, Faustino Munoz, Louie Valenzuela, Manuel Jimenez, and Steve Mendivil, the Small Farm Program focused on helping to empower new second-language, recent entrants to farming by working with them on their traditional and new crops. We continue that work today with Southeast Asian, Hispanic, and Latino growers in the Central Valley, and Hispanic and Latino growers on the Central Coast. 

Our targeted resources include the Small Farm Center and six core Small Farm Program farm advisors. Other advisors from the Small Farm Workgroup add weight to our efforts. Our mission has not diminished. In fact, it has grown. However, our program resources have decreased. In particular, the Small Farm Center's core support funding has declined, and farm advisors continue to find it difficult to access funds to carry out research on specialty and minor crops that do not have marketing orders or commissions such as the California Strawberry Commission.

The California Biological Agriculture Initiative: AB 2663

A glimmer of hope has appeared in the form of Assembly Bill 2663, which asks the University of California to adequately fund a number of legislatively mandated programs including the Small Farm Program.

The Small Farm Program cannot contact legislators to lobby on behalf of AB 2663. But we want to let our clients know that this bill, sponsored by the Assembly Committee on Agriculture and Assemblyperson Helen Thomson, offers a rare ray of hope that, for at least a couple of years, we may not need to keep up the frenetic pace of grant proposal activity to support our research, outreach, and services to the small farm and alternative marketing communities. Legislators are not as aware of our contributions as those that have benefited directly from our work during the past 20 years. This may or may not be a factor in the passage of the initiative. Particularly important is how Governor Davis will respond if the legislature passes AB 2663.