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Farming reaps many rewards, challenges

By: Karen Killebrew, Placer Grown, Special to The News Messenger
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The rewards of farming are many, as our local farmers will tell you. Those who choose direct marketing, such as selling at local farmers’ markets, value building relationships with customers, thus creating advocates for our local food system. The challenges too are many, including barriers to buying land at a reasonable price, limited processing, cold storage and distribution facilities, lack of institutional buyers such as schools, hospitals and grocery stores. But one of the biggest challenges is a lack of new farmers. The average age of American farmers was over 57 years in 2007. Organic farmers trend slightly younger at 46 years, perhaps due to a greater sensitivity to sustainability and lower energy use than conventional farms. If America is to continue on its trend of growth in small farms (up 4 percent according to the 2007 USDA farm census), we need new farmers. As farmland has disappeared to subdivisions, agricultural education has suffered. A decline in emphasis on vocational programs at all levels and state budget restraints is causing severe pressure. The situation in Placer County is grim. Although Sierra College’s Board of Trustees recently voted to rescind the elimination of its agriculture program, they will in essence keep it alive on “life support,” with 40 percent fewer course offerings and loss of part-time staff. A “program vitality committee” will examine options during the next six months and make recommendations to the trustees. At the same time, Placer County’s high school agriculture programs are threatened. At Placer High, the loss of an agricultural welding instructor imperils the FFA program at the school. One parent, Eric Waldrop, says if the program is discontinued at Placer, his children will transfer to Del Oro in order to continue in FFA, which instills life-long skills such as public speaking and self-esteem. In January, Roger Ingram of the UC Extension Program convened a group to provide input to USDA Rural Development about job creation in the agriculture sector. Attendees overwhelmingly felt that job opportunities in the region are strong, including need for local meat processing, distribution, on-farm education programs, equipment rental and business services for farmers. Local internship programs are thriving, but interns also need access to more formal education. Agriculture is a vital economic generator for Placer County. All residents benefit from keeping our farming heritage alive and our farms productive. Let’s help Sierra College and our high schools find funding sources to not only keep educational program alive but make them relevant to today’s lifestyle. One program Sierra College could benefit from is a new USDA funding initiative, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food,” the first major USDA program targeting new farmers. It’s an opportunity to create programs for a diverse mix of new, energetic farmers as well as second career farmers who bring experiences and skills from their first careers. Our community must make its wishes known. Let our schools know that this is not acceptable and that you’re willing to help. One way to show your support is to become a community member of PlacerGROWN ($25 per year). Karen Killebrew is president of the board of directors for PlacerGROWN. E-mail her at karen@naturemedia.net. Learn more at placergrown.org.