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Wanted: Cheap Land, Good Advice

Californian finds both in Farmlink program

March 21, 2007 | By Julie Hay
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

SUNOL, Calif.—Fred Hempel’s four-acre parcel is currently covered with nitrogen-fixing blue beans, but that will change in a couple of months, when he removes the cover crop and puts in specialty tomatoes, peppers, and salad greens.

Once ripe, Mr. Hempel’s vegetables will leave this rural oasis forty minutes south of San Francisco and land on the plates of some of the San Francisco Bay Area’s finest restaurants—and in the well attended Berkley Farmers Market.

Mr. Hempel is more than an entrepreneur who has found a special niche within San Francisco’s restaurant world, where cavalanero and flashy green butter oak lettuce are all the rage. He’s also part of California Farmlink, a statewide nonprofit that matches emerging farmers with the land they need. Land, like most things in California, is not cheap.

Faced with this stark fact in early 2006, Mr. Hempel, an aspiring farmer then working as a bio-tech manager and co-owner of a small seedling company, started Googling terms like "farming rent and farm mentors." That’s when he came across California Farmlink and landed the help he needed to find affordable farmland and get started growing his business.

Mr. Hempel: "Farmlink really tries to match people up by looking at what they have to potentially provide and also what they need. And so one of the things that we needed that was key, was a situation where we could get some mentorship. The things that we could provide, for instance were- we could provide sort of an academic expertise, I have a PhD in plant biology and I also have a lot of experience teaching."

But what he still needed, besides cheaper land, was advice on how to actually run a genuine farming operating. Thanks to California Farmlink, he found both. Soon Mr. Hempel was on his new land, planting his first crop.

Farmlink, working in collaboration with a local nonprofit, Sustainable Agriculture Education, or SAGE, helped Mr. Hempel negotiate a lease with the City of San Francisco and carve out his plot from a larger, 16-acre parcel farmed by two other Bay Area community groups—an Asian youth center and an Oakland-based food co-op farm. The eclectic group of new farmers grow their crops, and one vegetable at a time, feed Bay area residents.

Farmlink and SAGE also matched up Mr. Hempel with a mentor, helped him write a business plan for his company, and helped him through the paperwork heavy world of organic certification.

Mr. Hempel: "You know, both Farmlink and SAGE provide a lot of help"

Help is what Mr. Hempel and other emerging farmers need as they elbow their way into a farm world that is dominated by big farms and high financial stakes.

Mr. Hempel knew he’d have to figure out an innovative approach to marketing to make his farm work, and its name, Baia Nicchia—Italian for Bay Niche, reflects that. He’s found a niche market in the diverse Bay Area food world.

Mr. Hempel doesn’t farm like the traditional farmer. Instead of growing acres of a single commodity for wholesale, he grows different cultivars of vegetables row by row, and takes them directly from his soil to the consumer. That makes his vegetables not only much fresher and tastier, but also much more profitable.

When he’s not working his four acres of specialty vegetables, he visits the kitchens of some of San Francisco’s fanciest restaurants.

There he shows top chefs that his salad greens, tomatoes, and peppers are better than any others around. The chefs usually agree and are willing to pay 10 times more per bushel than wholesale to have Mr. Hempel’s locally grown, pesticide-free vegetables on their menus. This grower and those chefs work well together because they all aim for quality, not quantity.

Mr. Hempel: "We don’t want to farm in such a way that the volume is the focus. It’s figuring out which plants look the best, and taste the best. The only way I see small farms, at least in this area, being successful is when they’re hooked up with direct market opportunities."

Without Farmlink, Mr. Hempel doesn’t know where he and Baia Nicchia would be today. His Sunol farm will celebrate its second harvest this summer. It’s a landmark that California Farmlink is hard at work help other aspiring farmers reach, too.

For the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service, this is Julie Hay.

Julie Hay is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau County policy specialist. Reach her at julie@mlui.org.

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