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One Farm at a Time: Co-ops come together to save local farmland

In a small family acreage in nearby Capay Valley, farmers Annie and Jeff Main have worked their land for more than 30 years so they may provide diverse, organic produce to the local community.

But the threat of increasing costs, commercial development and their approaching retirement motivated the Mains to take action and collaborate with the community to preserve their farm, Good Hummus Produce.  Starting about 10 years ago, the Mains have devoted themselves to not only preserving their own land, but making all family-operated farmland accessible and affordable for future generations.

Realizing the challenge that the community faces as the owners of local organic farms reach retirement age, Paul Cultrera, general manager of the Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op (SNFC), and Eric Stromberg, general manager of the Davis Natural Foods Co-op (DFC), formed the One Farm at a Time program, focusing their first effort on Good Hummus Produce.

Starting quietly last spring, the campaign’s mission is to raise funds to save the local farms such as Good Hummus that supply their market with fresh food, as well as form awareness and strong relationships between co-op customers and local farmers.

“I’m from Massachusetts, and when I grew up, I lived with the results of what could happen here. I mean the farms aren’t there anymore. And it sort of hit me,” Cultrera said. “Here we are in this incredibly fertile part of the country. You can basically grow anything here. And we’ve got all these great farmers who’ve spent 30-40 years building up the soil and building these relationships with their communities, and it could all go away.

“It’s in our co-op’s best interest to support these farms, because if those farms aren’t there, we’re not going to have the food,” he added.

The solution that the Mains helped form to these various agricultural and economic challenges came in the form of an easement, which, with the support of national and local land trust, would put limitations on how the land can be used, protecting it from development. In addition, an easement would allow younger farmers to purchase the land and farm it for its agricultural value, which at the Good Hummus Farm would be $100,000 – 200,000, a much more affordable price than its commercial price given to developers. With eight farmers over 65 years of age for every farmer under 35, the easement will allow retired farmers to pass along their land to younger farmers eager to take it over and learn from generations of organic farming.

“Jeff turns 60 this year, and I’m 58, and we have some years left, but the question is, if our kids aren’t going to do it, who is?” Annie Main said of their retirement. “What we’re trying to do is create a family infrastructure that can be passed on. If a family doesn’t exist, then we create the family.”

Lacks of government money inspired the Mains and Cultrera to seek their own funding. Good Hummus Farm, with the help of the Davis and Sacramento co-ops, raised about $150,000 in funds from mainly individual donations.

“As painful as it is, we felt that that’s what we want because it’s community support and belief of what we’re doing and what can happen that’s important,” Main said.

Based on cooperative economics, the co-ops invited their customers to support the campaign by donating at the co-op register or online or by purchasing SNFC and DFC One Farm at a Time merchandise such as a piggy bank children can fill up with coins and return to the co-ops.

In addition, several co-op suppliers gave grants to underwrite the campaign startup costs, and so far, vendors Equal Exchange Coffee, Straus, Lundburg Family Farms, Organic Valley and Veritable Vegetable have agreed to donate proceeds from their products sold at the co-ops.

Cultrera has carried this vision strongly throughout the local community.

“We’re not just trying to raise money, we’re trying to build a community. We’re trying to have our customers have a stake in saving farms,” he said.

Upon local success of One Farm at a Time, the campaign could be replicated nationally as co-ops and farms across the country partner together to reach a greater audience and to preserve farmland.

"The bottom line is, it’s not just us…It’s one farm and then the next," Main said. "If we don’t do this, I believe that we’re going to see a lot of small farms disappear.

"A lot of farms are watching what we’re doing and waiting to see how it works. But you do things that you believe in…and you want to see it completed."

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