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California Farm Academy Offers Path For Immigrants And Second Career Farmers

Jason Rogers

Farmers-in-training lay irrigation lines on a farm plot in Yolo County

Jason Rogers

American farmers used to hand down their farms to the next generation of their family.

But for the most part, farm succession doesn't work that way anymore.

"The number of people who are farming in this country now: it's below two percent," explains Sri Sethuratnam, Director of the California Farm Academy at the Center For Land-Based Learning in Winters.

"If family farm succession was still working, that wouldn't be the case."

This shift in American agriculture leads Sethuratnam to the question at the center of his work: where will the next generation of farmers come from? 

Sethuratnam sees a great resource of untapped potential in first-generation immigrants, refugees and people coming to farming after a career in another field.

Take Ojas Chauhan, a newly minted graduate from the beginning farmer training program.

He was born in India and he's an engineer at Intel in Folsom. Understandably, his curiosity about growing food began in his own kitchen.

Chauhan and his wife, both vegetarian, craved fresh produce and specific ingredients to prepare Indian cooking at home in California.

"We could find the ingredients at Korean and Indian specialty stores," explains Chauhan.

"But not at the farmers market. There we'd find the usual tomoatoes, eggplant, cabbage and cauliflower."

What he didn't see was the variety of vegetables available in India.

That lack sparked a hunch. Chouhan wondered - maybe he and his wife weren't the only people in northern-central California looking to buy gourds, legumes and spices commonly used in South Asian cooking, like fenugreek.

Produce that wasn't shipped in fromTexas, Florida or Mexico.

At first Chauhan, who describes himself as "a big dreamer," imagined launching a produce empire to supply a big swathe of the west coast.

But his coursework at the Farm Academy served as a reality check.

Chauhan identified two big hurdles to starting a farming business in California: the labor shortage and complex regulations.

So, instead, he's opting to grow slowly. 

The engineer plans to apply to CLBL's Farm Business Incubator. If he gets a spot, he'll have a shot at farming a half-acre plot in West Sacramento for a few years. He could build his concept while keeping his day job in tech.

Sethuratnam of the Farm Academy says many existing pathways into agriculture are designed for younger people without dependents. In other words, college students who can do a farm apprenticeship for a season. 

But, he argues, that model filters out a lot of potential candidates.

Like would-be farmers who want to enter agriculture after a career in engineering, business or education. Or first-generation immigrants or refugees who bring knowledge of their own region's farming practices.

"That's the role that our training and incubator program aim to fulfill," explains Sethuratnam.

This week the sixth class is graduating from the Farm Academy. He says similar programs would need to be replicated many times over to attract and train the next generation of farmers.

Looking at the trends in immigration to the U.S. from Southeast Asia, China and South Asia, Sethuratnam sees great promise.

"These are cultures that have hundreds of years of farming experience and some of the people who come here actually bring that with them."

The average age of a farmer in the U.S. is nearly sixty years old according to the USDA Census of Agriculture from 2012.

From Sethuratnam's perspective, the country's agricultural sector risks losing out if it doesn't find more ways to draw on the body of knowledge within many immigrant communities living in the U.S..

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