California Small Farm Conference Opens In San Diego
Top story on the midday eddition, California is looking at the possibility of yet another year of drought. So far rainfall in San Diego County is still about 4 inches away from a normal season of rain and none is forecast for this week. A farmers livelihood depends on the generosity of the heavens and small farmers are the most economically vulnerable. Right now, the California small farmers conference is taking place in San Diego and we have a person that joined us to talk about how small farmers can respond to the drought and to the many other challenges that they face. Joining me in the studio is Caren Rich Fierstein, she is the CSSC President and she is a business and cooperative specialist for USDA rural development and Karen, thank you very much for coming and. You are welcome. Karen, first of all, what is a small farm? Well, for purposes of the California small farm conference, we do not define its. We let the farmers self define what a small farmer is. We could spend countless hours debating it, and so we have just decided to say, the farm -- the farmers can self define. Okay. But since you have this conference, what kind of farmers would you say that you are aiming your information at? We aim at -- are information ads mostly beginning farmers. We are seeing a change in who is attending our conference as more and more young people are gaining an interest in farming these days. So our audience compared to 28 years ago, when we had the first conference, looks very, very different on how farmers look, act, and whether you are looking for for coming into the conference. There has been a lot of talk about urban farms. Are small farms getting closer to the center of town? That is correct. Urban farming is moving into the center of farm that's what we are looking for at the small farm conference is supporting with education and networking, opportunities for farmers to become commercial farmers, to become economically viable, whether they are in a rural area or an urban area. We are now looking at supporting hobby farmers or community gardens. This is commercial farming that we are looking at. Okay. Well,, I guess when you talk about making farms commercially viable that sort of leads us to it a discussion of this drought that we still seem to be suffering through. How would you describe the impact that the drought is having on the small farmers? It is having an impact, and we are seeing it in many different ways that farmers are changing their farming practices, they becoming more efficient, they are using a technology more and more and in many cases, some farmers are switching out what crops they have been growing. Today at the plenary session, we heard from AJ who is looking at global climate change and saying that farmers are the solution to climate change and we had a follow-up with Casey Anderson with the California Farm Bureau here in San Diego, who spoke about the impact of the drought in California and in San Diego and how farmers are switching out what crops they are planting, avocados are coming out. Grades are coming in. Well, and, since you mentioned the San Diego County Farm Bureau, we do have the executive director of that group on the line right now. Eric Larson, thank you for joining us. Yes. Thank you for the invitation. Okay. Well, I think you may have heard Karen talk about switching out of crops in San Diego. As a result of the drought and lack of water. Is there anything that you would like to add to that? Well, I would like to add that it is not so much the lack of water as it is the price of water. The Metropolitan water District MSN new County water Authority have done a really good job of diversifying the water portfolio here in San Diego County but all of those things that they have done to find other sources of supply are very, very expensive and the farmers have to share in those costs so it is not as much drought that is causing the changes here as it is the price of water so is kind of a price drought I guess and the water district point where farmers cannot afford it and have to find alternatives. But our farmers changing the crops that they are growing as a result of shortage of water? Well, they are changing their crops or I will go back to this because of the price of water. It could change. We do expect this is a mandatory cuts in agricultural water use this summer that remains to be seen. But absolutely, as farmers cannot afford to grow some of the traditional crops, we have grown here in San Diego County, if they want to stay in business, they have got two choices. They can grow another crop and replace the whether they have or they can figure out how to make the crop that they have more efficient and promote -- and produce more pounds per acre. Well, Karen, there are at least a couple of workshops at your conference of that pertain to the drought and one concerns of drip irrigation -- is this something that the farmers are still putting into practice? Yes. Very much so. We bring in experts each year to the conference that address production issues. So drip irrigation is not new to the conference and we try to provide a wide variety of workshops that are not just production oriented. And is it drip irrigation appropriate for all crops? Or just for some? I think that Erica probably answer that. Okay, Eric could go ahead. Yes. Really if you are doing a crop like an avocado tree or Sutton Street you cannot use the drip because the water goes straight through the brute and so you cannot spread the water of the service but I think the bigger subject is that the growers have to become extremely efficient with the water that they use and it is expensive or because of the drought there is not enough and every single drop has to count and it cannot go to waste. You know, Eric, I asked Karen if she had a definition of what a small farm is and she said that they preferred not to talk about that but it sounds like you do have a definition at least for San Diego County. Well, you know, it depends on the way that you measure. A small farm is producing several thousand dollars per acre is going to be different than a small farm that is producing a crop that is a lot less so we tend to think of a small farm in terms of acreage and people do -- they look at it but it's probably more of a reflection of how much money that farm makes that defines it as small. So I guess a small is when a farmer is just making a living for themselves and anything other than that will start to be a big farm when they start to include employees. Right. 10 acres or less? Is that kind of your -- is that the conventional wisdom that makes a farm small? You know, that does tend to be the line that people like to draw if it is smaller than 10 acres, people -- if it is less than 10 acres people say the small in San Diego County, that probably represents 50% or maybe 70% of the firms that we have so if that is your definition, we have got a lot of small fires. Okay. I guess we have settled the small farm definition controversy here and my guess our Eric Larson and Karen Cermak and Eric's executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau and Karen is the president of the CSS theme and she is also a business and cooperative specialist for USDA rural development. One other thing that I know you are going to be talking about, Karen, during this -- during the conference, which is happening in San Diego right now, is the content of soils. Is there a way to make soils more let -- likely to store and retain moisture? That is an excellent question because this morning, I found out how they can use a composting and mulch tea to improve the ability of the soil to protect itself and its plant from it getting diseases. We had a farmer else begin this morning on the plenary session. But there will be more workshops this afternoon and tomorrow the farm conference continues on, where there will be more opportunities for farmers to learn on how to improve their soil and improve their production practices. And what you think about that, Eric? Is that something that farmers are talking about doing, changing the content of their soil? But absolutely. Our native soil here in San Diego County does not have a lot of organic matter it because we do not have a lot of rain, there has not been a lot of native vegetation and that is what retains the soil, the moisture in the soil is the organic matter so yes. Farmers are extremely conscious of adding organic matter to their soil and then, mulching as well. On the surface to hold water in. So yes. Organic matter the soil is critically important. And Karen, refining ways to measure soil moisture? Yes. I am not an expert in soil moisture, but there are new ways and new technologies to measure moisture. I think that we provide at the farm conference a resource of information. We have exhibits that are available where people can find that technology that they need in our exhibit hall. If not, if that is not there, they can ask one of the experts are there from USDA, or cooperative extension, or from the Farm Bureau or other farm advisors that could direct them to that information. Era, either small farmers in San Diego that are going out of business because of what you say is the high price of water? Yes. I hate to report that but it is absolutely true. Again, it does the growers of permanent crops so crops like avocados and citrus where the trees went to the ground, 20, 30, 40 years ago and you do not have the capacity to change the crops very easily with the change of the times and also, those farmers are getting older and the average age of our farmers probably ¬60 or more and so there may be folks reluctant to go in and retool and change what they do. So we are. There is no escaping the fact that we are losing farmers in San Diego County, simply because of the high price of water. I want to get back to the subject of our -- what are the thirsty crops? The context of San Diego, Eric, what are the crops that have been traditionally grown here that might not be grown so much in the future? Well, you know, I would have to say citrus and avocados. We do. And you are saying that there are thirsty crops is probably a good description. That said, were all of the work is being done and people are really concentrating is how can you grow more fruit per unit of water that is put on those trees? So we have always called them thirsty before because they have been the big water users but we may turn out around and research may get as to the point of the growers are very efficient with those and less thirsty and produce more fruit. And, Karen, looking at the rest of California, what about rice? What about alfalfa? I am not an expert on rice and I am not an expert on alfalfa. And what the farm conference can provide is those resources for people who are each student growing rice and alfalfa but rice and alfalfa traditionally are not grown by small farmers. But and, once again, I talked with Eric Larson and Karen and Karen is the president of the California small farmers coalition and she is a business and cooperative specialist for USDA rural development and Eric Larson is executive director of the San Diego farm -- San Diego County Farm Bureau and we're talking about the conference of the California small farmers which is taking place right now in San Diego. Karen, I understand by looking at the agenda of your conference, that you are actually going to pay a visit to some farms in San Diego. Do you want to tell us about that? But yes. That actually took place on Sunday. We had farmers unfortunately had the joy of getting up even an hour early because of the time -- the clock change. But we had five buses that rolled out, starting at But we had five buses that rolled out, starting at 8:30 AM and they were gone all day. We tried to focus their called field courses, not worse, because we have experts on the buses that are teaching as well as the stops we -- where they are going to teach the farmers conservation methods, how to market high-value products, how to do direct marketing, how pharmacy connections, agri-tourism, and of course a farmers market were which was sold out. Are you going to be visiting any fines does you talk about conservation, conservation of water -- is that one of the issues that you will be looking at? Or that you have dashes but we -- yes. We did look at it. I should say. Innovations and conserving water resources and conserving farms. That was it worth it that was put on some macro is a board member of the national Center for appropriate technology and the -- also from NCHP. Era, as you look at the remaining weeks and our rainy season, are you recommending that farmers start praying for rain quite Well, you know, if it was that simple, we would do it. We were probably pray for El Niño early in the year they said that it has only arrived and is a little bit late and there is no moisture in the air but it does not look good a lot of people lose track of, even though we really like to get rate here, we have got to keep our eye on the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada's because that is where the water comes from in the summer months and that is looking really poor. I suppose when you talk about small farmers, these are not people who can just let their fields like fallow for a year but I suppose with the loss of income, it could make them go bankrupt. With the majority of our farmers in San Diego County growing permanent crops, it is not like they are growing vegetables where they can make a decision to plant one and not and if you have got great finds it is great finds her avocados are citrus or persimmons or something like that, you have got to irrigate those plans so they are going to die and you are going to lose your investment so that is a special challenge that we have. Well, I have been speaking about the challenges -- all the challenges that small farmers are facing and Eric Larson's executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau Federation and Eric, thank you very much. Thank you, Tom. Karen Rich Fierstein is the president of the California small farmers coalition which is now holding its conference here in San Diego. Karen, thank you very much. You are welcome.
The annual California Small Farm Conference in San Diego will run through Tuesday, and the ongoing drought is high on the list of topics attendees aim to tackle.
The conference, which promotes the "sustainability and viability of small and family-owned farming operations and farmers markets," offers workshops and opportunities to go off-site and visit some local farms to learn from experts.
The four-day event, which began Saturday, includes workshops on the seasonality of California fruit crops, urban farming and new legislation that impacts farmers' markets.
Given the drought and rising water prices, this year's attendees are also visiting a vegetable operation, dry-farmed vineyard operation and a multi-species livestock operation to learn about innovative ways to conserve water.
Karen Rich Firestein, president of the California Small Farm Conference, said the meeting helps farmers share ideas on how to be economically viable.
"It (drought) is having an impact, and we're seeing many different ways farmers are changing their practices," Firestein told KPBS Midday Edition on Monday. "In many cases, farmers are switching out which crops they're growing."
San Diego County is home to more small farms — 10 acres or less — than any other county, according to San Diego County Farm Bureau.
About 500 people are attending the conference at the San Diego Marriott in Mission Valley.
For more information, go to californiafarmconference.com.