Farms with a Face

Michael Olson, a farmer, farm consultant, photographer, and award-winning journalist, is general manager of Santa Cruz’s 10,000-watt KSCO-AM 1080 and KOMY-AM 1340, where he hosts Saturday Food Chain ( He spoke to Terrain from his home in Santa Cruz.
Terrain: What’s in store for farmers?
Olson: I see at least one trend that offers good news. Agriculture, like the rest of us, is moving into town. Worldwide there are, like 23 million people involved in metropolitan agriculture now. A huge number of farmers.
T: Where do you see that happening in California?
O: The average acre of farmland in the state of Iowa makes $322 per year. The average acre of farmland in the city limits of San Francisco makes $123,000 per year. The opportunity is in farming for the city. Because you don’t need a lot of land.
T: Can farms in Iowa do that too?
O: Well, commodities farmers are in a tough place. Whoever can make the cheapest bale of cotton wins. But what do city people want? They want huevos rancheros for breakfast and snow peas with shiitake mushrooms for lunch. They want to decorate their homes with orchids and their yards with calla lilies.
T: But, organic is still a small percentage of the total agricultural market.
O: The Monterey Bay area has about 500,000 people here. What if each one of us set aside two dollars a day — less than the cost of a latte — to buy food with its farmer’s face on it. That would mean that in this market there would be a million dollars a day spent on locally grown food. Or $365 million per year. Which is enough to support 3,650 farmers, each of whom would earn 100,000 bucks a year. By contrast, the commodity business is having a tough time right now. So if you’re a very perceptive person, you realize that it’s very, very big or very, very small.
T: And so it’s sort of like a race to the
finish here.
O: And everybody in the middle is getting crushed. So farmers are moving into town: farmers’ markets, roadside markets. That’s where the money is for small and medium farms. [Nationwide, the number of farmers’ markets increased 63% from 1994 to 2000, according to the Community Alliance with Family Farmers].
T: How easy is it? I’m guessing you’ve got more than 95% of the Central Valley’s farmland locked up in these big mechanized industrial farms. And it’s not even owned by the farmers. How will they physically change things to return to a traditional agrarian life?
O: My best guess is that it won’t be them. It will be young entrepreneurs raised in the city, and people who are more adept at understanding markets. See, traditional
farmers grow commodities and haul them down to the co-op grain elevator and say, ‘What’ll you give me for them?’ But we’re talking about people who set their own prices. Up outside the Shepherd Valley, north of Seattle, we recently visited a tiny farm that put a little three-line ad in the paper saying, “Reservations now being accepted for the Hanes Country Garden cantaloupe.” Their phone rang off the hook. These people had sold their cantaloupes months in advance.
T: How will this trend affect the Central Valley?
O: The Central Valley will be a perfect example of it because a lot of the land over there is turning into a metropolitan area. What was it you said about the population of the Central Valley expanding 300%?
So the bigger the cities get, the bigger the market for metropolitan agriculture. And I meet a lot of farmworkers at farmers’ markets: They will make great metropolitan farmers. You know I’m not trying to express values in this. It’s just to me what’s going to happen.

Comments are closed.