Wildfires are ravaging large swaths of California, endangering the lives and livelihoods of so many who call the state home. Among those affected are small and independent farmers and ranchers who supply produce, dairy, and meat to the local California food shed and throughout the country. These folks have had to evacuate their homes, farms, and animals, resulting in a loss of immediate and future production and revenue. During this time of crisis, many of these farmers and ranchers rely on their communities for support. Over the last few weeks, they’ve heard from friends, family, and other farmers in the community. And for one group of sustainable farmers and ranchers, that community includes the folks at Kitchen Table Advisors.
Kitchen Table Advisors (KTA) is a Northern California-based non-profit that aims to fuel the economic viability of a multi-racial next generation of sustainable small farms and ranches. KTA provides farmers with business and financial management support to sustain their business long-term. Currently, they work with over 60 farms and ranches located throughout the Northern California region.
Most of KTA’s clients are people of color and women— over half are Latino immigrant farmers based in and around Monterey County— and all of them practice ecological land management and hold environmental sustainability as a core part of what they do. Farm owners from these communities experience even higher barriers to achieving economic viability—and that’s just one of the reasons their work is critical to HEAL’s mission.
HEAL welcomed KTA to our alliance in 2019; recently we sat down with Director Anthony Chang and Community Engagement Manager Daniella Sawaya to chat about what it means and what it takes to survive and thrive as a sustainable small farm or ranch in Northern California. Here’s what we learned.
Kitchen Table Advisors started in 2013 when some folks came together with the shared vision of creating a world where regenerative farmers and ranchers could thrive—how has your work evolved to stay true to this mission?
Our vision is for a food system that humanizes and values the people who nourish us and the land. For many agricultural producers, the path to building a livelihood that gains them that type of respect in our current food system is through operating a farm or ranch business. We work specifically with farmers that prioritize ecological land management, growing healthy food, and building community, and we recognize that unless they are able to operate viable enterprises, they cannot make a living fulfilling those goals.
Our work is informed by working closely with and listening to farmers, farmworkers, women, immigrants, and communities of color. We began with offering business advising and support but we’ve evolved into recognizing that there are many things wrong with our food and farm system, and no matter how you interact with that system, you need to navigate those things. This recognition drove us to expand our work to include interventions at the institutional level; now, rather than just working with farmers and ranchers, we also partner with other organizations like ALBA, Mandela Partners, California FarmLink, and FEED Sonoma to shape institutions that control land, capital, and markets to work better for farmers and ranchers, especially those who are from communities of color who often face additional barriers. We’re also intentional about supporting folks who don’t just care about sustainable farming and healthy food, but that are really committed to nurturing their communities and building regional food ecosystems. Because of how power and resources are distributed in the industry, however, it can be even more challenging for farmers of color to maintain these values when their family’s livelihood is on the line. They are often overlooked in the sustainable agriculture movement, despite the fact that it is built on a foundation of indigenous and ancestral land practices that are contributed by communities of color.
What kind of support do you offer to your clients?
Many folks who come into our three-year intensive advising program are established as farmers — some have worked over 20-30 years as farmworkers, and nearly all have been in business on their own for at least several years. Though they’re often great at production, naturally entrepreneurial, and are already selling to grocery stores and farmers’ markets, many lack experience running a small business and are not necessarily surrounded by people with this experience.
We help to accelerate their learning process around business and financial management, in a way that achieves their dual goals of running a viable business and stewarding the land in an ecologically responsible manner. For example, some farmers may not have a formal record-keeping system that helps them make informed choices around what to grow and where to sell. We then work with them to set up those systems so they can use data to complement their natural intuition. It’s not always a linear process; we try to meet them where they are and offer practical tools and knowledge that will lead them to their goals around money, livelihood, quality of life, or learning how to successfully run a values-based business.
That being said, it has been reflected back to us that one of the biggest benefits of our support is serving as a thought-partner for farmers and ranchers. It can be isolating to be a small business owner, especially a farmer. It is valuable to have someone to call if you need help filling out a certification form, or to consider your options after a crop fails. Simply listening to our clients, or connecting them with the right resources is a huge way in which we support farmers.
Whether it’s because of capitalism or the interconnected systems of white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, how food is produced, distributed, and sold in this country just doesn’t work for many sustainable small farms.
And what about periods of crisis, like fire season or the pandemic?
The effects of these crises are felt across our food community—on people, workers, community, air quality, and housing. We have seen it during previous fire seasons and are seeing it again this year with the combined impacts of fire season, heatwaves, and a pandemic. Our role was to be available as a shoulder to lean on, to facilitate connecting them to resources, to talk through how they can adapt. Most business owners have their ‘people’ — someone to call during a crisis. Large industrial agriculture businesses can get another 5 million dollars on their credit by making one call. The folks we work with don’t have that so we are part of this support system that helps them to cobble it together, always but especially in times of crises.
That said, our clients have been able to react and adapt quickly to give and receive support during crises because of the nimbleness of their business model, and the personal connections and social capital they cultivate in their regions— because they truly care about their communities.
Do you find that climate change is becoming increasingly present in the experience of the farmers and ranchers you work with?
The short answer is ‘yes’. The fires are an extreme example of that, but last year we had a really wet spring which totally decimated strawberry crops in Salinas, impacting revenue for the whole year. Things rarely go according to plan in farming, but changes in historical weather patterns are making things harder. Most of our clients run diversified farms so they are better able to weather climate-related surprises and make the whole system more resilient.
Additionally, farmers have been baking climate resilience into their practices. Vegetable farmers hone their practices around low or no-till agriculture, seed saving, cover cropping, and more. Ranchers focus on carbon sequestration, intensive rotational grazing, and holistic land management. They are able to react to current climate shifts, but really their leadership lies in the work they do to promote climate resilience.
Aside from dealing with crises, what are some common roadblocks that all your clients face?
Land access is a critical issue, especially in Northern California, whether it’s finding affordable land to buy or lease. Other times, it’s challenging finding a market for their product and learning to navigate relationships with buyers. Or it may be securing the necessary resources to strengthen their operations because they lack credit or the collateral needed for traditional bank loans and don’t qualify for federal agricultural funding. These are the main buckets that common issues fall into but on the whole, the system is not built for sustainable small farms, and particularly farmers of color.
Whether it’s because of capitalism or the interconnected systems of white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy, how food is produced, distributed, and sold in this country just doesn’t work for many sustainable small farms. At the end of the day, our work is about helping farmers navigate the uphill battle of operating in a system that does not work for them.
So what needs to change in order for the system to work for them—how can consumers, markets, and institutions adapt to create a system in which these producers can thrive?
We need to ask, what would it look like for farmers and ranchers, especially women and farmers of color, to have a stake in the entire food distribution chain, and have control and agency within that system? It’s also worth exploring how consumers, buyers, and retailers can orient to actually supporting the lives and livelihoods of farmers and ranchers.
How can farmers be compensated for the value they provide beyond the product they are selling? The ecological and land stewardship they provide, their contributions to local economies, and building resilient communities are all valuable public assets but they’re not treated that way in a capitalist system where everything boils down to commodities and productivity, and profits. If the price of food reflected the value of this work, it would be completely unaffordable. What if there was a universal basic income for farmers, or if farmland was in the commons? That could be a way to support them to do this important work.
At the start of the pandemic, you published a blog about reimagining and rebuilding our food system in the wake of COVID-19. You talked about stewardship, community control, and cooperatives as the way forward; how can we continue to do that, and do you already see this vision taking shape?
It’s already happening and has been for decades. Folks like New Communities Land Trust and the Federation of Southern Cooperatives and others have been doing it despite the fact that systems are stacked against them. We already work with one food hub in Yolo county that is majority farmer-owned, and another in Sonoma is becoming a farmer and worker-owned cooperative.
How do we keep at it? By honing in on our values of ecological land stewardship, equity, resilience, and our vision for what we are working towards; and letting those two things guide our choices. We also need to ask ourselves the inverse of that: what are the values that shaped the current system—and do we want to continue holding onto those values. This isn’t how the food system always existed, it was shaped by values rooted in white supremacy, capitalism, and heteropatriarchy and it’s not the only way it can or should be.
We want producers to have the opportunity to live and farm in tune with their values, and to be able to thrive rather than choosing between their values and putting food on their own tables.
Featured images: Natalie Ngo Photography for Kitchen Table Advisors