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Steve Schwartz and California FarmLink

Saving the Family Farm:
Steve Schwartz
& California Farmlink


by Ed “Redwood” Ring
July 16, 2001

FarmLink Founder
Steve Schwartz

How do you save the family farm?

The question is not new, for over a century the American family farm has been a dying breed.

And it is more than a sentimental question. It is also a question of preserving cultural identity, preserving open space, and preserving biodiversity.

In the latter case, the many small family farms guarantee an output of pioneering high-quality foods, the special strains and breeds of organic produce, for example, that out-nutrient and out-variety the best that consolidated corporate agribusiness has to offer. It is healthy to maintain such diversity in agricultural output, and the family farm plays a vital role.

The National Farm Transition Network is trying to save the family farm. This relatively new organization is a loose collection of non-profit entities in 18 states matching aging farmers without successors to motivated individuals or families that want to buy a farm. To find out more about this noble undertaking, we looked no further than Sacramento, California, where in a nondescript downtown victorian several nonprofits share space, including California FarmLink (www.CaliforniaFarmLink.org), which matches old farm sellers to young farm buyers. California FarmLink was founded by and is directed by Steve Schwarz, a pleasant 35 year old EcoWorld Hero who brings a lifetime of agricultural and political experience to his work.

Juan and Rosie Chavira sign
papers to become farm owners.

EcoWorld visited California FarmLink one morning on a brisk weekday in mid-June, on one of Sacramento’s last spring days. It was sunny and fresh and the leaves of the giant sycamore trees lining the street were still getting their second wind. Schwartz told us that farming runs in his family, his own father had a small farm in the former Czechoslovakia before emigrating to the U.S. in 1954. Schwartz himself worked in agriculture in Thailand with the U.S. Peace Corps from 1987 till 1989. He then got an M.A. in Public Affairs from the University of Southern California. After receiving his M.A., he dealt with many agricultural issues as a legislative assistant to the California Assembly and has over 14 years experience working on rural policy issues.

By 1995, after furthering legislation such as the Biologically Integrated Orchard Systems Bill, or BIOS, which created incentives for farmers to reduce pesticide use, Steve was ready to leave government, and so when he heard about a FarmLink program operating in Nebraska, he decided this was something that California needed and made the plunge.

“During the last ten years in California, from 1987 to 1997, there has been a 51% decrease in the number of farmers under 35 years old,” said Schwarz. “Right now 30% of all California’s farmers are over 65 years old, and that percentage is increasing.”

California wheat field

FarmLink in California spends much of its time locating small farm owners who have no identified successors and helping them find a new owners who will operate the farm instead of consolidating it into an agribusiness concern or giving the land over to development. “When farms change ownership there are a limited number of outcomes,” said Schwarz, “they can go to the farmer’s children, they can go to another family that purchases the land, they can sell the land to a neighbor or to an agricultural corporation, or they can sell out to a developer.”

Often the farm is not large enough to support both the incoming and outgoing families during the transition in ownership. This is where California FarmLink comes in as well, helping the families by coming up with creative financial techniques that allow the sellers and buyers to survive during this crucial period. For example, conservation easements on the farm property, guaranteeing that portions of the property will remain agricultural or become a nature preserve in perpetuity, can often bring significant money into a farm owner’s estate.

FarmLink also coordinates workshops throughout California to get the word out on ways to ensure that a “farm transition” results in preserving the family farm whenever possible. Since establishing FarmLink in early 1999, Schwartz’s organization has become directly involved in about a dozen farm transitions, and has done dozens of workshops.

Schwartz hopes FarmLink can increase its visibility in the agricultural community so more farmers can use the techniques they have developed to keep the farms family-owned. There are 22,000 farm owners in California who are over 65 years old, and many of them will soon be needing the information FarmLink can provide.

FarmLink is funded by private foundations, as well as state and federal grants.

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