Early in their careers, Aurora Wilson and Paul Hamilton traded four hours of farm work every day for room and board in New Zealand. Later, they lived in a tent in the middle of a cornfield in order to learn about raising organic chickens.
Sometimes, new entrants to the farming industry have to get downright creative to find mentors, capital and land. The nonprofit California FarmLink seeks to help.
“We’re like the poster children,” Hamilton said. “We came to Half Moon Bay because FarmLink helped us, and we thrived because of their help.”
Hamilton said that he first contacted Reggie Knox, now FarmLink’s executive director, about a decade ago when he was an apprentice at Marin’s Skywalker Ranch, where he joked he was growing watermelons for Darth Vader.
“Reggie held my hand the whole way,” Hamilton said.
FarmLink was founded in 1999 as a resource for underserved farmers, particularly in California’s Central Coast, Central Valley and North Coast. It started by helping connect farmers seeking land with landholders and helped negotiate agreements. It also aided retiring agriculturalists’ plan for succession and the next generation to take the reins. In 2013, the organization was certified as a Community Development Financial Institution in order to provide loans for farmers to invest in their operations, equipment and land.
In the case of Wilson and Hamilton, FarmLink connected them with educational resources and introduced them to the Schickenberg family on the Coastside.
They farmed with the Shickenbergs for years, and when they were ready to make their next move to jumpstart Greenhearts Family Farm, FarmLink was there for Wilson and Hamilton with resources for networking, developing contracts and facilitating meetings.
Since then, Wilson and Hamilton have planted roots at Frenchmans Creek, and developed their business over the internet.
With up to a dozen employees at any given time, Wilson manages the business, and Hamilton farms. They produce winter squash, beans, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, broccoli, artichokes and hay.
Another local agricultural business that has benefited from FarmLink is ePlantWorld.
After Heeseung Lee and Jong Inn Jun emigrated from South Korea to Half Moon Bay, they depended on credit cards to finance their operation for more than a decade. Despite extensive agricultural experience in their native Korea, they couldn’t find a lender.
But a loan seemed to be the only way for the ePlantWorld family to succeed as their business expanded with their dreams. They wanted to not only import orchids, but also grow vegetables.
Trouble finding land and capital is not uncommon for farmers who are just starting out, who are immigrants, women, or people of color, according to FarmLink Director of Communications and Philanthropy Gary Peterson. And the agricultural and financial business services community often perceives small farms as high-risk borrowers, Peterson said. So FarmLink offers its own loans.
Heeseung Lee and Jong Inn Jun were finally able to secure loans for equipment and operations through FarmLink’s lending programs. Today, ePlantWorld offers orchids, as well as fresh, organic herbs and veggies.
Services for farmers who are breaking into the business without family connections are increasingly important. The U.S. Department of Agriculture anticipates that more than half of all farmland across the nation that’s transferred between 2015 and 2019 will change hands through gifts, trusts and wills, which means a higher barrier to entry.
“If you’re not inheriting a farm, if you’re a person who’s not necessarily grown up in California agriculture and you have a passion to explore operating a farm, it could be a significant challenge to secure land tenure and to grow your business with affordable capital,” Peterson said.
It’s a tough business, Hamilton said.
“It’s hard for me to make a living in Half Moon Bay. I’m not a great farmer yet,” he said. “California’s agricultural sector is a behemoth. It’s bigger than most countries’ economies. Small break-through farmers like me don’t amount to a hill of beans.”
On top of that, “You can’t imagine how many things you’ve got to take care of as a farmer. A farmer is just dealing with so many things from machines to humans to plants, lunar cycles, the weather, a changing climate — and there’s no real precedent for things American farmers are going through. There’s a lot of pressure,” Hamilton added.
Work by partners like FarmLink alleviates some of it, and gives small farmers hope to grow. Hamilton is looking out for his next venture. He’s eyeing farm number six.
“I might be able to find a farm with a more diverse opportunity for growing,” the farmer said. “This is us. This is what we do.”