Sridharan (Sri) Sethuratnam is the California Farm Academy Director at the Center for Land-Based Learning. He is a passionate student of traditional management practices in agriculture, and a proponent of integrating traditional approaches into modern farming methods.

Tell us about the history and evolution of the Centre for Land-Based Learning – how did it come about?

Sri

The Center for Land-Based Learning began in 1993 as the FARMS Leadership Program, founded by Craig McNamara, a walnut farmer, and his wife Julie, out of concern for what they believed was a disconnect between people, their food supply and the land. That was the seed from which the organisation started. The Center for Land-Based Learning evolved out of this and was instituted in 2001 as a non-profit organization.

Until 2012, all of Center for Land-Based Learning’s programmes served high school students. Our youth programmes are designed to combine hands-on experience with classroom learning, allow for leadership development, and introduce students to sustainable agriculture practices that contribute to a healthy ecosystem. The Center’s philosophy is to create an experiential learning space in whatever programmes or projects we do. The programmes also aim to create connections to agricultural, environmental, and food system careers. Over half of programme alumni, who responded to a survey, reported that they are employed in agriculture or environmental science careers.

Why did the Center extend their programming to adults and move into farmer training with the California Farm Academy?

There was a heightened awareness of the need for a new generation of farmers. USDA stats show that only 1.8% of the population are farmers, which raises a huge question mark around who is going to be growing our food in the future. It’s an issue that has largely gone unnoticed.

It was also because the need was there. There was only one other programme in California, at that time, focused on training farmers. [In the California Farm Academy], we start with a seven-month training programme which gives a broad overview of what it takes to farm. Then if they want to take the next step, we also have a Farm Business Incubator programme through which [a new farmer] can lease land from us for four or five years.

We’ve also just added in the last year, an accredited apprenticeship. It’s a two-year programme that provides 220 hours of instruction and classroom time and 3000 hours of on-the-job training. We are trying to develop a group of ‘mentor’ farms that apprentices would be placed on during the apprenticeship, getting paid ‘on the job’ training.

What do you think is the most important aspect of farmer training?

I think the most important aspect is providing [those interested] with a pathway into farming. In their head, they may be thinking ‘I’m interested in farming, what do I do next?’ In the US and Canada, unless you come from the farming sector, there’s not a pathway into the profession. We know that the intergenerational succession has been broken for quite a while. But now, there’s this huge interest from people outside of farming. In the last eight years of doing this kind of work, I have only seen that interest increase. People from all walks of life, for all different reasons, want to come into farming. So, re-creating those pathways is important. I like to tell people that we are teaching our youth everything but the one thing that keeps them alive – the art of growing food.

I also think the experiential learning space is important. Farming is learned very much by doing, when you put theory into practice. Agricultural universities, for the most part, produce agricultural graduates, not farmers. If they did, there would be no need for the California Farm Academy to exist.

Where do the people who enter the California Farm Academy come from?

Traditionally [training] used to come from parents; children would do chores on the farm and learn the ropes. But that’s in decline now. For the cohorts that we are getting in now – which range from 23-55 – many of them are switching careers, and many have grown up in urban areas. We also get immigrants. I have a lot of hope for farming in the future because there are all kinds of people trying to get into it. It’s not defined by age or skin colour or educational background.

Making a living in farming is difficult, especially at the small-scale end of production – what do you do to prepare your students for the financial realities of farming?

The Incubator programme has a huge focus on the business planning side of things. In the initial years [of new farmers], their passion and interest drives them, but somewhere down the road, they are going to ask ‘am I making enough money to cover my costs’? You need to really ask that question on day one, rather than in year five or six when the passion and interest is spent. So, we do push them on the business side of things, getting them to start looking at this as a means of livelihood. We try to prepare them for it, to give them the space to crunch out some numbers.

The encouraging thing is that a lot of these [new farmers] are market savvy, and because they come from the city they know how important marketing is and that it is as important as production.

But while money is important for the folks that come to us, it’s not the be all and end all of what they want. There are other things that farming gives you, intangible benefits that don’t have a dollar value. If you are looking to make money, there are many other ways to do it.

Is access to land still a critical issue for new farmers in the US?

Access to land is more than a critical issue. There are two issues here – the first is that if you are based anywhere near urban markets, you are priced out of land, and [second] if you move into any of the rural zones, land parcels have become so big that they carry a huge debt load. It’s very difficult to find smaller parcels of land because of the consolidation of land that’s happened over the last 20 years. It’s not that the land isn’t there, but there are these societal structures [such as land consolidation] that prevents people outside of farming from getting into it. I spend sleepless nights thinking ‘but if we are training all these farmers and they don’t get the land, what is the point of this training?’

We need to shift our thinking around land tenure – it’s hugely ingrained in us that we have to own land, but there are other forms of land tenure. If you go to places like India and China, the Commons are still active. We should be looking at models outside of the US and Europe.

What else can we do to further inspire and support new farmers?

The inspiration comes from them, we just need to create the pathways to support them.

Photographs: Center for Land-Based Learning

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