Alisal High School and CSU Fresno graduate Octavio Garcia first got into farming at age 18. But breaking into the ag business in the Salad Bowl of the World is no easy task. Land – when available – is expensive, and most banks are unwilling to make loans to people entering a business as risky as small-scale farming.
But for Santa Cruz-based California FarmLink, Garcia represents the future of farming. The ag industry is white and aging; the average age of farmers is pushing 60 years old. Garcia, 26, bucks that trend. He has been working his 28-acre organic farm for nearly four years.
“We’re building the pipeline of people who will be a vital part of our regional food system,” says Reggie Knox, executive director of California FarmLink, a nonprofit that provides access to land and capital to up-and-coming farmers.
California FarmLink is a Community Development Financial Institution and provides microloans (in the U.S., business loans less than $50,000) to individuals on the Central Coast, in the Central Valley and in Northern California. Half of them go to the farmers in Monterey County.
In 2015, the organization provided 50 loans totaling $1.8 million, and the recipient list reflects their mission: 90 percent are low-income farmers, 68 percent are Latino, 40 percent are former farmworkers and 82 percent are organic growers.
Garcia, who grows celery, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower and strawberries, has used FarmLink’s financial services since he started, including loans to help buy farm equipment as well as capital early in the growing season when expenses are high and cash flow is low.
“FarmLink got me started and they also help keep me going,” Garcia says.
FarmLink also helped Garcia, who lives in Salinas, find his plot of land in San Juan Bautista and helped him work out a lease agreement with the owner. In 2015, the nonprofit linked 38 farmers to land and helped 13 of them secure long-term leases.
FarmLink’s loans averaged $36,280 in 2015, which farmers typically pay back in 12 to 16 months. The nonprofit is now moving in a new direction helping farmers become landowners, and last year closed its first two mortgages. Over the next five years, Knox wants to invest $10 million in mortgages to allow farmers to become the owners of the land they till.
Knox sees investing in people like Garcia as a way to help bridge economic disparities, providing financial services to deserving individuals who are typically left out.