NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Your Farm, Hilmar CA

The art of the deal
Who would have thought a venture into organic market gardening would require so much knowledge of planning and zoning issues?

By Mele Anderson

Farm-At-A-Glance

Your Farm
Hilmar, CA

Farmers: Mele Anderson and Alec Benz

First season: 2004

What they raise: Mixed vegetables

Marketing strategies: Farmers’ market

March, 2005. We’re in the midst of trying to do some good old-fashioned wheeling and dealing. Okay, maybe not so good or old-fashioned, but wheeling and dealing nonetheless. The land we farm on is an 18-acre parcel that is divided by an irrigation canal into a 4.6-acre portion and a 13.4-acre portion. The going rate for land in our area has increased dramatically over the past few years to a nearly ag-squelching $20,000-$25,000/acre. The landowner, who happens to be a relative, has decided to pursue a zoning variance to divide the land into two separate parcels and capture a higher value.

My boyfriend and I, along with a good friend, decided to make an offer on the entirety of the farm in the hopes that the landowner would decide to avoid the extra cost, delay and added complications of parceling the land. So far, she hasn’t decided to take us up.

So we wait with our fingers crossed. We have weekly business-partner meetings and semi-weekly breakdowns. We’re learning more about real estate, zoning, and local government than any of us thought we’d need to know to be farmers. Meanwhile, we’re spending less time working on the farm than we need.

March came to our farm in a blaze of sunny 70-degree glory. Alec and I went to work building and planting some new beds for our own garden behind the house. That first sunny day working in the garden felt so good…sun beating down on my bare arms, flowers opening, bees all a-buzz. It was enough to make a girl think she could lift any amount of heavy still-wet soil. Which she did, only to discover 10 minutes later that something was horribly wrong with her back. So I spent the next couple of days shuffling around the house as though I were looking for my misplaced walker. Poor Alec has been picking up the slack around here doing his own work plus the work I would have done if I wasn’t still healing and feeling really dumb about a foolish back injury.

Thanks to our warm spring weather, I’m able to get summer seeds started now. We’re already starting peppers, tomatoes, basil, tomatillos, and eggplant to set out in the beds in the next few weeks. We’ve had to cover our beds with bird netting due to an inundation of those feathered friends. We love the birds on the farm, but don’t love their apetites--they're devouring our garden. Right now, we’re eating spinach, lettuce, bok choy, sugar snap peas, and carrots. Thanks to a huge dose of worm compost from Alec, our herb bed is totally out of control with cilantro that’s at least three feet tall.

Alec has been perfecting his scything technique on the back two acres. Brome, foxtail, and Bermuda grass are real problems. Alec’s been attacking the grass in our walkways, but now we’ve got to go after it in our beds. We’re trying to time it right so we get it once the grasses have produced their seeds (and so we don’t have to do it again). Our soil hasn’t improved a lot with this round of cover crop, so we’re going to cover crop most of our beds again. We plan to plant one bed in summer crops to take to the farmers’ market. I’m anxious to get a presence there, especially with UC Merced opening up this fall 30 minutes away and a crop of faculty arriving now. I had good success with heirloom tomatoes in my own garden, so I’m leaning heavily toward them as my main crop for the market bed.

The real bright spot on the back two, literally, is our bed of canola. While we’ve had trouble getting other cover crops to grow in our poor soil, the canola has done great. I thought we were over-seeding it when we planted, but I think that was the right thing to do. We have good coverage, and the canola has competed well with the weeds. The flowers are a lovely color and are such a brilliant yellow that it’s tough to look directly at them on a really sunny day. The patch is full of humming bees, and we look forward to figuring out how to harvest the seeds in the next couple of months.

The next month should be a nail-biter for us with a meeting of our board of supervisors to decide whether the land can be split into two parcels. If the board decides against it, we’ll likely still have to wait to see if a neighbor outbids us on the 13.4-acre portion of land on the other side of the canal from the smaller piece where we farm. Hopefully we’ll get to stay on the 4.6-acres regardless, but we would really love to be stewards of the whole thing. Cross your fingers for us, would you?