NEW FARMER JOURNAL: Your Farm, Hilmar CA

Family ties
A new farmer questions whether her emotional attachment to family land is rooted in practicality.

By Mele Anderson
Posted May 12, 2005

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

April, 2005. I can’t help but think this month of the John Lennon quote about life being what happens while you’re busy making other plans. We were deep into planning for planting this season – figuring out which cover crops will grow in our summer heat, which beds we’d plant in crops for the market, how to water said crops, and how to deal with the foxtails and Bermuda grass that are so darn pernicious here. But that’s sort of on hold for the time being. We went to a county supervisors’ meeting where I spoke my mind and heart on how I believe my grandpa’s farm shouldn’t be split into smaller parcels. My feeling is that doing so would raise land values more in this area, making it so new farmers are priced out of this market. I spoke my mind, knowing full well that I was endangering my ability to buy this place with the average price for land in Merced County hovering around $23,000 per acre. The supervisors’ decision to uphold the county planning department’s denial of the parcel split gave me a short-lived feeling of success. That very afternoon, the relative who inherited my farm from my grandpa listed it for a price that’s a good 30 percent more than what my farming partners and I can stretch to afford.

So for now our plans to buy a pump to irrigate the back two acres where we’ve planted cowpeas and buckwheat are on hold. It’s frustrating because we spent a good amount of time scything the foxtails, making compost piles, and planting cover crop just before the supervisors’ meeting. But if this property is sold, the longest we could stay is September 1st and that makes for a short growing season here. We’re also hesitant to spend money on an investment that we may not need if we farm elsewhere.

Our priorities have changed from getting new stuff into the ground to pulling out what we’ve already planted in case we have to move. If we wait until August and we have to move, our plants won’t make it if we try to pull them out then. Alec went out and bought pots so we’re beginning the painful task of moving the native plants and fruit trees we’ve planted into them. We’re also working on a contingency plan and asking lots of questions about where we would be farming if I didn’t have such a strong sentimental attachment to this farm. I’m learning that love of the land doesn’t buy a farm.

Seeing the planning department’s presentation about the setting around my farm was an eye-opening experience. While I knew that there were dairies all around us, I wasn’t aware of the full extent of it. I had the opportunity to see a map of dairies in my immediate area and realized that my dad’s nearby farm and my farm are the only two around here that aren’t dairies or growing forage crops for the dairies. Oat harvest began a few days ago and since the start we’ve had trucks flying past our place at breakneck speed and dust flying from their heavy machinery-intensive harvesting techniques and the manure spreading that follows. I’m honestly not sure if I want to ransom my future to pay to farm next to these guys. They’re great people, and I don’t want to seem like I’m judging them as farmers. It’s just that we really feel the impact of our neighbors’ farming practices in raised water table in the summer, dust in the air, and heavy traffic on our road. It makes me wonder if there’s a better place for me to farm.

So now we’re beginning to eye land up north and are thinking lower prices might make it a better spot for us. Better air quality is appealing, too, as is access to mountains and clean water. Part of me really wants to stay here and fight the good fight, but the price might just be too precious. In the meanwhile, we enjoy watching the red-tail hawks fledge their three babies, the swallow singing outside our bedroom window in the morning, and the hummingbirds discovering the new nectar sources we’ve provided them.