This is a critical time in farming. According to the USDA, about half of the nation’s farmers are likely to retire in the next decade. That makes now the time for a new generation to step in, and some are using this transition to bring their values to your table.
Sarah Lopez did not set out to be a farmer. “It was sort of by accident. I was interested in having a source of clean, humanely raised meat, and I had actually tried to get into hunting, and that didn’t work out very well,” said Lopez. So she enlisted a couple of friends to help her raise some chickens in a backyard in Santa Cruz.
Fast forward four years, she and her husband Aurelio now run Fiesta Farm in rural Watsonville. They specialize in pasture raised animals. “We do two kinds of chickens, laying hens for eggs, and another kind of chicken that we harvest for meat. And then we raise pigs, turkeys, goats and rabbits,” said Lopez. Growing vegetables would’ve been a more logical choice for the couple; after all, Aurelio has ten years of experience working on an organic vegetable farm. But what drives them is bringing to market what they see as more humanely raised meat. “I think most people, even though not everybody thinks about it very much, if you asked anyone, nobody wanted an animal to spend a life suffering, just so that they could eat it,” said Sarah Lopez.
The Lopezes are part of a new generation of farmers who are just as focused on their values, as they are their bottom line. Hundreds of these farmers gathered this past weekend at the EcoFarm Conference at Asilomar. “It’s very encouraging to see an overwhelming interest of people who want to be involved with it all levels from the ground to developing the businesses -- looking for a way to farm that’s coherent with their values and what their interest is – to farm in an ecologically responsible way,” said Ken Dickerson, Executive Director of the Ecological Farming Association, which runs the annual conference. Dickerson says these farmers, who are thinking things like organic, sustainable and no GMO, can help transform the food system. “What we think the transformation can be built on is the rapid deployment of farmers who are working as owner operators, understand and care about the place, and are practicing their farming and developing their businesses in a fair and equitable way for themselves and for their communities,” said Dickerson.
Back at Fiesta Farm, Aurelio Lopez is getting a new bed ready in the brooder. That’s where the young chickens stay warm until they grow enough feathers to go out on the pasture. “We are receiving 500 baby chicks today,” said Aurelio Lopez. The couple usually works seven days a week from early in the morning to late at night. Aurelio works full time on the farm, while Sarah continues to work off the farm. “Our goal right now has been to replace Aurelio’s salary. If we accomplish that, we might start thinking about trying to replace my salary, but we also hate to dream too big and fail,” said Sarah Lopez. For now they make enough through farmers markets and their CSA to keep the farm in the black, and to keep doing something they believe in. “I’m very proud of what I’m doing, and I like to explain it to people. Unfortunately a lot of people believe that that’s the same way a lot of the food they get from the grocery stores are raising, but we try to educate them a little bit. And they get surprised,” said Aurelio Lopez. They have found like-minded customers. So they’ve started to talk about growing their farm, but only if they can do it in a humane way.