BOLINAS, California—Last year, his first as a professional farmer, Scott Chang-Fleeman spent May trudging through his new land ankle-deep in mud.
Months after record rains had pummeled the five-and-a-half acre plot in Bolinas, California, it was still a slippery, sodden mess.
This year, the rain barely made an appearance. In February, usually the wettest month, not a drop fell in the San Francisco Bay Area, or much of California, for the first time since 1864. By early May, the organic Asian heritage vegetables Chang-Fleeman grows on Shao Shan Farm were poking through the earth in full, proud buds.
“This time last year I wasn’t even thinking about planting,” said Chang-Fleeman, a slight 26-year-old in a baseball cap covering half his face. He had spent a long day weeding rows of Chinese broccoli, or gai lan, under a hot sun.
What a year to start a farm. From floods to wildfires, power outages and evacuations to the awful here and now—the ongoing calamity of a deadly pandemic that has smacked down the world, upending everything.
Not to mention that the lush landscape of ranches and farms where Chang-Fleeman is growing is officially parched. Northern California is in a code orange, the U.S. Drought Monitor’s color for “severe.”
No one could have predicted the coronavirus, of course, which wiped out two-thirds of Chang-Fleeman’s business when Bay Area restaurants shut down. But weather extremes? Another matter. Chang-Fleeman spent his boyhood in Los Angeles living with droughts and heat waves and water rationing. Climate woes informed his life. He decided to devote himself to agriculture, he said, not despite the challenges of a convulsing planet, but because of them.
“I knew,” he said, “I would be farming for climate change.”
A Challenging and Uncertain Moment
Chang-Fleeman’s background is quite different from the average American farmer. The average family farmer is 57.5 years old, white and rural. The family farm is passed down through generations. The farmer starts learning the ways of the land as a youth. Chang-Fleeman is among 0.8 percent of farmers, biracial, Chinese American and European American. The son of a journalist and a librarian, he studied jazz saxophone at a performing arts high school. He played in garage bands. He didn’t know anyone who farmed.
At the University of California at Santa Cruz, he majored in environmental studies, where he developed an itch to do more than study climate change. “One interest was the effect of agriculture on environmental degradation,” he said. That evolved, he said, into actively wanting to farm in ways that protect the planet.
What makes “farming for climate change” radical is how traditional the work is—as old as civilization itself. Modern farming as a form of environmental justice activism became popular 50 years ago, at the dawn of the environmental movement. The Mother Earth News, the bible for do-it-yourself organic vegetable growers, published its first issue in 1970, the same year as the first Earth Day.
Farming is tough work in the best of times, a heartbreaking proposition in the worst. In recent decades, the number of farms has dropped by tens of thousands in each round of the census the United States Department of Agriculture conducts every five years. In the most recent count, in 2017, the number of farms dropped to 2.04 million, down 67,110 from 2012. The census also found nearly twice as many farmers over age 75 than under 35. As the worst times go, these days may have no modern equal for agriculture. The pandemic has disrupted the global food supply, creating shortages and surpluses and dictating how and what farmers grow. This on top of increasingly unpredictable weather. California, for one, is already bracing for another record hot summer.
Still, the ranks of young farmers actually grew in the last Agricultural census. The Agriculture Department found an 11 percent increase in new farmers (those with under 10 years’ experience). The ranks of organic farmers like Chang-Fleeman grew from 14,000 to 18,000, and they made more money. An average organic farm sold about $401,000 of goods in 2017, up from $218,000 in 2012. Interest in organic food is skyrocketing, another silver lining.
How many of these new farms will last given the volatile climate, weather-wise and otherwise, remains to be seen. The National Young Farmers Coalition, a non-profit advocacy group, says 75 percent of its members have reported major disruptions in their business since the coronavirus lockdowns two months ago. They’re due to shuttered restaurants, catering businesses and other clients.
“This is an unprecedented moment, uncertain, challenging,” said Martin Lemos, co-executive director of the Young Farmers Coalition.
But young farmers may be resilient to the virus, Lemos added, since they have been laboring with uncertainties, perhaps their entire careers, because of climate variabilities. “They’re becoming acclimated to not being acclimated,” Lemos said. “The variability of climate is going to mean disruption. The key part of what it means to farm in 2020 and the foreseeable future is managing climate.”
The Kindness of Friends and Strangers
Last fall, the Young Farmers Coalition issued a statement calling for better governmental protections and policies for farms regarding climate change, the most urgent existential threat to its members’ livelihoods pre-coronavirus. Many of the farmers were actively farming to help heal their climate-battered farms, Lemos said, using pre-industrial age techniques like dry farming, which uses no irrigation. They also use composted organic soil, plant multiple varieties for resilient crops, and save seeds—employing the full array of techniques in sustainable agriculture.
Chang-Fleeman is one of those farmers. He started learning to farm volunteering for the UC Santa Cruz student garden co-op (“for easy credits”). He fell in love with it. After finishing a farmer training program at the university, he started his farm with pluck and luck—loans, a Kickstarter, the kindness of friends and strangers. The rented farm sits off a long and winding road surrounded by cattle and horse ranches, a deer paradise in one of the most famously boho towns in coastal California.
Talk about luck: Shao Shan Farm uses two rain water ponds for all its water needs. Last year, he only used half his available water. The little rain that did fall this year filled the pond to meet the season’s needs.
When Chang-Fleeman decided to farm, he also decided he would use farming to explore his Chinese heritage, lost to assimilation after three generations of Changs in southern California. (The farm is named for the name his grandmother gave him when he was born.) The first year, he grew gai lan, choy sum, baby bok choy, Korean summer squash, winter melon and celtuce, Chinese stem lettuce, primarily for high-end Asian restaurants.
That year he lived just outside his fields in a tent and worked 14-hour days. He worked the farm full-time alone, even as he moonlighted as a line cook to cover costs. .
This year, he is renting a small house on the land and has hired an assistant. The other day, he marveled at working only 10-hour days. “Now that I have a little time for a social life,” he said, “there is no social life.”
Some days he has time to think about the future, and what it may look like. He said he knows he will not have children—not given the state of the world: “It’s too messed up. The generations ahead of me wrecked it. It’s a bummer, I know.” He thinks he will be in farming, but maybe not in the fields. “I think of research or academia,” he said. “One reason I decided to become a farmer young is I know it’s hard on the body and you can stand more when you’re young.”
It’s easier on the farm than before but still no picnic. After the coronavirus lockdown, he threw out his whole business plan. Like many small, niche produce farms, he created a community-supported agriculture program, or CSA, where 60 customers, or members, subscribe for weekly vegetable boxes. He delivers to drop-off points in several cities around San Francisco.
Instead of growing the same dozen types of vegetables he did last year to service his commercial clients, he is growing 20 varieties of 30 vegetables, since CSA members like having choices.
The CSA should keep Shao Shan Farm afloat this season if weather disasters don’t strike. Wildfires loom as northern California heads into summer. Then there are the rolling blackouts of fire season. He is saving now for a generator.
No complaints through all the upheavals. “I’d rather be out in the fields on my farm,” he said, “than anywhere else.”
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