After 30 years of providing support to thousands of farmers around the state, the University of California’s Small Farm Program (SFP) will close at the end of this month.
The decision came as part of an effort to address a $9 million budget shortfall within the university’s division of Agriculture and Natural Resources in the upcoming year.
Though the advisers will continue to receive funding, the program will lose its support staff who are responsible for writing and managing grant proposals, said the program’s director Shermain Hardesty.
“Since 2000, we have generated $2.2 million in grants which is used to fund advisers’ research and most of our workshops,” she said. “The advisers will lose a lot of their support which means that they will be much more limited in their work and in communicating with farmers in their area.”
Hardesty said she was surprised that SFP was cut completely as most of the other programs in the division received only 20 percent cuts in their funding.
“I expected the same thing to happen to us so I was pretty shocked that we were cut altogether,” she said. “We weren’t given a reason for why this decision was made.”
Barbara Allen-Diaz, the assistant vice president of programs for the division, said the decision to cut the program came as part of a lengthy consolidation process.
“The budget cuts mean that we can no longer afford to have independent, stand-alone administrative units,” she said. “We plan to eventually consolidate all units, but we could not do everything simultaneously.”
Though the administrative support staff will be cut, Allen-Diaz said advisers will retain their positions.
“People will lose their jobs, but with these enormous cuts, it can’t be helped,” she said. “Over 90 percent of our state funding is tied up in personnel and when you have a 20 percent cut, people are affected. These decisions did not come lightly and none of us are looking forward to the state budget for the next year.”
Over 85 percent of California’s farms classify as small, meaning they bring in an annual revenue of less than $250,000. Many of these farmers often struggle to compete with their larger counterparts, said Hardesty.
“Small farmers don’t have the resources to get the assistance they need,” Hardesty said. “They can’t afford to pay consultants for advice on pest control or putting together a business plan and our program provides these resources.”
In addition to providing assistance with marketing techniques and educational programs, SFP also maintains advisers in eight counties throughout the state that conduct research on the specialty and emerging crops that help small farms survive.
“Small farmers really can’t compete with large farmers on basis of price – they simply have higher production costs per acre,” Hardesty said. “In order to compete, small farmers focus more on specialty or ‘niche’ crops that are ignored by larger farmers.”
This emphasis on specialty crops has led to the propagation of many unique crops within the state such as Sichuan peppercorns and dragon fruit.
It has also meant the introduction of crops previously deemed impossible to grow in California.
For example, a decade ago, experts were critical of farm adviser Manuel Jimenez’s efforts to introduce early season blueberries to the state.
“I was told over and over ‘you can’t grow blueberries here,'” he said. “Many people thought it wasn’t possible because blueberries have a high chill requirement and need acidic soil.'”
Jimenez was persistent in his research. Today, California produces $30 million a year in blueberry crops.
“If a student has ever bought blueberries at their local farmers market, they have the small farm program to thank,” Hardesty said.
ERICA LEE can be reached at email@example.com.