Just Food: Small farmers face a big barrier — access to land

Mai Nguyen - Photo by Muna Danish

Mai Nguyen on the land she farms in Petaluma. (Photo by Muna Danish)

“The small family farm is an iconic American institution. And across the country, people are chasing the dream of farm life. It’s the back to the land ideal, right? Find some land and feed the world. Well, not so much.”

So says food writer and editor Twilight Greenaway, co-host of the Berkeley Food Institute’s Just Food podcast, whose latest episode considers the beginning farmer, and what it means to try to plant yourself in American agriculture these days. 

Adam Calo, a graduate student in Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science Policy and Management, talks to many young farmers for his research into California’s food system and farm policy.

“And the first thing they told me is the problem is not about how to farm. It’s about ability to gain access to land,” says Calo.

One of those farmers is Mai Nguyen, a former UC Berkeley climate and soil scientist who grows heirloom wheat and other grains, currently on leased land in Petaluma. She’s been farming for six to seven years. 

“My family came as refugees, so they didn’t have money or certainly not land to pass on to me,” she says in the podcast. “Having enough capital to start up a farm is critical, not just for land access, but also for the tools that we need, the seed, building a greenhouse, the infrastructure.”

What are the solutions, as California farming transitions from the older generation to the young up-and-comers? Calo has some ideas.

“Small Farms and Land Access: Farm Dreams Deferred” introduces the second season of the Just Food podcast, produced by the Berkeley Food Institute in partnership with the UC Berkeley Advanced Media Institute at the Graduate School of Journalism. 

Listen in on the Just Food podcast website