The First Generation Farmers are on a mission to transform how Contra Costa County thinks about food and where it comes from. In turn, they are working to create a new generation of farmers.
After starting the non-profit in 2012, the organization now has two plots of land, one in Knightsen, and one near Discovery Bay where they plant up to 45-different crops each year. The farms are working farms serving as a training tool for volunteers, farm explorers, interns, and incubators while providing fresh, locally produced food.
Allie Cecchini, co-founder of the non-profit, thought of the idea after living in Israel and came home to Brentwood. She said she got into the family business at a time when the labor pool became small and did not have a lot of people working on the farm to keep it going.
She tried to advertise jobs, but there were no takers to work in the field.
“It occurred to me at that time when did people become too good to grow their own food. Everyone is on this organic hype and food movement but who is going to grow it. That is when I talked to my friends who were interested in gardening but wanted to take it to a larger scale,” explained Cecchini”
Cecchini met Christian Olesen, who became a partner, and took a community garden idea and turn it into an open community farm. They worked from 6:00 am to 10:00 pm where they had planting parties and shared jobs around the farm.
Cecchini says the concept organically from moving seeds into the green house to planting and then eventually picking. Three years later, the organization has made an impact in the community with its offerings of an explorer program, offering field trips, and going into schools to educate about farming.
“My parents though we were crazy,” said Cecchini. “It will be three years in June and being so inside, you don’t see the growth but at times it hits you during presentations and it’s surprising because I didn’t know people were that interested in this and that there was this big of a need. To me, it doesn’t feel like progress because there is so much more to be done but the great thing is the community is buying into our program. It’s exciting to see how much the community loves it.”
Julian Erggelet a Board of Director, explained that over the last 50-years, American farming has changed with the average age of a farmer at 66-years old and half will retire in the next 5-10 years. Meanwhile, the average calorie spent on every calorie consumed has gone up.
Erggelet explained that it used to be one calorie transport for every calorie consumed in 1950. Now it’s 13 calories for every calorie you consume. Your average calorie consumed travels over 1,300 miles before you consume it.
“The whole idea of a farm as an isolated cell that supports a community, that is coming back because they don’t like the certifications, national distributions and basically all of that is becoming more popular and recognized,” said Erggelet. “It’s about bringing it back to the community. Raising live stock on the pasture with the chickens and goats. Then you let the chickens roam to help produce a farm ecosystem.”
On a working farm, it can produce livestock, fruits and vegetables, jams, and cheeses where they can sell all of that to the local community.
Erggelet pointed out it’s important to buy from a local farm noting that back east, one farm became popular because it would not sell anywhere else but on their property and people had to go to them for good. He says that the caveat was anyone who was two hours away or more, they would not sell to and instead, the farm told them to support their local farmers in the area instead.
“Farming should be something that is community bound, that the community can participate at, and serves the community as well. Everyone needs a farmer three times a day,” says Erggelet. “You need a dentist twice a year; you need a doctor once a year. We need a farmer three times a day.”
First Generation Farmers began with planting kale and doing it all by hand without spray. They sold the kale and other vegetables which help them raise awareness. They started slow and then began adding community education programs.
The concept behind First Generation Farmers was to bring farming back to the local community by keeping it real. Quickly after, they saw there was a real need for their offerings after community gardens began popping up.
“It started with planting, growing and selling at a local farmers market. Then came workshops of teaching people how to plant, teaching people how to prune. A farm should be a community aspect because where does farm education happen? Where does agricultural education happen? Where do kids learn that kale is great? Not in school, not from parents, because people are so detached and give me a package of food that comes from I don’t know where and I will eat it,” explained Erggelet. “So basically, the second part of the mission was agricultural education and now it’s the strongest part of the program. Kids, special needs, adults, community groups, churches. The third part, we went from 2-acres to 12-acres where restaurants now become interested because they heard of us and realize they want to support local agricultural and they can market local agricultural production. They can say we support First Generation Farmers and plus they really enjoy the quality we offer.”
With 14-acres available to farm, First Generation Farmers joined WOOF USA to have a farm explores program. Since its inception, First Generation Farmers has become the biggest volunteer farm in the USA with 10-13 constant farm explorers who stay between 2-months to a year where they live on the farm, get an education, and interact.
Some workers have decided they wanted to stay longer so it allowed them to start an incubator program to enable people who want to have a career in farming. By starting this program, it allowed people a chance to work a farm in a real world scenario with some safety behind it.
“How can we enable people and provide people with a protected environment without high entry qualifications and high cash requirements,” explained Erggelet. “In some other programs, you are talking about $19,000 to $30,000 in your first year. How is a 19-year-old kid going to afford that? They are not. It rules out so many people who can be great farmers but they don’t have the entry level requirements. So our plan was to enable a farming education in a protected environment in a three-year program to get people from farm explorers where they get a half acre, then an acre then acre and a half plus the education in farming, social marketing, taxes, food distribution.”
Currently, First Generation Farmers have five incubators on the property where they work on making it feasible for people so they gain experience in a real world business model in a protected environment such as growing a year’s supply for a restaurant. The idea is to run a small business with real numbers in a protected environment with a lot of independence. The goal is to gain real-life experience.
First Generation Farmers has also incorporated local schools into their offerings. They have added an after school program every Wednesday where 30-kids come. This is an independent program separate from the schools, but they have the schools support with kids coming from Brentwood as well as Stockton and Walnut Creek over a 12-week-cirriculum of the whole farm cycle.
“The idea is farming is local, essential and cool,” says Erggelet “We go into schools and kids come out here and we are contacting about 400 kids per month. We take animals, take compost. It’s about accessing everyone and make it work for every school interested. Last week, we had a field trip with a hundred kids on the farm, we build stations and they rotate around from different topics from bees, digging in the dirt, animals, etc.”
The First Generation Farmers have also grown into an animal rescue for farm animals because of the benefit they have on a farm. Currently they have horses, goats, sheep and other various animals. They have incorporated these animals into their education program to help socialize animals.
Take What you Need, Pay What You Can Farm Stand
One unique aspect about first Generation Farmers is people may come to the farm and purchase food from the farm stand. It’s all based on the “honor system”
Cecchini says she got the idea from a local Knightsen farm who sells honey. People go up, take the honey and leave money for the product.
“I thought everybody should have this, especially in Knightsen,” explained Cecchinii. “After about six months at the farmers market, it really bothered me that people were haggling on our prices. I am like all the money they are giving us is going to after school programs and to the food bank and having to haggle with you, that is my fault because people were not understanding what we are doing.”
Cecchini says they decided to go with a donation model and that way, the community can then ask why they sell this way and it would enable them to tell their story and allow the public an opportunity to better understand the organization and where the money is going towards.
Farm stand on the property is always open and it goes by the honor principal between 10:00 am to 6:00 pm it’s always stocked. The mission is about providing food access because they are a non-profit and they say no greed is involved.
“It’s about feeding as many people as possible because not everyone has the same financial background,” explained Erggelet. “We utilize the honor system and our slogan is take what you need, pay what you can and we do that on all the farmers markets and what we sell on property. Depending its end of the month and finances are limited, the value of the vegetables go up to people. Food has the same value to everyone, but not everyone has the income to dispense towards food. We want to make it possible for everyone. Someone who is on food stamps, we may take food stamps for 10-lbs of vegetables because we know that person will eat all those vegetables and sometimes that’s why we doing this. On the other hand, we will have a great conversation and someone will understand the mission and they give us $100 for two tomatoes because they like the concept.”
First Generation Farmers say over the course of a month, what people take and what they donate for food balances out to help keep the organization moving forward. Erggelet calls the community participation “heartwarming” because they are able to allow local farmers the ability to succeed.
The organization plans to work with other local farmers to find ways to prop them up while continuing to educate the community on the importance farming brings to any community.
“The focus in the future is to further solidify the community standing by offering more to the community by joining into cooperation’s to enhance the cycle,” says Erggelet. “For example, there is a bee keeper in Martinez and have 60 hives around the plot and offering his product here. He has also volunteer’s demonstrations to explain bees. It’s a win-win because he is the best person for bees in the bay area. Because he understands the mission, we are part of a team”
First Generation Farmers is looking into expanding their outdoor classroom to handle more youths and raising $30,000 for a commercial kitchen. This would enable them to process milk, produce eggs, jams, etc. The goal is to assist local small producers grow their business
“If we can get infrastructure set up, we can help all the small producers get exposure,” explained Erggelet. “Our goal is to raise everybody up which should be everybody’s goal in a community. We are trying to push this aspect through the community and there is room for everybody to succeed.”
First Generation Farmers Partner With Farmigo (Online Food Stand)
Farmigo is a new food system that takes food and products directly from the producers, distributes it in Berkeley and then delivers it to order to local pickup points. Products include fruits and vegetables, beef, chicken, eggs, breads and much more.
Erggelet says the beauty of the program is the producers get a higher return on their labor.
According to Erggelet, the producers now get 65% of the net price which is typically 30-35% in a classical distribution environment. The other benefit, is all the products are within 200-miles of the order distribution in an effort to keep everything fresh and ensure fast turnover.
- Log into farmigo.com
- Enter Zip Code
- Choose a pickup local – select First Generation Farmers
- Select products you want
- Food will be delivered to the pickup location.
- April 25 – food pickup.
You may visit them online at www.firstgenerationfarmers.org
All photos used were provided by First Generation Farmers. Follow them on Facebook.