Our First Generation Farmer’s (FGF) program is offering training and farm experience to people from around the world. We are channeling their energies into offering fresh farm-to-table produce around the Bay Area. Four years ago we opened a First Generation Farmer’s stand at the Brentwood Farmers’ Market and are now at seven farmers’ markets each week, reaching as far as San Francisco and Berkeley.
Creating the First Generation Farmers program was a natural outgrowth from my roots in East County agriculture because my Cecchini family has been farming in the Brentwood area for 100 years. In the 1930s we began farming 1,000 acres in Discovery Bay. Last year we put half our property into a land conservation easement.
A decade ago several of us became aware of the community garden movement and liked the idea of creating opportunities for people to move away from the cities and suburbs in order to get in touch with the land and showing them how to sit down to a meal in which the entrée, soup, or salad were made from ingredients taken from vegetables planted, raised, and harvested by their own hand. However, my family has too much land under cultivation to implement a community garden, so in 2013 I told my friends that we should make a community farm. We launched the First Generation Farmers nonprofit project on a 40-acre campus on Cecchini farmland in Knightsen.
The project was as healing and helpful for me as it was for anyone because I was coming out of a divorce at the time and needed an excuse to get out of the house and work with people on the land. Fortunately my mom Barbara Cecchini committed to helping my vision succeed almost as soon as she learned of it. Three friends — Larry Gaines, Christian Olesen, and Zane Balona — took to the project with enthusiasm that equaled my own.
We began by growing produce and distributing it to friends and relatives. Kale was our first major crop, mainly because the seeds were inexpensive, readily acquired, and easy to grow. Other friends and relatives quickly caught our vision and joined seeding and transplanting parties. On these occasions Mom would make kale soup to feed the hungry workers. About ten people showed up at the first event, but the number quickly grew to 50 on subsequent occasions. Parents would bring their children as a way of getting the kids outdoors, in touch with nature, and away from digital media. The strongest communities are forged by people coming together to engage in some healthy activity and create a sense of belonging and of watching each other’s back. It’s difficult in our society to become part of a healthy community like that unless you are involved in church or sports. People who are FGF participants in our events are attracted to serving Mother Nature in the absence of any sort of doctrine or competition.
During our second spring planting we added tomatoes. It was a good growing year and we brought in a huge harvest. Over the subsequent years we added other crops such as eggplants, squash, and pumpkins. Every year we continued to add products until we now harvest more than 40 different vegetables including over 100 varieties of such things as tomatoes, squash, and peppers.
“We’re doing everything we can to preserve the small-farm culture that is a backbone of our American society.”
Our most popular products turned out to be greens including such things as lettuce, chard, spinach, cabbage, asparagus and (of course) kale. I’ve become a fan of cauliflower. The growing period is longer than with other vegetables, but I love the Romanesco funky shaped vegetable that, on examination, turns out to be a perfect replicating geometric shape formed by a series of spirals, each containing another spiral. I would rather hang a painting of a cauliflower on my wall than any other plant. You couldn’t find a more perfect subject for a still life.
Our 30-acre vineyard includes five varieties of grapes: chardonnay, malbec, marsanne, roussanne, and muscat. My husband Julian Erggelet, who is the Hannah Nicole winemaker, manages the vineyard and our onsite vineyard incubator.
We have 40 ducks, 50 chickens, and five Olde English Babydoll Southdown Sheep, which are specifically bred for organic vineyard management because they have short legs that keep them out of the grapes, so they are wonderful lawn mowers. We also have a herd of 15 Nigerian Dwarf goats, each producing a quart of milk every day. They are cute, and an asset for our kids’ programs. I would like to grow the herd to 30 and, since half the herd is pregnant, we might pull that off soon. Our ducks are laying dozens of eggs so we might also have a lot of ducklings swimming around in the near future.
First Generation Farmers has been a major enterprise since we became associated with the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) — an organization that links people who want to learn farming first-hand with farmers and growers. WWOOF began in the 70s in Europe. The organization is on a mission “to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, thereby helping to build a sustainable, global community.” It has the tagline: “Bringing people to a more sustainable way of life.”
Volunteers come to us from all over the world. They commit to spending at least six weeks living and working with us. However, they sometimes stay for a year or more. We provide room, board, and training; volunteers work from four to six hours every day. We are host to as many as ten WWOOFers at a time, so we’ve had more than 250 come to us during the four years we’ve been doing the program. The volunteers are mostly students, but anyone can become a WWOOFer. For example, one of our current volunteers is a 65-year-old female who got tired of the city and wanted to experience farm life. She milks the goats.
Volunteers live in a house on our property. They have come to us from nearly every state, plus places like Japan, China, Egypt, Madagascar, and every country in Europe. We currently have a couple who are from South Africa. FGF is one of their stops on an around-the-world self-guided tour. The volunteers have a good time working and learning with us.
They do tasks around the farm and engage in regular structured learning experiences. We received a $200,000 grant from the USDA to establish a structured farmer-training program in which we show participants how to manage a vegetable farm, which requires low investment and can begin generating income relatively quickly.
One “incubator” is currently studying vineyards, which have the potential for earning much more money on much less land than a vegetable farm. We piloted the program for three years and this year have our first five students. They came to us from Nebraska, New York, San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento. They pay a fee for the course and we bring in paid curriculum providers from the UC System who offer weekly classroom instruction. We are also farming 15 organic acres in Discovery Bay that we use as another educational farm.
The farm is also a popular destination for schoolchildren; we host visiting students from preschool through sixth grade and regularly entertain students from the Brentwood, Byron, and Oakley school districts. Classes visit us from Concord, Antioch, and Pittsburg, as well. We also sponsor an after-school program that runs from 3:30 to 5:30 for ten weeks in the spring and fall. Each week we focus on a different topic. One week we might focus on goats, cheese, and milk, for example, and the next week on our greenhouse and seeds. Two years ago I enrolled at Humphrey’s Law School in Stockton with the intention of getting a law degree so that I can be a legal resource for our own farming activities and for other farmers in the area. I plan to specialize in farm-related legal issues such as land-use, water rights, and estate planning. I also want to be an advocate for the local farming community and work on changing some of the county’s unnecessary restrictions. For example, we should be able to offer bed and breakfast services and have onsite farm-to-table restaurants.
We’re doing everything we can to preserve the small-farm culture that is a backbone of our American society. We are resisting the encroachment of mega-size factory farms, in which economy of scale becomes the single driving factor, while regarding the raising and marketing of animals and crops with the same indifference that would be shown to the making of rubber bands or toenail clippers. The earth is to be honored and served. When we get down and dirty while raising a cute babydoll sheep, a beautiful cauliflower, or any of the items that nature has blessed us with, we draw near to the essence of what we are as creatures of the earth. That’s when we are most whole, healthy, and human.
And for me and our First Generation Farmers, we are most happy when we are connected to the land.