Nate Gonzalez-Siemens of Fat Uncle Farms and Melissa Sorongon of Piedrasassi are somewhat unusual in the Central Coast and south San Joaquin Valley: they are both small-scale farmers who grow grain as part of their diversified operations. Nate farms almonds, rye, wheat, and cotton, and Melissa grows wine grapes, wheat and rye. Small-scale and biologically-diverse farming operations like Nate’s and Melissa’s require a greater variety of costly equipment, some of which is only used a few times a year. The purchase of farm equipment is typically the highest capital expense for farmers after land, which is a barrier for small, underserved, and/or beginning farmers with limited cash flow. This was true for Melissa and Nate, who both faced challenges in accessing the equipment they needed to run and grow their operations.
Nate shared, “When we started our farm, we had two major challenges. First, access to land and second, access to equipment. We have been able to lease land, but could not find specialized tools to rent at the small scale we require.” Nate and Melissa discovered that other small-scale farmers in their Central Coast and southern San Joaquin Valley community were facing similar challenges. Their neighbors’ operations include vineyards, orchards, grain and vegetables. Together, they decided to pool their resources to acquire equipment that they could share, and applied for grant funding to help with the costs.
Three years later, their equipment sharing collaborative, named California Plowshares, has expanded to a broader network of approximately 25 farmers across the Central Coast and southern San Joaquin Valley. The collective currently shares two mid-sized combine harvesters, one mini-combine harvester, a compost spreader, two seed cleaners, a berm flamer, a no-till drill, and a foliar spray trailer. These tools help their operations do tasks like harvest crops, apply compost, manage weeds, clean grain, plant cover crops, and apply compost tea.
California Plowshares is more than an equipment library – it’s also a space for learning and experimentation. Access to equipment and farmer-to-farmer knowledge sharing through the collective have enabled members to adopt new practices. If a member farmer is interested in using a new type of equipment through the collective, another member will bring the equipment to their farm and go over proper use and safety. Nate explained, “Collectively, we have been able to organize the sharing protocols, repairs and insurance for our purchases.”
For example, prior to acquiring a compost spreader, none of the collective’s members had been able to apply compost due to equipment barriers. Now, every farmer in the collective uses compost. Additionally, access to combine harvesters has led many members of the collective to further diversify their farms by adding dry farmed winter grains. These crops grow well in the region, but these farmers were previously unable to grow grains because of a lack of access to the necessary equipment.
CalCAN and our member organization, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF), are co-sponsoring AB 552 authored by Assemblymember Steve Bennett (D-Ventura) to create a regional farmer equipment and cooperative resources assistance pilot program. AB 552 proposes the creation of a new program at the Department of Conservation to fund equipment sharing programs that allow farmers to borrow or lease high-value equipment from eligible entities that purchase and maintain equipment for healthy soil practices, as well as activities like planting, harvesting, storage, and processing. Furthermore, the program would support training for farmers on new and innovative small-farm equipment and equipment maintenance, as well as cooperative development on how to participate and design farmer cooperatives.
Equipment sharing is also part of the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s (CDFA) new Healthy Soils Block Grant Pilot Program. Under the pilot CDFA will be awarding funds to entities such as resource conservation districts and nonprofits that will then select farms to implement healthy soils practices. In the Healthy Soils request for grant applications it notes that equipment can be purchased with a cost-share in order to “assist and encourage healthy soil practices on farms where access to such equipment prohibits adoption.”
Nate shared, “This bill [AB 552] has the potential to address one of the most critical bottlenecks for small farms and those owned by minoritized farmers, especially those who are aiming to push the envelope with regenerative, organic, and other novel and traditional cropping systems. We hope that this bill will engender the formation of more alliances like ours as well as supporting the increase in capacity of our own collaborative effort.”