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The Future is Looking Bright

By Paulette Swallow, UCCE Marin
Sustainable Agriculture Coordinator

Co-written with Heather Mahrt
Summer 2014 Intern

Over the past century, our country has witnessed a significant transformation of our food system, including a dramatic reduction in the number of farmers who are successfully pursuing a career in farming. Although agriculture remains a vivid spot in our nation’s economy, difficult access to land has made it one of the hardest careers to pursue. The fastest growing segments of our nation’s farming population are now those over age 65, and within the next decade, the majority of American farmers will be retirees. Of the approximate 317 million people living in the United States, less than 1% are farmers. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, the number of family farms in the United States has fallen from 6.8 million in 1938 to roughly two million today. It used to be the case that the majority of Americans grew some or all of their own food. Now, a tiny minority grows and raises the food that everyone else eats.

What motivates young people to take over their family’s farm or to start a farm or ranch of their own? What challenges do young farmers and ranchers face and how are these challenges different from those faced by previous generations? In seeking answers to these important questions about our own part of the country, Marin County, I sat down with four of these young people to learn how they remain connected to their farming roots. 

First I spoke with Amanda Moretti. She comes from a dairy family in Marin County. Her parents, Mike and Monique Moretti, own and operate Moretti Family Dairy. They are the second generation to run the family business, making Amanda the third generation. Amanda is currently a senior at Cornell University and will be graduating in May 2015 with a Bachelor's Degree. As an Animal Science major, her emphasis is in agribusiness and agriculture financing. Her plans after graduation? She isn't quite sure and is looking into two different avenues. One is entering the agriculture workforce and pursuing a career in agriculture finance and lending. However she is also considering graduate school in Agriculture Economics and Agriculture Business. As we spoke further about her plans after graduation, I wondered how someone with such a strong connection to the family business was going to stay connected if she wasn't in a hurry to head home and milk cows.

I was born and raised on my family's dairy. Some of my very first memories involve playing in my playpen in the alleyway of the milk barn and helping mom feed the calves. I was born with a love for dairying running through my blood. It provided me with a livelihood that is second to none and shaped me into the young woman I am today. My passion for the agriculture industry allowed me to find my purpose in life - to promote, protect, and preserve agriculture traditions for generations to come.

I truly enjoy analyzing the agriculture markets and economy to help farmers and ranchers make profitable and productive business decisions. I am intrigued by the challenges and joys of the agricultural way life and have made it my mission to help the agriculture industry mitigate these challenges and capitalize on these joys. I want to assist all agriculture businesses, from small family farms to large cooperatives, to be productive and profitable.

And as far as not coming straight home to work for dad -- I believe that every child that grew up on a farm, working side by side with his or her family, was given an incredible gift that many only dream of. However, us "farm kids" often take this life for granted. I want to explore all of the opportunities that the agriculture industry has to offer and if that path leads me back to the home farm then that is the path I will take. I know I will always play a role on my family's farm and am looking forward to carrying on my family's tradition of dairying in Marin and Sonoma counties.     -- Amanda Moretti

Amanda has definitely thought long and hard about her choices, her experiences, and how she has come to be, as well as where her choices will take her.

I then met with Ty Renati and Heather Mahrt. Both are attending California State University Chico. I got the chance to catch up with them when they were home during Thanksgiving break. We met at a coffee shop in town, and as expected, both of them showed up in “work attire.” They have a week off from school and instead of hitting the couch for some “R and R,” they have been helping with projects around the ranch. 

Ty Renati began by explaining how much he enjoys being home to help out on the dairy. Ty will be the third generation to work on his family’s 800 cow dairy in Tomales. Renati Dairy is owned and operated by Ty’s father Denny Renati, his Uncle Dan Renati and his Grandfather Rocky Renati. “I don’t mind coming home on the weekends to help out; I find it entertaining most of the time working with my Dad, Uncle, and Grandpa.” As a college sophomore, Ty is majoring in Agriculture Business with an emphasis on organic dairying. He said he has chosen the business route to learn more about organic dairy operations and the organic market for which they produce. “Years ago our dairy was conventional and now that we have switched to Organic there are a lot of different business aspects I can learn at Chico State, that my Dad, Uncle, or Grandpa may not have had the chance to learn, or did by trial and error.” Ty went on the explain that he can learn a lot from the family about the day to day operations or the animal husbandry involved, but how to actually run a business is just as important. “In reality I just want to get up every day and go to work, but I talked about going to college with my Dad and the advantages I will have in gaining this education. I have no doubt the day after I graduate I will go home to work full time on the dairy; I’m just taking a four year break to get a degree.”

I have met kids like Ty many times before. All he wants to do is get up and operate the dairy. However, I have never heard a college student say they were bored while away at school! “I really like my classes at Chico and going out to the Organic Dairy I learn a lot, but sometimes when I have all my homework done and no class to attend, I get bored and think about all the stuff I could be doing back home,” Ty shared. Here is another great example of why agriculture in Marin County will have strong leadership in the future.

When the conversation turned to Heather Mahrt, she expressed a clear path for her future as well. Heather, a junior at Chico State, is majoring in Rangeland Management. After she graduates next year she hopes to start a career with the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), after a summer internship. NRCS conservationists provide technical expertise and conservation planning for farmers, ranchers and forest landowners wanting to make conservation improvements to their land. Heather’s main reason for coming back to Marin County is simple. “I was a very lucky kid to be able to grow up in the country, it’s better than living in the city. [Since they worked on the farm] I always had my parents around. I realized that wasn’t true for some of my classmates growing up and I feel so fortunate.” Heathers parents, Gillian and Gary Mahrt, own and operate a 200 cow dairy in Two Rock. They also run several head of beef cattle and sheep. As much as Heather has enjoyed having her own sheep project growing up, she feels that she can do more for her local agriculture community through working for a local service agency like NRCS. “I think knowing how to take care of the land that you own is just as important as knowing how to take care of the livestock. If I can help offer our local ranchers solutions for improving their pastures, and conserving local habitats, it will help to ensure they will be here a long time.” As third generation to her family faming history Heather wants to reach beyond the family ranch and put her emphasis on the local community and help them to conserve local Agriculture. Like Amanda, she is sure she will always have a hand in the family business. “I have no doubt I will be at the ranch helping my family with projects, it’s just what you do.” That is exactly the message brought home by each and every interview I did. Agriculture is just what they do, and undoubtedly what this next generation will continue to do.

My last interview took place with TJ Kehoe, a fourth generation dairyman. TJ, a recent graduate of California State University Chico in 2012 wasn’t entirely sure coming back to the dairy was what he wanted to do. While in college, TJ began his major in construction management but after two summer internships with different construction companies, he realized his heart wasn’t in it. He switched his major to Animal Science and began to work for the Chico State Organic Dairy. Like Ty had expressed earlier, ”I learned a lot of new things that I think can be a benefit in the future to how we run the dairy and do some of our farming and pasture management.” After graduation, TJ came back to Marin County and was a herdsman at another dairy for about a year. While working for someone else he came to appreciate the benefits of growing up on his own dairy and working for his own family. Now, home on the family dairy, TJ works with his father and two uncles on the Kehoe Dairy on the Point Reyes National Seashore. Four generations ago his great Grandfather James Valentine Kehoe established the dairy and was a Marin County Supervisor. TJ has come to value the history his family has in this community. After we discussed his journey home post college, we talked about the dairy business and the organic market. “I have no doubt being in the organic dairy business was the right choice for our family. Like many others we used to be a conventional dairy. There is a strong market in organic and it is here to stay, I want to be part of keeping this business going.” I then asked him if he could recall a “prideful moment” for choosing to come back to the family business as a dairyman. “I think for me it’s when you can make a connection with a consumer, and help to educate them. Sometimes when I tell people what I do for a living they don’t think much of it. Then I ask them if they have ever had any Clover-Stornetta products and you see their face light up. They know the label, they use the product, and most importantly now they know it comes right from their own backyard.”

This is what I love about the next generation. Like the families they come from, they have the drive, determination and will to do the work. It is also apparent that they realize in 2014 there is a need to connect with the consumer on a more personal level, to help educate them on the food they are consuming, and to also learn for their own benefit what the consumer values and will support. We should all be thankful that while I may not have highlighted all of Marin County’s next generation, they are out there in full force. They are ready to support the sustainability of Marin County agriculture, and at the end of the day, they are going to keep us well fed.


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