Farmers First: Exploring Solutions for Drought-Stricken Farms

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Background

Meet Dina, Emily and Kamille: three graduate students from the University of Southern California. We come from distant corners of the earth - Kuwait, California and Hawaii - and have varied interests ranging from small business development to agriculture to innovative technology. In January, we entered into the final semester of our Masters in Social Entrepreneurship program - which included a Capstone Advisory Project that would match us with a social good company and allow us to apply our consultative expertise.

Dina

Emily

Kamille

Meet Bitwater Farms: a Sacramento-based social startup seeking to provide a low-water crop solution for farmers - in the midst of an historic drought. Their mission is to seek out poultry farmers most affected by the drought in Northern California, and provide them with the technology to grow insects, like crickets, onsite.

Sean McDonald of Bitwater Farms at a ranch in Pescadero, CA

Crickets are a nutritious, natural, and high-quality protein feed for poultry that uses less than 1% of the water required by traditional feed crops, like soy and corn. For example, a farmer can grow 1 pound of cricket using 1 - 2 gallons of water; 1 pound of soybean uses around 240 gallons, and can’t be grown everywhere. This creates a few opportunities for farmers in drought: first, it allows them to grow their own low-water feed; second, it gives them additional revenue streams; finally, it stabilizes their feed costs over time, especially if water becomes more scarce. Farmers operate on razor thin margins, so fluctuations in feed costs can be impactful. Plus, it’s healthy for chickens!

Our mission was to reach out to California farmers, learn their stories, and figure out how we could help. Through the course of the project we immersed ourselves in farm culture through substantial research, we visited farms, and we conducted an ethnographic research study - a field study about a particular culture/environment of people - focused on the small farmer. We set out to ‘get our hands dirty’ and learn more about the daily lives of small farmers, how they have been affected by the California drought, and if they could benefit from Bitwater Farms’ technology. These are their, and our, stories.

Blue Hill Farms

Wonder Farmer

Nestled in the foothills of Ventura, California, Blue Hill Farms is the personification of Kim Hamilton's vision of creating a self-sustaining organic farm adorned with pygmy goats, chickens, rabbits, horses and more. Kim started Blue Hill Farms, a 501 (c) (3), with her husband in 1986 in Casitas Springs. The passing of her husband in 2007 put Kim’s dream on hold as the farm was put into foreclosure. After years of long and painful battles to save her farm, she was finally able to put her dreams back to work. Today, she is in the process of rebuilding the sustainable, feel-good farm she once had.

From left to right: Farmer, Kim Hamilton, nuzzled by a newborn kid; Proud pygmy goat, Gracie - one of the 22 goats on the farm; Speckled Sussex Lay Hens - one of the many varieties of Blue Hill Lay Hens.

 

In Kim’s Words

“Some of our livestock are used for therapy for various school programs especially disabled children, that’s why I’m very affectionate with my baby pygmy goats, to keep them gentle when it is time for them to work with disabled children. I offer classes on organic gardening and the fine art of poultry keeping.

I think growing crickets as feed is a great idea! I would love to try it out and promote it.

I am extremely lucky that my farm is located in a microclimate! Although I was not directly affected by the drought, I’ve experienced an increase in feed price, which equally harms me."

Key Takeaways:

  • The consumption of poultry has increased dramatically in the last couple of decades, and the reliance on high-yield chicken breeds is indirectly putting nearly one-third of other breeds at risk of extinction. That’s alarming because many varieties have traits, like heat or pathogen resistance, that could be invaluable in the future. For this reason, Kim focuses on breeding rare poultry varieties.

  • Kim’s feed purchasing decision is based on two factors: price and ingredients. According to Kim, price is the sole driving force of most farmers because they need to operate with low upfront costs. Ingredients are a close second in her purchasing decision because the feed quality directly affects the health of her livestock.

Rocking M Ranch

Small Farm, Big Changes

Located in the heart of Happy Valley, California for seventy years, Gayle and Garner Wear have worked hard to carry on their family's tradition of small-scale farming. Amidst changing weather and water allocations, they’ve looked towards innovative farming techniques to ensure their farm is able to weather the drought. To reduce their dependence on outside feed, Rocking M Ranch grows their own hay. Unfortunately, their 15 acres planted only yielded half its potential as rain visited the area at record lows. Now the ranch is transitioning to low-water crops, and they have started by growing their own barley seed fodder.

From left, clockwise: Farmer Gayle with a young lamb (they prefer goats, but couldn’t afford to keep them with changes in water allocations); Hen tractor next to the garden that they will grow this year, despite increasing water costs; hay field where they didn’t get their full yield due to low rainfall.

In Gayle and Garner's Words

“Last year we didn’t grow a garden because we were told to conserve water. But gardens save a lot of money in the long-run and provide us with affordable healthy food. This year, we are definitely conserving water elsewhere on the farm, so that we can grow a garden. 

Our hens enjoy their pasture. It’s full of insects. I bet they would love crickets! Cricket feed would help us be less dependent on water and its allocation changes.

Agriculture politics are painted with a white brush, but it’s not that cut and dry. Small farms simply don’t have lobbyists."

Key Takeaways:

  • Small farms cannot rely on subsidies like large farms, so they have to innovate with the times and make changes to their business on a regular basis.

  • Small farms are a great fit for Bitwater Farms' technology, especially because it requires no upfront cost to the farmer.

Shakefork Farm

Learning from the Land

With 45 acres of pasture and garden bordered by 40 acres of riparian zone, it’s no wonder that that this fertile farm in Carlotta, California is not directly affected by the drought. However, owners Melanie & Kevin Cunningham are not without opportunities to learn from the land. As the drought worsens and feed prices increase, they are always looking to reduce costs while still maintaining the high quality that they value. As the broiler hens are the real cash flow for the farm, they focus on intensive grazing, innovative coops, quality feed (with specific amino acid profiles) and other technology that ensures hens are healthy and brought to weight. The Cunninghams learn from their land and many other farmers across the world, all working to make a profit while leaving as small a footprint as possible.

From left, clockwise: Farmer Melanie discusses the indirect effects of the drought - increasing feed prices - next to 2000 pounds of feed, which she purchases weekly; A broiler hen tractor, which moves daily as a practice of intensive grazing; The process trailer - the farm’s primary use of water.

In Melanie’s Words

“We are at 150 broiler hens, but will double that number this season. 300 birds will have more of an impact on the ground through intensive grazing.

We would definitely experiment with crickets to reduce our dependence on outside feed.

Although we have fertile land, slaughters are water intensive. Additionally, as the drought worsens, feed prices go up. We definitely take measures to conserve water, such as dry-farming, soil preparation and no irrigation. Also, we only have compost toilets (no-flush) on the farm.”

Key Takeaways:

  • Small farms can greatly benefit from producing their own poultry feed, reducing their dependence on outside sources.

  • It is hard work to run a small poultry farm, between long hours, upfront costs, and the changing environment. However, at the end of the day, they take great pride in their work and are committed to working with the land in a positive manner.

Conclusion

What an amazing, eye-opening, overwhelming journey it has been! We met face-to-face with small farm owners, each with unique, compelling stories about how they work to keep their farms operating, and we were able to witness, first-hand, the hard work and dedication that goes into running a small farm. It was an adventure, complete with getting to hold newborn baby goats, bonding with ‘farm dogs,’ and best of all, getting to know the farmers as people and discovering the best ways to help them move forward. A few key things we learned during this process:

First and foremost – small farmers are bad-asses. They wear many hats and work around the clock.

Within the state of California, the drought directly affects most small farmers, and indirectly affects all small farmers.

Farmers are eager to learn about innovative solutions to the drought - they would gladly make the switch to a feed with cricket-based protein rather than soy-based, as long as price is the same or less and the protein and amino acids levels meet the needs of their livestock.

Both large and small farms would benefit from the Bitwater Farms’ technology.


We'd like to extend special thanks to 

You can learn more about the 

Masters in Social Entrepreneurship Program 

by visiting the link below:

http://www.marshall.usc.edu/msse

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