Adrian Mondragan is a second-generation small-scale organic farmer on the Central Coast, working amid some of the largest growers in the state. He grew up in a low-income Hispanic farming family, and proudly launched his Watsonville-based farm, Urban Organics, in 2009. He grows a variety of organic berries, vegetables and leafy greens on 22 leased acres, including a new parcel at the Watsonville Municipal Airport. Mondragan sells his produce at eight certified farmers markets across the San Francisco Bay Area, where he has built lasting customer relationships.
Mondragan’s biggest challenge is limited access to capital, a need that became even more acute during the COVID-19 pandemic. Large farms receive millions of dollars in federal COVID relief funding, but as a small producer, he has not received the support he desperately needs. Mondragan continues to struggle to recover from the lost months of income he experienced when he paused operations during the peak of the pandemic.
California’s food and farming system was tested in unprecedented ways this past year, with the overlap of the pandemic, climate change, and systemic inequities disproportionately affecting small farmers like Mondragan. The pandemic exposed the multitude of risks faced by the people who grow our food and the nutrition insecurity that left millions of Californians – particularly in communities of color and tribal communities – unable to access the nourishment they need. Meanwhile, rigid supply chains were disrupted, and smaller scale farmers had no safety net to get them through the difficult year.
Now that these vulnerabilities have been laid bare, we must take action to reverse their effect with solutions that build resilience into our food system to withstand future crises.
California can kickstart this much needed recovery now. In his May budget proposal, Gov. Newsom affirmed the need for significant investments in a healthier and more equitable food system. The governor’s proposal is complemented by a $780 million food and farming budget request championed by a bipartisan, bicameral group of 16 legislators. The spending plan would fund long overdue food system infrastructure projects that shorten the distance from farm to table, protect farmworkers, help farmers transition to more organic agricultural and climate resilient practices, create and restore jobs, and bring healthy, local food to many more people.
Assembly Bill 125, a bond proposal that has bipartisan support in the Legislature and enthusiasm from more than 160 groups, also would invest around $3 billion during five years in food system infrastructure projects, workforce training and the technical assistance needed for these projects to succeed. If it is approved by the Legislature and the governor, then it will go before voters next year.
A majority of these shovel-ready and novel projects benefit low-income communities and tribes, and support farmers and ranchers who have historically been left out of publicly funded agriculture programs. They will be a crucial step to address historic discrimination patterns in our food system, prioritize climate resilience and encourage sustainable agriculture.
The additional resources proposed by Gov. Newsom, as well as the complementary investments in the budget spending plan, could be a game changer for Mondragan and other small-scale farmers. They would help Mondragan recover from economic stress and provide seed funding for his visionary projects to sell more of the delicious food he grows in his own community. First up is a new on-farm produce market in Watsonville, followed by a community farm at his daughter’s school.
Thankfully, our state’s short-term economic forecast is encouraging, and California is fortunate to have a budget surplus. The proposed $780 million investment will be a down payment for California’s 21st century food and farming system.
We urge the Governor and the Legislature to approve comprehensive funding to ensure a climate-smart, healthy, and more equitable food and farming system for all.
Assembly Member Robert Rivas, a Democrat from Hollister, has studied needed investments in our food system.
Andy Naja-Riese is CEO of the Agricultural Institute of Marin, a Bay Area nonprofit.