First Generation Farmers – “Farmily” First

By Marianna Zavala | January 05, 2017
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California farmer picking kale

When I first met Christian, the head farmer and founder of First Generation Farmers, he was surrounded by customers at their stand in the Brentwood Farmers’ Market. I stayed off to the side, trying to take photos of the excited children who were planting their own starts in the interactive booth. Out of the blue, Christian looked over and hollered, “HEY! Want a bag of lettuce?!”

I laughed and headed over to the table, where he promptly bagged up a bunch of delicious romaine, flashed me a quick smile, and continued to help the other customers. He shook his head when I offered to pay. It was this brief interaction that spoke volumes about Christian and First Generation Farmers. I knew at that moment what farm I wanted to contact first to be featured in Digital Dirt: A Virtual Farm Experience.

On an early Friday morning, I made the trip out to First Generation Farmers in Brentwood. Pulling up, I almost got the sense that I was in Disneyland, albeit the straw-covered, rooster-crow version. A couple of the workers had just started morning chores, sending sleepy smiles my way as I wandered around the chicken coop snapping photos. Ellie Vanhof, one of the farm managers, rounded up the volunteers and had me follow them out to their 12-acre plot down the road. When I hopped out of my truck, gloves were already being passed around for the day’s task – harvesting a TON of kale!

I couldn’t help but notice the sense of comradery between the volunteers as we started to move down the rows, snapping off the leaves and rubber-banding them once they were in a decent-sized bunch. Ellie shared that nearly 100 percent of the work on the farm is powered by volunteers, a fact that First Generation Farmers is very proud of. Many of them come through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF-USA), and stay for several weeks up to a couple of months. Most of the volunteers hadn’t known each other longer than a couple of days, yet they were already bonding over dirty boots and early mornings on the farm.

The strength of the volunteer program is just the tip of the iceberg. Officially founded in 2013 by Christian Olesen and Alli Cecchini, First Generation Farmers started out as a big experiment. “We failed miserably the first time,” Christian chuckled, as he overviewed the acreage now in production. “Then we began to realize that we could really do this.” Fast forward three years and First Generation Farmers has become a leader in the Bay Area for their commitment to education, outreach, opportunity, and beginning farmer support for any and all who express interest in farming. The farm runs a successful farm incubator program, offers multiple after-school classes for kids of all ages, and also has a series of adult education programs.

Back on the 35-acre “campus”, there’s no shortage of evidence of the diversity First Generation Farmers brings to their operation. The farm is home to several Nigerian Dwarf goats, rescue horses, a pollinator habitat, and free range chickens. Students frequently participate in the care and design of the edible garden and compost stations. Cover crops, mulch, attention to habitat restoration, and more green farming methods help uphold the farm’s commitment to sustainability. It’s a testament to the passion of Olesen and fellow founders that First Generation Farmers hasn’t wavered from its non-profit mission, through all the ups and downs that come with running a farm. Perhaps what is most inspiring is their “Take what you need, donate what you can” philosophy. To this day, First Generation Farmers operates only through donations at farmers’ markets.

Now, First Generation Farmers is partnered with multiple markets, restaurants, and other non-profits. It’s a full day, every day, for Olesen and company. Despite the hectic schedules, Christian remains incredibly grounded by his love for his farm, and is very excited for the future. “What we wanted to do was truly give back to the community, and support beginning farmers. I want to empower them, because not a lot of people want to do this job,” he said. “This is the best land in the best spot in the world to me. We’ve got the delta and good soil and good people.”

First Generation Farmers describes itself as a farm “serving a larger purpose”. It is obvious that they have tapped into something special. I’m incredibly grateful for the time I got to spend with them, and I can honestly say that I walked away with a real sense of family. In the words of their Special Education Director Niki, it is a true "farmily." 

To read more about First Generation Farmers, and other farms featured, visit Digital Dirt: A Virtual Farm Experience on the PCFMA website, or follow on Instagram

Remember, dirt first!

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