Cathie Anderson: Near graduation, California Farm Academy student cultivating her niche

Published: Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Wednesday, Sep. 12, 2012 - 9:15 am

Under Tuesday's hazy sky, Elle Huftill-Balzer was snipping leafy green basil and fragrant purple sage to send to the farmers market at Cesar Chavez Plaza.

There were also orders from Sacramento Natural Foods Co-op, Plates Café and Masullo Pizza.

When Huftill-Balzer last appeared in this column, she was just three months into working at Feeding Crane Farms and was halfway through classes at the California Farm Academy in Winters. She's since taken on the role of assistant manager at the North Natomas farm, and this Saturday, she'll be graduating from the farm academy.

What has the 30-year-old novice farmer learned so far?

"Maybe I don't want to have my own farm," she said. "Maybe I just want to be someone else's manager because just seeing the logistics of everything and the business side of it, I think, 'Oh, God, that's a lot, a lot, a lot.' …

"Just thinking about budgeting, financing, everything, assets vs. liabilities, I don't even know what that means. It would behoove me to take some business classes to help out with that. I guess you eventually get there."

Her comments made me think back to something that Capay Organic farm's co-owner, 32-year-old Thad Barsotti, told me about the oft-cited statistic on the average age of farm owners. It's 57.

"People like to use it to imply that there are no young people in agriculture, but the reality is that there's lots of farm managers, pest control advisers, field men, sales people that are my age," Barsotti said. "So ... it's not that there are not people who want to do it or are not capable of owning and operating successful farms. It's that they don't have the capital to do it or the opportunities."

Or, sometimes, as is the case for Huftill-Balzer, a farmer is learning what role satisfies her.

UCD's just too cool

Every year, for six years running, Harvard University, Stanford University, the Oberlin College and other universities around the nation have competed for the right to be called America's coolest school.

To win the distinction from the staff of the Sierra Club's magazine, the university must exhaustively demonstrate that it has the "highest level of commitment to earth-saving decisions."

This year, the University of California, Davis, earned the spot at the head of the class. It's the first time a Golden State contender has received top honors. Just what does it take to be this cool?

"Annually – and we just did this at the end of July – we look to see how much waste we're sending to landfills and how much we're diverting," said Sid England, assistant vice chancellor for environmental stewardship and sustainability.

"We look at our energy consumption and we calculate our carbon footprint every year. We have it independently audited and verified by a consultant before we submit it to the climate registry.

"We have a whole lot of data we collect every year to see how our performance is tracking and see how we're doing."

Yes, but who comes up with the ideas? England, who received a doctoral degree in ecology from UCD, said that everyone – faculty, staff and students – does because it's a central part of the culture at a college with deep agricultural roots.

Sierra magazine's Avital Andrews wrote of UCD: "Lots of time and money go toward a well-rounded set of efforts, including being vigilant about using the school's purchasing power for good, diverting around 70 percent of its trash from landfills, and offering sound transportation solutions: On any given day, 20,000 bikes roam the campus."

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