The roots of the Community Alliance with Family Farmers go back to 1983, when University of California, Davis Small Farms Director, Tom Haller, organized the first annual conference for small farmers in California to measure the pulse of farming in the state.
The farmers in attendance were all looking for the same thing: a local organization that could represent their interests. It was from that need that Haller helped found the California Association of Family Farmers to provide representation for small farmers seeking a stronger voice. Eventually the organization joined forces with the California Agrarian Action Project, a group with a similar mission, and the two united to become the Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) in 1993. Since then, CAFF has worked on countless initiatives and is the leading voice for sustainable, community-based agriculture in California.
CAFF’s work includes five main programs:
- policy and advocacy
- biological agriculture
- Farm to School
- Buy Fresh Buy Local
- farmer technical assistance
CAFF strives to build shared values around food and agriculture at the community level, while working with farmers through practical, on-the-ground programming. These partnerships create locally-based economic vitality, improved human and environmental health, and long-term farm sustainability. Among CAFF’s successes in spearheading the state’s local food movement are publishing the first California Farm Fresh Directory in 1995 and developing one of the country’s first Buy Fresh Buy Local programs in 2002. CAFF started a Farm-to-School program in 2001 in Davis and Ventura, which eventually expanded around the state. Today the organization works in six different locations, including Davis, Oakland, Watsonville, Arcata, Gilroy and Sebastopol.
“The biggest farm in California owns more than 250,000 acres now,” explains CAFF’s Policy Director, Dave Runsten. “There are only about 8 million irrigated acres in California. So you would only need 32 of farms at that scale to farm the whole state. But luckily, we have about 85,000 farms in California. We try to support everybody who wants to farm. That’s my job. I represent all of those family farms.”
Helping farmers, particularly beginning or aspiring farmers, to market their products is a major focus for CAFF. Runsten explains that markets have always been one of the biggest challenges for their farmers. CAFF helps connect farmers to institutions like hospitals and schools to market their products through its Buy Fresh Buy Local and Farm to School campaigns. In turn, the organization also helps inform consumers about where to access fresh, local food. “When we started, no wholesaler or distributor wanted to deal with local farmers,” Dave recalls. “The world has changed. Now all distributors want to have local, farm fresh stuff available.”
CAFF works to instill those same values in the state’s youth through its Farm-to-School program, which educates children from a young age about the importance of supporting local agriculture. Schools receive Harvest of the Month baskets with in-season produce from local farms, as well as a lesson plan for teachers to help their students explore the fruits and vegetables that are in season.
In addition, CAFF consistently advances fair farm policy at the local, state, regional and national level by representing and advocating for family farmers. In 2003, CAFF became a founding member of the California Food and Justice Coalition, a group that works toward a fair and sustainable community-driven food system. CAFF became the first organization in California to stand against genetically modified foods in 2000. In doing so, the organization helped lead efforts to pass Assembly Bill 2663, which outlined the state’s intent to permanently fund the University of California’s sustainable agriculture research and education program. By 2002, CAFF became a founding member of Californians for GE-Free Agriculture. CAFF also helped to form the California Climate and Agriculture Network, which elevates the role of sustainable agriculture and on-farm stewardship practices as a solution to climate change. On a state level, CAFF has also recently worked on policy involving land preservation and renewable energy.
In terms of growing community, CAFF hosts networking events and farm tours that bring together farmers and eaters throughout the year. Their popular field days on local farms allow farmers to learn various methods of farming through direct peer exchange, including topics like growing various types of produce, sustainable production methods, and farming during drought, an issue of utmost concern to California farmers right now.
Over the years, Farm Aid has developed a strong relationship with CAFF. With their direct work with farmers, CAFF serves as an important referral when California farmers call the Farm Aid Hotline and utilize the Farmer Resource Network. In 2013, Farm Aid awarded CAFF a $7,500 grant toward its Family Farm Food Safety Project to develop a set of basic food safety practices catered to the needs of family farms. The goal is to avoid mandatory “one size fits all” rules that could easily undermine the very local food systems many have worked so hard to create.
CAFF’s long-standing dedication to family farmers has helped shape California into the state it is today, where family farms can flourish and local communities can reap the benefits of fresh produce. The new food safety battle is just the latest example of how the work never ends, and we are lucky to hold such a long-standing, visionary partner as a trusted ally in the work to keep family farmers on their land and to build a thriving family farm food system that benefits all.