Young farmers planting futures in San Mateo County 

click to enlarge Tony Cozzolino and his wife, Stephanie
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • Tony Cozzolino and his wife, Stephanie, on their family farm in Half Moon Bay.

Tony Cozzolino and his wife, Stephanie, are not your typical millennials. While the majority of their peers live in the increasingly connected and tech-savvy Bay Area, the Cozzolinos have chosen another way of life: Farming.

Almost entirely by himself, Tony, 28, plants 12 to 15 acres of pumpkins each season and about 400 Christmas trees on their Half Moon Bay farm, and Stephanie, 23, has recently gotten into the sprout and micro-greens business.

The couple will sell their produce directly to consumers at one of the many farmers markets in the Bay Area at least three times a week -- something unheard of in California until the 1980s, when new laws opened the direct-to-consumer market other industries enjoy.

The Cozzolinos, along with other young farmers like them, are beginning to fill what may well be one of the most vital industries in the coming decades. Across the state, the average farmer is 60 years old, according to the California Department of Agriculture, and the state -- and country -- need more young people to embrace an industry that supplies nearly half of America's fruits, nuts and vegetables.

"We're looking at a future that we believe will require twice as much food in 2050 as is produced now," said Steven Lyle, a spokesman for the Department of Agriculture.

MORE THAN JUST HARD WORK

One reason young people shy away from farming and ranching is the difficulty of starting a profitable operation, largely due to the enormous cost of equipment and land as well as regulations on the industry, San Mateo County farm officials said.

"Over the last 20 years, we've been in a very steady decline of land available for agriculture," said Doniga Markegard of Markegard Family Grass-Fed, located in Half Moon Bay. Doniga Markegard and her husband, Erik, graze cattle on one of the largest ranches in the county, approximately 5,600 acres.

But not everyone can afford to use such a large amount of land, and access can be a challenge.

There are several organizations on the Peninsula that protect and preserve open space, and it was not until recently that their long-term vision included "regenerative" agriculture as an acceptable use. Regenerative agriculture aims to increase the nutrients in soil after farming, not simply sustain current nutrient levels.

Regulations can also interfere. While some farmers believe that current laws are at least workable, the future is murky.

"A lot of farmers are waiting to see what kinds of regulations are going to be shoved down our throats," said Ryan Casey of Blue House Farm, a 40-acre fruit and vegetable operation in Pescadero.

He said the Food Safety Modernization Act is of concern to farmers. It aims to increase food safety by shifting the Food and Drug Administration's focus from responding to contamination to preventing it.

INNOVATION IN THE INDUSTRY

Despite those concerns, young farmers unburdened by the past are forging ahead with new techniques and practices. Many are starting to carve out niches that are unlike those of their predecessors.

Technology has enabled the Markegards, and other next-generation farmers, to reach consumers directly. Such direct relationships were uncommon in the past, due to complex distribution regulations that have since been abolished.

Markegard Family Grass-Fed believes in going beyond what are commonly described as sustainable practices, instead aiming for regenerative farming, Markegard said.

click to enlarge The Markegard family
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • The Markegard family — from left, parents Erik and Doniga with their children Lea, Larry, Quill and Quince — raise cattle on their 5,600-acre ranch in Half Moon Bay, one of the largest on the Peninsula.

The business side is equally as important as producing high-quality products. Most importantly, selling products directly to restaurants, chains and consumers represents a significant change from the past. Because of San Mateo County's proximity to markets across the Bay Area, and a growing demand for high-quality fresh produce, farming remains viable and profitable for Casey's relatively small 40-acre operation.

LOVE FOR THE BUSINESS

Regardless of whether it's cattle, Christmas trees, or fruits and vegetables, the county's agricultural entrepreneurs will undoubtedly endure struggles in establishing and running an agricultural business.

And the economics and future uncertainty don't or won't appeal to a generation more connected to technology than to the land, which generates lingering questions about how the county -- and the country -- will produce enough food in the coming decades.

But officials are hopeful that through programs, subsidies and education -- along with growing demand coupled with limited supply -- a different kind of entrepreneur will step forward.

But for now, the younger generation isn't in it for the money.

A college internship first sparked Casey's interest in farming. He said he has always enjoyed spending time outside, and farming is a line of work that has put him in beautiful places. Promoting the importance of high-quality, locally produced food is very important to Markegard, and something of a lifelong journey.

"I wanted to start doing grass-fed, and I'm a big proponent of the local food movement," she said.

For Tony Cozzolino, it's the hard, physical work that keeps his love for the business alive.

"During harvest season you're working 15 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week," he said. "It's a lot of heavy-duty work, and it takes its toll on you.

"I'm young enough and dumb enough to enjoy doing that kind of labor-intensive stuff."

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