This weekend on small plots of land throughout California's San Joaquin Valley, doctors, lawyers and software executives will be driving tractors, pruning trees and irrigating fields. The idea of professionals taking to the fields may seem a bit odd, but it's becoming increasingly common. Called "weekend farmers," these part-time growers with day jobs are seen by many as the future of small-scale agriculture.
Monday through Friday, from 8 to 5, Jeff White works as an optometrist, checking patients' eyes and writing prescriptions for glasses.
White "Do the letters look clearer on 1 or better on 2?"
Patient "2, I think… no, 1."
White "1 or 2?"
White "3 or 4? 3 or 4?"
But after work and on weekends, Dr. White enjoys a very different lifestyle. "I come home and it's kind of a refuge, "he said. "It's good therapy. I can hop on the tractor if I want to do a little clean up or spraying, what have you… It's kind of a nice area to just take off and leave your cares behind, let the dogs follow you out and the trees don't talk back to you and it's just real nice."
Doctor White farms 16 hectares of plums, cherries and pluots, a plum-apricot hybrid. His family bought the property, located 20 minutes from his office, about eight years ago and quickly realized the best thing to do with 16 hectares of farmland is farm it. Dr. White had never lived on a farm, and had no idea what he was doing at first. But with the help of some friendly neighbors, he's got it all figured out now. "Whether it's pruning trees, replanting trees, trying to get rid of our squirrel problem to reinforcing the ditch bank and things of that nature it is quite fun," he said.
But the 45-year-old optometrist says he can't even consider quitting his day job. Even after eight years of work, his family farm has yet to turn a profit.
With today's sagging commodity market, that's a problem plaguing California's weekend and full-time farmers alike. Smaller properties of 32 hectares or less are no longer considered profitable, so real estate agents and bankers like Tim Leach are now looking to people like Dr. White to keep the region's pint-sized parcels in production. "Most of those small acreages, the best person for that is someone that wants that way of life of being a part time farmer, where he has his regular job doing something, but he personally has decided that he wants to work the weekends or the evenings and grow a crop," said Jeff White.
Mr. Leach is director of marketing and retail sales for Fresno Madera Farm Credit. Earlier this year his bank began marketing loans directly to potential weekend farmers, regular city dwellers with regular jobs.
So far, Mr. Leach says, more than 600 people have taken advantage of the weekend farmer mortgage loan. Real estate agent Ed Peelman, a weekend farmer himself, says he's selling farmland to people from all walks of life… from the operator of a Chinese restarant, to the owners of a family run trucking company and to Silicon Valley software executives. He says commodity prices and stock prices may be in the dumps, but agricultural real estate is booming. "In the last 90 days we've closed over $6 million worth and right now we have over 6 million in escrow," he said. "It's red hot. Even in spite of the financial situation, it's red hot."
Even the John Deere tractor company is getting in on the action. It's marketing smaller tractors that are easier to drive, designed especially for those new to farming.
Weekend farmers won't single-handedly boost a sagging agriculture industry. But many in farming hope that this new breed of grower will at least keep the American family farm alive.