California program aims to provide mentors for next generation of farmers

New California agricultural mentoring program aims to seed next generation of farmers

SACRAMENTO — A free mentoring program is now available to seed the next generation of farmers in California.

Anna and David Najarian bought 10 acres in Alameda County 15 years ago. They now have 500 avocado trees and sell them at local farmers' markets as they try to hone down on what works.

That's why they are taking part in a program called Expanding Our Roots, run by the California Bountiful Foundation, which is a nonprofit research organization within the California Farm Bureau. A previous board member, Al Stehly, is their mentor.

"We can bring a lot to the table and help them get started," he said. "We know what does and doesn't work."

Stehly is a third-generation farmer growing citrus, avocado and wine grapes in San Diego County. He admitted that he has made mistakes and wants to share what's worked with others.

"You have to watch the books. I don't want to watch their books, but I want to make sure they're watching them because most small businesses fail in the first five years," he said.

Stehly added that having a business plan and following it is key. The biggest expenses are labor and water.

"We have some of the highest-priced water in the world because we're at the end of the pipeline," he said. "So we have to be really careful with water management, and we have a lot of high-tech ways to do that."

The Najarians and Stehly have already met virtually, once via Zoom. They have a spreadsheet down.

"He gave us some homework to do on info including fertilizing, irrigating, and general information about our property," said.

The program runs for three years and is funded by $1 million in grants. What agricultural insight do they hope to glean?

"We have the passion to do this. We just need a coach to guide us, calm us down, give us instructions and see what we're doing from a different perspective," said.

Mentees must have 1-10 years of experience to apply. There will be 200 mentors and mentees a year accepted in this first round. Only about a quarter of the slots have been filled.

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