Kenny Baker’s path to farming was an unlikely one. After a suburban upbringing in the San Fernando Valley, he moved north to study social sciences and anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, taking a part-time gig at the local farmers market.
After getting a taste of the farming world, he was eager to get his hands dirty and moved to Thomas Farm in Corralitos to work in the fields and learn all aspects of the business. Two years later, he moved on to Happy Girl Kitchen Co., where part of his job was picking up produce from local farms, a role that allowed him to get to know many of the organic farmers in Santa Cruz County. He also worked at Happy Girl’s Ferry Plaza Farmers Market stand.
By then, he had caught the farming bug. Today, Kenny now runs Lonely Mountain Farm, a diversified, certified organic vegetable and flower farm in Watsonville, and the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market’s newest and youngest farm.
“I thought farming was going to be a positive way for me to be in the world,” says the first-generation farmer. “I fell in love with farming, but I also thought it was a good platform for change in our society.”
An Uphill Road
At age 29, Kenny is in the minority of U.S. farmers. According to the 2012 agricultural census preliminary report, only 6% of farmers are under the age of 35; the average age is 58.3 and climbing. Lack of access to land, capital, and training are among the biggest obstacles that new and young farmers face.
With his bit of savings, Kenny started looking for a plot to lease. Finding land was “a struggle,” he says, but a friend eventually connected him with a property owner who had six acres of uncultivated land that needed maintaining. The owner offered a lease that would give Kenny the first year for free.
“I don’t know how feasible getting started would have been without that,” says Kenny, who founded Lonely Mountain Farm in 2009.
Facing a steep learning curve, Kenny planted just a couple acres of potatoes at first, while he learned the ropes of starting his own farm and navigating the marketing channels. “I thought I had some understanding of farming, but I realized there were a lot of things I took for granted when I was working on a farm that was already established.”
Being the new kid on the block, he asked a lot of questions and looked to support from the local farming community. “I’d come into these tractor stores, and all the old timers would help me because they were excited that I was interested,” he says. “I try to absorb whatever people share with me.”
Eventually, he began to expand his offerings, establishing a niche growing rare varieties—not just potatoes but 11 different types of potatoes, as well as other heirloom vegetables. “I really focused on varieties of crops that weren’t represented, so I could get to into farmers markets while respecting the farms that were already there and not stepping on any toes.”
All in the Family
In 2011, Kenny’s sister, Dawn, and her now-husband, Tim Sternadel, moved up north to join Lonely Mountain Farm. Dawn had been managing a restaurant and tending a backyard garden in Los Angeles, but when her brother said he needed help, she knew she was ready for a change.
“I dropped everything,” she says. “A lot of people think it’s nuts working with your family, but we were always pretty close growing up together.”
Dawn, now 30, has been learning the ins and outs of the operation from her brother, while managing the seed planting and accounting. She’s also embarked on a few of her own projects, like introducing Nigerian Dwarf dairy goats to the farm. Her hope is to eventually diversify the farm’s offerings with goat milk soap and other body products.
“Our parents never expected this would be something we’d want to do, but they’re excited about it and very supportive because they see how much we love it,” says Dawn. Their parents have helped them purchase a 10-acre plot in Corralitos, where they’re planning to move their farm and diversify their income by hosting farm dinners, events, and weddings.
Kenny’s fiancée, Molly Davenport (pictured at top, with Kenny), also helps out the farm while completing a gardening program at UC Santa Cruz. In the coming years, they hope to establish an educational garden.
“I’d like to focus on farming as an educational platform, something the public can get involved with,” says Kenny. “It really excites me to see people get reconnected with where their food comes from. I just think there’s a lot of potential for change in our society through the food movement.”
Putting Down Roots
Looking to both the past and the future, Kenny and his family have prioritized resource conservation, from vigorous composting and low-tillage techniques to reclaiming vintage farm equipment. “We’re doing the best we can without tons of financial resources,” he says. “Part of our mission is to bring back to life things that have been lost.”
Idealism may have inspired Kenny and his family to pursue the less-traveled road of farming, but economic sustainability and measured growth are firmly rooted in the young farmers’ minds as they plan for their farm’s viability for years to come.
“For me, sustainability is different than just organic row crop farming,” says Kenny. “My long term vision is intense production, supporting a small number of workers and family, instead of looking to gather more land and increase production.”
Right now at Lonely Mountain Farm’s stand, you’ll find artichokes, root vegetables, chicories, fava beans, green garlic, and a variety of cut flowers, with tomatoes, peppers, heirloom beans, summer squash, and cucumbers to come in the summer.
“There’s so much diversity on the farm,” says Kenny. “There’s something to be excited about just about every week.”
Visit Lonely Mountain Farm at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Thursdays.
Bottom three photos courtesy of Lonely Mountain Farm.