University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), in collaboration with California State University, San Bernardino, is reaching out to Coachella Valley's small-scale farmers with a new program to provide information about alternative crops, marketing niches, cooperatives and financial risk.

Coachella Valley small-scale farmers face unique challenges. During the summer, the extreme heat — often pushing mercury beyond 115 degrees — stresses tender vegetables, requires immediate post-harvest cooling and makes direct-marketing at road-side stands virtually impossible.

“Many of the products small growers handle are extremely perishable. Within an hour after picking, they have to be cooled off,” said UCCE Riverside County farm advisor Jose Aguiar. “Since they don't have a lot of product or labor, it creates problems.”

In the winter, the pleasant weather attracts flocks of snowbirds — people escaping cold climates. The growing population is competing with farms for the valley's limited water supply, driving rapid urbanization and increasing property values. Desert land that just a few years ago was valued at $6,000 an acre now routinely sells for $50,000 an acre. Since most small-scale growers cultivate rented land, the changing land value confers insecurity and a reluctance to invest in the farm.

Coachella farmers are also far from traditional Southern California agricultural marketplaces and, consequently, new marketing ideas are needed for small-scale farmers to compete with the large farming operations in the valley.

To help farmers cope with these issues, the two educational institutions created the Small Farm Initiative at the CSUSB Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship with a $200,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant funds will allow for enhanced outreach, development of innovative marketing programs and a pooling of resources to help the most disadvantaged farmers in the Coachella Valley and the other parts of the Inland Empire.

Cowpeas as cover

The Small Farm Initiative has the potential to benefit growers like Doug Adair, who manages a five-acre organic date farm in Thermal. Adair's commitment to organic production makes plant nutrition and pest control especially challenging. Farm advisor Aguiar suggested growing cowpeas as a cover crop. Cowpeas capture nitrogen from the air and change it into useable fertilizer.

“Cowpeas can help knock down weed populations and provide nitrogen and organic matter, so growers of many different crops are very happy with the system,” Aguiar said.

Adair uses a variety of methods to market his dates, including a booth at the Alhambra farmers' market, mail order and an innovative “Rent Mother Nature” program, in which consumers pay “rent” on a date palm through the year, then receive the dates from their own palm tree when they are harvested in October.