The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) made many significant investments in small private enterprises in rural America. Shooting Star is a farm in Northern California where that investment is paying dividends.
Funds from ARRA, better known as the Recovery Act, made it possible for Matt McCue and Lily Schneider to launch their new farming venture in verdant Suisun Valley. They took the name Shooting Star from a colorful flower growing on nearby hillsides. This young couple, both in their mid-20s, started their organic operation with the help of two Farm Service Agency (FSA) loans, one funded by the Recovery Act. And they are grateful.
“The Farm Service Agency keeps this country running,” states Matt. “The banks just wouldn’t touch farmers like us, but FSA helped us get started.”
In California, the Recovery Act added about $5.6 million to FSA’s $94 million annual farm lending portfolio for the state. Those additional funds helped 69 more farmers and ranchers with business capital needs in the Golden State.
At Shooting Star, Matt and Lily are hands-on partners running this Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) operation outside Fairfield. With their initial FSA loan in 2009, they were able to plant seeds, apply organic fertilizer, put down drip irrigation pipes and now they are in their second season, successfully growing and selling a wide variety of healthy vegetables throughout the region. In 2010 they qualified for another FSA operating loan to expand.
Their farm’s impressive list of vegetables grown seasonally includes potatoes, chard, lettuce, onions, carrots, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, melons, squash, green beans, broccoli, cilantro, kale, leeks, beets, corn, eggplant, dill and basil. They rotate through about 35 types of produce each year.
At Shooting Star these Recovery Act funds helped grow jobs as well as food. The operation has hired two employees who work alongside Matt and Lily, earning a living wage during most of the year.
Both Matt and Lily are advocates and practitioners of Community Supported Agriculture, a type of farm operation where individual subscribers pay a monthly fee to receive a box of fresh-picked products each week from the local farm. It’s vertical business integration and offers a number of marketing advantages to the consumer: the freshest and healthiest farm products, grown locally by a farmer you get to know, delivered right to you.
This is “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food” at the “boots on the ground” level. Along with growing the produce, Matt and Lily process, package and deliver to nearly 200 subscribers, most weeks on the same day it’s picked. Shooting Star also sells at six farmers markets in the nearby San Francisco Bay Area each week usually from May to November.
Matt and Lily are no strangers to hard work, in this country and others. Matt is a veteran who served in Iraq and Korea with the U.S. Army. In those countries, he recalls observing how most families outside of the big cities had some kind of agriculture as part of their survival. He also remembers chasing bad guys through backyard gardens in Iraq. Matt also is a veteran of the Peace Corps, where he served a volunteer assignment in the West African country of Niger working with sesame and millet farmers.
Lily spent time in South America doing undergraduate studies and field work with the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. Crops prevalent in the region where she was located included kiwis, apples and pears. While completing her BA in Sustainable Agriculture and Environmental Studies at University of California Santa Cruz, Lily met Matt while working in the fields together at the University’s organic farm. Matt was completing a UC agricultural apprenticeship program at the time.
Shooting Star’s location outside of Fairfield was a strategic decision, reflecting Matt and Lily’s holistic approach to business. To choose the property to start their farm, they researched several growing regions north and east of the Bay Area, searching where the climate and soils are excellent, land less expensive, water plentiful and where major highways provide efficient transport within the region as well as back into the urban population center.
Strategy combined with serendipity when they were attracted to some open ground along Gordon Valley Road and knocked on the door of the nearest farm house. That was the first location where they made an offer and where they now lease ten acres with an option to expand to nearly 20. Their landlord is now their neighbor and their friend.
Lily grew up in Berkeley and became interested in farming in high school where she took a ecoliteracy course. Matt describes his hometown as “suburban Albuquerque.” Although neither grew up on a farm, both have developed a strong commitment to sustainable farming. They have gone through the rigorous process to become a California Certified Organic Farm (CCOF). Their operation uses no chemical pesticides or herbicides. They select their crops varieties as well as cultivation and rotational practices to reduce impacts on the environment. All their irrigation is pipe and drip to avoid the evaporative water loss that occurs in flooded open furrows or pressurized sprinklers.
It’s not by accident that they started this farm. They are dedicated and passionate about their convictions that sustainable agriculture can help improve the world. They should know. They’ve seen the world. “We wanted to put sustainable practices into effect on our own farm,” said Lily. “But in the future we both want to share our knowledge about agriculture in other countries that need it desperately.”
Their enthusiasm is infectious. As Matt puts it, “I’m totally committed to doing an international agricultural project and we know it’s going to happen.” It’s evident that the Recovery Act’s investment in Shooting Star CSA will pay dividends beyond its Solano County location. These two young farmers, helped by the Farm Service Agency and the Administration’s Recovery Act, may help shape the future of agriculture in the U.S. and beyond.