How to start homesteading in California


California is the produce basket of the United States. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, over a third of the country’s vegetables and two-thirds of the country’s fruits and nuts are grown in California. The state produces over 400 agricultural commodities and leads the nation in farm receipts, accounting for over 13 percent of the nation’s total agricultural value. 

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In part due to its vast expanse along the West Coast, California is also diverse, both geographically, demographically and agriculturally, so there is something for everyone. Although California has just 2.9 percent of all the farms in America, they are home to 14.6 percent of the nation’s “principal farm operators” whose origins are Hispanic or Latino. The same goes for 35.1 percent of Asian farmers, 21.9 percent of Native Americans and 6.4 percent of farmers claiming more than one race, as well as 4.9 percent of female principal farm operators.

But breaking into farming and homesteading in California can be difficult. The land is among the most expensive in the country, and the state’s regulations are stricter than most. California also suffers from chronic droughts, so water can be expensive and hard to obtain and growers need to be well-versed in the art of irrigation.

If you are still interested in starting your homesteading journey in the Golden State, here’s what you need to know about how to start homesteading in California.

Buying farmland in California

Farmland in California is by far the most expensive in the West. According to 2019 data from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average cost of farm real estate in California was $10,000 per acre, compared to the national average of $3,160 that same year. The average cost per acre for cropland was $12,830. It was $3,010 for pasture.

Most of the farms in California are small farms. According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), the average California farm is 328 acres. California’s 76,400 farms are considerably smaller than the national average of 434 acres. Nearly three-quarters of farms in California are under 100 acres, and another 15.9 percent are between 100 and 500 acres. Only 3.1 percent are more than 2,000 acres.

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Working farms must receive a license from the CDFA, even if the farm is a sole proprietorship or partnership. The application must include the business name, address, telephone number, mandatory social security number, birth date and identification numbers of the applicant; the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of principal creditors of the business, if any; the principal place of business and telephone number in California; the date of submission; self-disclosure of any bankruptcy filings by owner, partner, or agent within the past four years; self-disclosure of previous license revocations or suspensions, convictions for financial crimes; and a description of the business to be licensed. 

Any first-time applicants are required to attach a number of other documents as well, including a list of any current licenses from the previous five years issued by the Department for the applicant; a signed acknowledgment that the applicant has been informed of the Department’s authority to obtain financial information concerning the applicant from credit reporting agencies, creditors or financial institutions; a signed acknowledgment that the applicant has been informed of the Department’s authority to obtain criminal record information concerning the applicant or its agent; and a list of California commodities handled.

New farmers in California should also get a farm number from the Farm Service Agency, which facilitates access to key USDA programs and guarantees a vote in county Farm Service Agency elections. Register with a local Farm Service Agency office or representative.

California Department of Tax and Fee Administration offers Beginning Farmer Bonds. These bonds are used to back below-market interest rate financing for eligible agricultural land, construction, livestock and equipment for qualified farmers. 

Growing crops in California

California is the mecca of year-round gardening, boasting a moderate, Mediterranean climate with dry and warm summers and wet winters throughout much of the state. However, the large and long state has a wide range of climates, from polar to subtropical. 

The USDA hardiness zones in California range from 5a to 11a. The northern half of a California planting zone can be anywhere from 5a to 10b, while the southern region has zones 5a to 11a. 

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Gardeners in the western United States, however, often use the 24-zone climate system created by Sunset Magazine in lieu of the USDA’s hardiness zones. The Sunset zone maps, considered the standard gardening references in the West, are considered more precise since they factor in not only winter minimum temperatures, but also summer highs, lengths of growing seasons, humidity and rainfall patterns.

All 24 Sunset zones are present throughout California, from zone 1 with the coldest winters in the west throughout the eastern Sierra Mountains to zone 24, in the marine-dominated southern California coast with a yearlong growing season where subtropical plants thrive. 

California grows over 200 different crops, some grown nowhere else in the nation. The state produces almost all of the country’s almonds, apricots, dates, figs, kiwi fruit, nectarines, olives, pistachios, prunes and walnuts. It also leads in the production of avocados, grapes, lemons, melons, peaches, plums, and strawberries. Only Florida produces more oranges than California.

The most important vegetable crops grown in the state are lettuce and tomatoes, where California once again leads the country in production. Broccoli and carrots rank second followed by asparagus, cauliflower, celery, garlic, mushrooms, onions and peppers.

Cool-season crops are those that grow best throughout California include beets, carrots, parsnips, radishes, turnips, asparagus, cabbage, celery, lettuce, onions, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower and globe artichokes. Warm-season crops are crops that grow well in California include tomatoes, cantaloupe, winter squash, watermelon, corn, squash and snap beans.

Agricultural in California would not be possible without irrigation. Agriculture accounts for approximately 80 percent of all the water used in California. In an average year, approximately 9.6 million acres are irrigated with roughly 34 million acre-feet of water; an amount that would cover 31 million football fields with one foot of water. The California Department of Water Resources works with agricultural water suppliers to ensure that water is used efficiently, so water that isn’t used on one farm is used on another or used to help recharge groundwater. On average, farmers pay about $4.85 per 100 cubic feet, or $2,112 per acre-foot, for potable water.

The San Joaquin soil series was designated the official state soil of California in 1997. California’s central valley has more than half a million acres of San Joaquin soils. San Joaquin soils are used for irrigated crops such as wheat, rice, figs, almonds and grapes as well as for pasture and urban development. However, cemented hardpan a few feet beneath the surface in San Joaquin restricts roots and water percolation, and the natural high salinity of these soils can threaten agricultural productivity. 

Raising animals in California

They (well, except PETA, that is) say “happy cows come from California.” Dairy products are the top agricultural commodity in California, totaling $6.37 billion in 2018. Other lucrative livestock products in California include beef cattle, eggs, sheep, turkeys, hogs and horses. California is the second-ranked producer of livestock products behind Texas.

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Open range laws in California were created in the 1800s and continue today in counties like Lassen, Modoc, Siskiyou, Plumas, Sierra and parts of Shasta County. They require that small property owners and farmers to be responsible for building fences to keep grazing cattle and other livestock off their property. Open range applies to privately owned and public land. The Bureau of Land Management and the United States Forest Service administer much of the open rangeland.

California Government Food and Agriculture Code says that property owners have no right to take up stray livestock unless the property is properly fenced. Said fence must also be “good and substantial,” at least four feet high, with firmly anchored posts no further than one rod (16.5 feet) apart with three tightly stretched barbed wires or something similar and be strong enough to turn livestock.

Most livestock and poultry have an entry permit and Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI) requirements to enter California. California entry permits are issued to accredited licensed veterinarians from the state of origin by the Animal Health Branch. The CVI must include the complete physical origin and destination address along with phone numbers. 

Horses and other equines do not require a permit, but do require a CVI. Another except is camelidae (llamas, alpacas, camels, vicunas) and domestic rabbits. They must be in good health, and a CVI issued by an accredited veterinarian is recommended.

There are numerous livestock auctions that regularly take place throughout the state of California, including the Turlock Livestock Auction Yard, Escalon Livestock Market, the A&M Livestock Auction, the Cattlemen’s Livestock Market, the Shasta Livestock Auction Yard and the Overland Stockyard. The CDFA has a full list of cattle sale yards on their website.

Selling food in California

According to the CDFA, there are approximately 750 certified farmers markets and approximately 2,700 certified producers. Around 50 percent are year-round markets.

You must obtain a Certified Producer’s Certificate from the CDFA in order to sell at a Certified Farmers Market. Certified farmers markets exempted farmers from off-farm site packing, sizing and labeling requirements.

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Food sales from farm stands is limited to whole produce, shell eggs, non-potentially hazardous pre-packaged food products from an approved source that were grown or produced in close proximity to the farm stand and any non-potentially hazardous pre-packaged food products, including bottled water and soft drinks, from an approved source that has not been grown or produced in close proximity to the farm stand shall be limited to a 50-square-foot storage and sales area. Food preparation is prohibited at farm stands with the exception of food samples, which may only occur if approved toilet and handwashing facilities are available for use by farm stand operators or their employees.

In California, individuals can prepare and package certain non-potentially hazardous foods in private-home kitchens referred to as “cottage food operations.” There is a two-tier cottage food operator registration and permitting system: “Class A” cottage food operators are those operations that sell prepared foods directly to the public and “Class B” cottage food operators are those operations that sell CFO prepared foods either indirectly through restaurants and stores or both directly to the public as well as indirectly to the public via sale to retail food facilities such as restaurants and markets. There are different requirements for “Class A” and “Class B” cottage food operations. “Class A” cottage food operations must submit a completed self-certification checklist approved by the local environmental health agency, while “Class B” operations must submit a permit application and be inspected prior to obtaining a permit from the local environmental health agency. All cottage food operations must be registered or permitted by their local environmental health agency before commencing business. 

All cottage food operators will have to meet specified requirements pursuant to the California Health and Safety Code related to preparing foods that are on the approved food list, completing a food processor training course within three months of registering, implementing sanitary operations, creating state and federal compliant labels and operating within established gross annual sales limits.

The local environmental health agency may inspect the permitted or registered area of the private home in which the cottage food operation prepares, handles, or stores food prior to issuing a “Class B” permit or on the basis of a consumer complaint, where there is reason to suspect that adulterated or otherwise unsafe food has been produced by the cottage food operation.

Cottage food operations are allowed to produce certain non-potentially hazardous foods. These are foods that do not support the rapid growth of bacteria that would make people sick when held outside of refrigeration temperatures. The list of approved cottage food categories and their ethnic variations include baked goods, without cream, custard, or meat fillings, such as breads, biscuits, churros, cookies, pastries, and tortillas; candy and confections, including cotton candy and candied apples; dried fruit; herb blends; nut butters; and dried fruit powders, spiced sugars and grain mixes. 

Direct sales of cottage food operations include, but are not limited to, transactions at holiday bazaars or other temporary events, such as bake sales or food swaps, transactions at farm stands, certified farmers’ markets or through community-supported agriculture subscriptions, and transactions occurring in person at the operation itself.

Anyone involved in producing, candling, grading, packing, or otherwise preparing eggs must register as an egg handler. This includes eggs from all species of fowl, whether in the shell or in liquid, frozen, dried or any other form when intended as food for human consumption. Each location where eggs are handled must be registered. This includes all egg handlers within California, and all egg handlers outside of California that do business within California. Unregistered egg handlers can face fines of up to $1,000.00 for the first offense. They may also be cited for other code violations and charged additional fines. In addition to the egg handler registration, your city may require a business license. 

Consumer-grade packages or containers of eggs must state all of the following: name, address, and zip code; quantity; the words “keep refrigerated,” and either the USDA plant of origin code number; the USDA Shell Egg Surveillance number (if applicable) or California state handler code; sell-by date; size and grade; and Julian date of pack (the consecutive day of the year that the eggs were packed, in Julian date format; for example, the Julian date for January 1 is 001, the Julian date for December 31 is 365). 

All shell eggs in California shall be graded — either AA, A, or B — and sized as pee-wee, small, medium, large, extra large, and jumbo. Shell eggs must be maintained at a temperature of 45° Fahrenheit or less and must not exceed the tolerances for defects such as checks, leakers, dirty eggs, inedible or loss eggs.

Living off-grid in California

Mono County will waive permit fees for energy efficiency and alternative energy projects. Qualifying projects are residential and commercial solar, and ground-source space and water conditioning systems with a maximum project valuation of $75,000 each. They also offer an expedited process to facilitate permit submittal for both ground-mounted and roof-mounted solar photovoltaic systems.

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California organizations for new farmers

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How difficult is it to start homesteading in California?

California is certainly a diverse and productive place to farm, as it is incredibly conducive to growing all sorts of crops and owning animals of various shapes and sizes. However, the high upfront costs, saturated market and regulatory difficulties may make it challenging for first-time farmers or homesteaders to break in without breaking the bank.

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