For three years, Nathanael Gonzales-Siemens drove up California’s coast for 14 hours every month for a routine task: milling his grain into flour. “I was literally not able to find a flour mill at my scale, and we’re not tiny,” he said. “We’ve got 150 acres of grain.” He found this disconcerting, not only for himself but the future of small-scale grain farming in California, once known for its golden hills of grain.
As California has lost much of its grain to higher value crops, small flour mills and grain cleaning businesses have disappeared, too. It’s a symptom of what Gonzales-Siemens sees as a larger problem facing many farmers, awash in a marketplace dominated by highly concentrated operations as regional farm infrastructure atrophies. This specialized, often professionally operated equipment—and all farm equipment, for that matter—can be prohibitively challenging for many farmers to buy and maintain.
“This does not feel like I am living on planet Earth, where humans live,” said Gonzales-Siemens, laughing at the absurdity of the drive north to find a mill.
“It’s not a novel idea. Farmers have been sharing equipment forever. But it seems like farmers are becoming less and less neighbors of each other.”
He eventually bought a mill from a grain farmer who went out of business, but finding the other equipment necessary for both farming and processing grain was an ongoing struggle.
So, Gonzales-Siemens got to talking with other farmers in the region. He learned nearby grain farmers, Clayton Garland and Melissa Sorongon in Santa Barbara, were in a similar position. In 2019, the trio decided to work together to lift this equipment burden, pooling funds to buy their first combine. Prior to that, they had all either harvested by hand, an intensely laborious process, or hired someone with a combine. Next, they purchased a no-drill seeder together, and it allowed them to plant rows of grain directly into orchards and pastures without tilling, a practice known to benefit the soil.
As word spread, other small-scale farmers joined them, and they became a more formalized collective with a name: California Plowshares.
“It’s a programmatic way for us to be a little more collaborative and supportive of each other’s work,” said Gonzales-Siemens. “It’s not a novel idea. Farmers have been sharing equipment forever. But it seems like farmers are becoming less and less neighbors of each other. Most of my neighbors—the people actually adjacent to me—are corporate entities,” where the farm owner is often absent, and the workers don’t have a say in the equipment.
In this sense, California Plowshares is a return to the kind of rural sharing economies that once arose naturally between farmers in tight-knit communities but have become much less common in recent years. The collective currently consists of around 50 farmers located along California’s southern Central Coast who share equipment that they co-purchase and individually own, often with a rental fee.
The original idea was to form a collective for just grain farmers, given that “grain farming is so rare that we need all the infrastructural and equipment help we can,” said Gonzales-Siemens. But then it became clear that the collective could benefit a wide range of small-scale farmers.
The collective doesn’t charge a membership fee, but they each contribute in other ways. There’s the “sweat equity type of guy,” who jumps in wherever needed. Another farmer with storage for equipment. Others chip in financially when they’re having a good season. There’s a skilled welder who fixes loose parts. As for Gonzales-Siemens, he often helps transport equipment between farms. They tend to lean on each other’s strengths.
In the near future, he hopes to contribute further by building out a local grain processing operation, filling a gap in regional infrastructure. He is now the proud owner of three flour mills, two of which he shares, and the co-owner of a grain cleaner—the building blocks of the processing operation in the works. Long gone are his days of driving up the coast to find a flour mill, and he hopes to spare other farmers from that fate as well.
Collective Response to Farming’s Steep Costs
Collective approaches to farming, like equipment sharing, often emerge from a stark realization: The current farm business model in the U.S. isn’t working for many small producers. The median farming income in the U.S. was less than zero in 2022: -$849. Meanwhile, the cost of farm production expenses are expected to reach a record high in 2023. It’s a balance sheet that isn’t adding up, and equipment is a part of the equation.
“We thought it was so stupid to have all this steel sitting in the field that we were using just twice a year.”
Next to land, equipment is a farmer’s biggest investment. While farm equipment collectives are still relatively rare in the U.S., they tend to share a similar origin story: Farmers begin informally swapping farm equipment to ease costs, building a sense of trust. Then they realize that sharing tools makes sense and they build a more formal system. This is the story of Tool Legit (yes, named after the MC Hammer song), a farm equipment library in North Carolina.
“It started off with a couple of buddies. I owned the tiller. Someone owned a bush hog. Someone owned a flail mower. We would just swap them back and forth as needed,” said George O’Neal, a vegetable farmer who started Tool Legit. “We thought it was so stupid to have all this steel sitting in the field that we were using just twice a year.”
In 2011, they formed an LLC with a rotating president and treasurer, supported by a $27,500 grant from the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI). This helped them buy their first cache of shared equipment: a tiller, a harrow, a manure spreader, a trailer to move equipment between farms, and a log splitter for heating greenhouses with wood. Every year, they pool funds to add to their growing collection of tools.
A decade later, the collective is still thriving. “We’re all very community and civically minded, but I feel like that’s very true for 90 percent of small farmers,” said O’Neal. “We don’t see each other as competition in any meaningful way. We see Walmart or shitty food or HelloFresh as competition—not each other.”
O’Neal estimates that he saves about $1,000 every year in equipment upgrade costs. The collective charges an annual membership fee, but aims to keep it low, below $400 per year, so it’s accessible.
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Author: Grey Moran