KNIGHTSEN -- Their hands and boots may be just as caked with dirt after early morning harvesting, but these aren't your parents' farmers.
A group of East Contra Costa adults in their early and mid-20s, some with deep family agricultural roots and some who are novices, have created a nonprofit to establish a local community food system.
First Generation Farmers was formed in June so that aspiring young farmers, or agripreneurs, would have a place to find resources, learn to cultivate crops and promote healthy eating.
"There are a lot of kids out there that are willing to get into farming, but they don't know the steps to take to get started," said Larry Gaines, co-founder of First Generation Farmers.
Gaines, 23, of Brentwood got involved in agriculture after he started a community garden in that city last year. One of the people he met is fourth-generation Contra Costa farmer Alli Cecchini.
The idea grew from there.
"We want people to be as excited about growing food as they are about eating it," said Cecchini, 25. "We are losing too many farmers and I think this is a great outlet for people of all ages to get connected -- not just to dirt and food but also to each other."
The idea appealed to Marina Early. The 21-year-old Oakley resident went out to harvest for the first time last week, and says she's looking to get into permaculture.
"The possibility of creating a sustainable food supply naturally, seems like a smart thing to do," she said.
The self-proclaimed "startup" farmers differ from their more seasoned contemporaries. They bring loudspeakers into the field, or use MP3 players to blast upbeat music while cutting and collecting veggies from the ground.
"We try to have as much fun as possible," Gaines said.
Their attire includes sunglasses and flat-billed hats and hoodies; phrases such as "dope" or "sick" were heard during a recent harvest to describe a particularly bountiful crop.
Technology also plays a key role for the group. First Generation Farmers uses Facebook to share pictures of their crops and promote projects or upcoming field trips to learn about agricultural techniques and healthy food.
Its members have used Google to search for ways to build structures such as a chicken coop and electricity-free greenhouse.
"To have almost 900 people liking our page, that's huge, to think that many people want what we're doing to pop up on their news feed," Cecchini said.
Cecchini said her family has been farming in Brentwood and Knightsen for 90 years.
"My dad is 75 and has been farming since he was 13. It's quite a different world now. To show him what people are saying online has been pretty awesome," she said.
Despite their youth, First Generation Farmers tries to blend conventional farming and urban and organic ideals and techniques into their program.
As the average age of farmers continues to increase, statistics show that they are not being replaced by the next generation. The average age of the principal farm operator was 58.1 in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also, the fastest-growing group of farm operators is 65 years old and older.
That's a trend Cecchini hopes her group can change. But it's easier said than done.
Lack of capital is often identified as the biggest challenge for beginning farmers. Although there are federal loans offered to beginning farmers, the rules often disqualify even experienced farmers with good credit, according to the National Young Farmers Coalition in a November 2011 report.
Access to land is also a major hurdle for young farmers.
The group uses a 1-acre piece of the Cecchini family farms east of Discovery Bay near the county border for community use, where they take seeds germinated in their green house and organically grow veggies that are a bit out of the norm for the area -- including bok choy, kale, beets, kohlrabi and colorful cauliflower. Soon, that will expand to 10 acres.
A recent harvest yielded 15 boxes of produce, including curly, red Russian and Tuscan kale. Each weighed about 10 pounds.
The nonprofit's Knightsen home base serves as a reference point for those looking to get into farming, as well as an incubator for projects such as a chicken coop and solar green house.
"We're trying to show how a sustainable life can come from farmers, and people can kind of learn from our mistakes or gains," Cecchini said.
The group is a bit of a hybrid, part educational, part moneymaker. First Generation Farmers has been marketing its grown produce to restaurants and neighbors around the area. Some of the places that have the group's product on their menu include the Discovery Bay Steakhouse, Scottie's Shutters Brasserie in Brentwood, the Brentwood Cafe and Tender Greens in Walnut Creek.
The group also has a roadside stand where it occasionally sells its produce to fund future projects.
A few of its planned projects include creating a worm farm for composting, beekeeping and aquaponics, which is the combination of raising plants in water and fish farming, where fish waste fertilizes the plants instead of pesticides.
Contact Paul Burgarino at 925-779-7164. Follow him at Twitter.com/paulburgarino.
First Generation Farmers plans to launch a website later this month. More information can be found on its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/1stgenerationfarmers.