Thanks very much to this week’s guest author on ClimatePlan’s blog and our partners at Greenbelt Alliance.
Greenbelt Alliance has just released a new report, HomeGrown: Tools for Bay Area Farms and Ranches about the threats to local agriculture, and what we can about it.
Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, there are 600,000 acres of farms and 1.7 million acres of ranchland – these contribute $6.1 billion to the region’s economy. And people love their local food here.
But we released this report because there is a problem.
Sprawl development is chipping away at agricultural lands—putting at risk both the local food and the many economic, social, and environmental values that farm and ranch lands provide.
Since 1984, the region has lost 217,000 acres of agricultural land—that’s seven times the size of San Francisco. Today, 200,000 more acres of farms and ranches are threatened by development pressure.
A world-class farming region
In the San Francisco Bay Area, there is widespread support for a local, sustainable food system. It’s a heartland for the American “locavore” food movement and some of the country’s most famous farm-to-table restaurants.
“This is the greatest farming region in the world. Along with our soil, climate, and great agricultural history, we have the world’s most supportive and passionate food hub—chefs and restaurants and families,” said Al Courchesne of Frog Hollow Farm, better known as “Farmer Al,” a mainstay of San Francisco’s Ferry Building farmer’s market.
“But there are big barriers to farming here,” says Courchesne. “Local governments can do a lot more to support agriculture, and they can use this report to help.”
In the last 30 years, the region has lost 217,000 acres of agricultural land—that’s seven times the size of San Francisco.
Right now, across the state and especially in the Bay Area, land prices are skyrocketing. That not only makes it difficult for folks who want to start or expand a farm, it puts a lot of speculative pressure to take that land out of farming entirely and pave it over with subdivisions.
And every farm lost to development makes it tougher on surrounding farms.
Breaking down the barriers — in the Bay Area and beyond
The report identifies the primary barriers to farmers and ranchers’ ability to thrive:
• Land costs that make it hard to start or expand farms and ranches, and may lead to farmland’s conversion to sprawling development;
• Regulatory challenges, that is, permits and paperwork that are difficult to navigate;
• Conflicts between landowners, such as new residents near farms who don’t like noises, smells, and other realities that come with agriculture;
• Challenges for new farmers to get started in the business;
• Access challenges to reaching the Bay Area’s consumer market; and
• Lack of funding to employ the tools to overcome these barriers.
HomeGrown: Tools for Local Farms and Ranches shares what communities can do—especially, what county governments can do.
While we focus on the San Francisco Bay Area, some excellent examples are drawn from Yolo County, Santa Cruz, and San Luis Obispo, and these tools work across California and beyond.
Among the many tools outlined in this report, there are five things that each county can do to help farms and ranches succeed:
• Protect agriculture with policies: Adopt agricultural policies that support farmers’ rights and keep farmland and ranchland designated as agricultural land.
• Hire “farmbudsmen”: Dedicate staff to help farmers and ranchers navigate permits and paperwork. There’s a great example in Solano County—and yes, she is called a “farmbudsman.”
• Show the value of farming and ranching: Publicize the values—economic, social, and environmental—that the county’s farms and ranches provide.
• Support direct sales to customers: Promote local farm direct-sales efforts, such as U-picks, farmers’ markets, and community-supported agriculture programs, for both residents and visitors. Remarkably, growers earn six times more by selling direct to consumers!
• Provide funding: Identify sources of long-term funding to invest in programs like these.
The report includes many examples—from a Marin agreement to share water between fish and farmers, to a regional co-op of farms directly supplying hospitals, to a Sonoma .25% sales tax that brings in $17 million of dollars to protect agricultural land—of how and where these ideas are already working.
Our goal is to support local action. And that’s one exciting thing we learned in doing this research: communities do have power. Of course state and federal policy—the Farm Bill, for example—exert a big influence. But this report pulls together policies and ideas that local communities can adopt to support their farmers and ranchers themselves.
So next time you go to the farmer’s market, don’t think that’s all you can do. Email your county supervisors afterward and ask if they’ve read the HomeGrown report, and if your community is really doing all it can to help.
Download HomeGrown: Tools for Local Farms and Ranches to learn more.