Celebrating Sonoma County Agriculture – Then, Now, and Tomorrow

Written By: Steve Dutton, President
Published: September 1, 2018

After the devastating fires last October and the continued hardship faced by our friends in surrounding counties, there is something that feels refreshingly normal and renewing about the harvest season upon us.  Somehow, seeing the dormant vines spring back to life and the fruit start to ripen, reminds us all of the special place that agriculture has in the cycle of life and roots of Sonoma County.  Local agriculture has been celebrated in several ways over the past few weeks in Sonoma County.  With the steer auction and Ag Youth Foundation breakfast at the Sonoma County Fair. Apples and more apples at the Gravenstein Apple Fair. Sonoma County’s commitment to sustainability at the Sonoma County Winegrowers Sustainable Winegrowing Field Day. Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land event which recognizes Ag leaders with the backdrop of Jackson Family Wine’s Saralee’s vineyard. And the release of the 2017 crop report that tells the story, once again, of Ag’s economic importance to Sonoma County.

Agriculture does more than just bring people together a few times a year at these events, it is the foundation of our Sonoma County community. Its history, dating over 200 years, has evolved from vegetables and prunes to dairies and poultry to apples and winegrapes and many more along the way.  While the crops have changed, the hard-working, multi-generational farming families have remained.  Both of us grew up amongst the vineyards, orchards, and gardens of Sonoma County.  Our fathers tilled the soil and built businesses that supported Sonoma County’s transition to the Wine Country in the 70’s and 80’s.  We both studied and practiced agriculture in our lives and at University; and while we have diverged into differing careers, we continue to stand unified in our love and support for Sonoma County Agriculture.

In the late 1980’s through the 1990’s, there was a great threat to agriculture.  The danger was to follow the same path as Santa Clara County which at one time fed the Bay Area but chose to pursue housing and high tech.  While tremendously successful in the establishing the Silicon Valley, the rural agrarian environment was lost forever.  The mantra in Santa Rosa was to not become San Jose, for Sonoma not to become Santa Clara.

Policies of Urban Growth Boundaries were adopted by the municipalities and of Community Separators were adopted in the County.  The County also instituted a policy of “Right to Farm” in its General Plan.  But lines on a map and words on paper were not enough.  We were fortunate to have agriculture run in our veins through our own families with the likes Warren Dutton and Tom Gore, two salt of the earth farmers who are not with us today in flesh, but continue to speak to us through the vines and the wine.  But even more so, we all have been blessed by visionary agriculture leaders like Saralee Kunde who recognized there needed to be economic reasons to not pave over the county.  They began a process of branding Sonoma County by stressing quality that continues today.  Today Sonoma County is recognized as the global leader in sustainability amongst the wine and ag communities and we continue to do more.

What is the value of agriculture today in Sonoma County? This week’s 2017 crop report would say $894,182,900, but there is so much more to what ag contributes.  With its Vintner and Tourism partners, it is responsible for 1 in 4 jobs in the county and $13.4 billion in economic impact.  Ag is the industry that provides the most employee housing voluntarily, with over 30% of the farmers providing housing for their workforce. Grape growers alone pay over 60% above the hourly minimum wage. In addition, grape growers contribute over $26 million annually through donations and in-kind to local non-profits and spend almost 13,000 hours of their personal time giving back to make Sonoma County through local volunteering.

And the real value of agriculture, the value beyond the numbers, is the small family businesses that keep our working lands viable. It is the land that is tendered and stewarded with minimal development. It is healthy soils and a cared for workforce. It is the beauty that attracts locals and visitors from around the world alike. It is the love of the land and of community.  It is Sonoma County.

It is August and the harvest is about to start with early mornings and late nights.  But at the end, good harvest or bad, farmers celebrate.  They prepare for the next one with the same optimism and apprehension.  Theirs is a lesson for us all as we rebuild the community from damage done by wildfires.

James Gore
Chair, Sonoma County Board of Supervisors

Steve Dutton
President, Sonoma County Farm Bureau

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