In 2011, UCCE lead efforts to explore the use of County owned lands for farmers, ranchers and communities to produce food. This effort, The County Lands for Food Production (CLFP), brought together a team from several Sonoma County Departments to assess currently vacant lands owned by the County and managed by the different County departments. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors directed staff to assess the opportunities for growing food; in either community garden or through production agriculture.
County departments involved in this program included the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE), Department of Health Services (DHS), Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (Ag + Open Space), Regional Parks, Sonoma County Water Agency, Agricultural Commissioner, and General Services. County departments established general criteria for suitable lands then developed an initial list of potential sites through a GIS search. This collaborative effort produced County Land for Food Production Recommendations and Next Steps, a report that provided background on the program, described selection criteria for parcels, and included basic information about each of the vacant parcels. To view the report visit: ucanr.edu/CLFP.
Each vacant parcel was evaluated, describing potential farming and grazing parcels, providing an overview of other County lands that are currently used for food production, and gave guidance for future land acquisitions with farming or grazing potential. Personal interviews, GIS data, soils data, planning and zoning documents, and site reconnaissance were used to determine if each of the potential CLFP properties are suitable for crop farming or livestock production. Evaluation involved analysis of physical features, existing infrastructure, and planning, physical, or biological constraints. Zoning regulations were researched to determine if they would be constraints to farming or ranching on any of the properties.
A total of 17 properties were proposed for inclusion into the CLFP program. Generally, the sites had appropriate soils for agricultural use, but most of them lack infrastructure necessary for farming or grazing, such as a water supply and adequate fencing; (only two had water sources). Developing water on the remaining sites was deemed prohibitively expensive, although adjacent landowners could potentially utilize a few of the sites if they could provide water.
Some of the parcels were also constrained by physical and/or biotic features such as wetlands, dense tree cover, valley oak regeneration, and a few were within potential habitat for the federally-listed endangered California tiger salamander (Ambystoma californiense). Of the 17 properties assessed in 2011, many lacked the necessary infrastructure for farming or ranching.
There are over 4,500 acres owned by Regional Parks, Ag + Open Space and General Services that are currently leased to local farmers and ranchers and are an important part of Sonoma County’s local food system.
Several of the vacant properties evaluated in 2011 but are now being grazed. Those not being used for agriculture production, have no water source. Some would require development of a groundwater well, or, for properties within the jurisdiction of a municipal water system, a water hookup. In the case of a well, electricity would be required to pump water from the well and, in most cases, distribute it throughout the property. Either of these options would require a substantial investment, roughly in the range of $10,000 to $20,000 or more,1 which would likely dissuade potential farming or ranching tenants, unless and perhaps even if, they were guaranteed a long-term lease. The investment in developing a water source and possibly a power source would be especially difficult for tenants to bear on the smaller sites, where production and income would be limited by the size of the parcel. Some crops, such as tomatoes, potatoes, and grains can be dry farmed where soils are deep and moist late in the year, but suitable sites for dry farming often support wetlands. Generally, livestock cannot be raised without an on-site water source, although ranchers with small-scale operations may be willing to haul water to a site that supports a small number of animals3.
County departments acquire land for a variety of reasons, not just food production. Going forward, Sonoma County has an opportunity to become more resilient, especially as it relates to local food production. Having more local opportunities for aspiring farmers and ranchers would increase the County’s ability to recover from or adjust easily to climate change, pandemics, etc. Future county land acquisitions should consider lands that already have necessary infrastructure and other attributes needed for agriculture production. These types of land purchases would provide greater farming and/or grazing opportunities. It would also be advantageous if the Ag + Open Space Matching Grant Program (MGP) allowed for currently owned County lands, those that lack necessary infrastructures such as water and fencing, to receive grant funding. This would accelerate County Lands for Food Production to the next level, offering productive County owned lands to increase locally grown food for Sonoma County.
The following list includes essential and desirable features for future acquisitions.
Water. Any land to be used for food production should have an adequate, developed water source on site for the expected use. Water sources can include wells, developed springs, reservoirs and stock ponds,4 and SCWA or other water provider hookups. Normally, deep irrigation wells, reservoirs and water provider hookups are needed for row crop farming, as springs do not generally yield enough water for irrigation. Grazing is less water intensive, and any type of water supply can usually provide adequate water for grazing animals, especially if storage tanks are used.
Fencing. Livestock production requires that all property boundaries be securely fenced to prevent animals from leaving the site. Interior, or cross fences, are needed in some cases. Fencing should be in good condition to avoid costly replacement or repairs.
Access. Properties should have road access to and into the site, with an adequate on-site area for trucks to turn around. Year-round access is preferable.
Power. A power supply is required for operating water pumps on wells and possibly for distributing water from reservoirs. Running power to properties that lack a power supply can be very costly.
Property Size. Minimum parcel sizes of 20 acres for farming and 100 acres for grazing are recommended.
Biotic Issues. Properties that will be used for farming should be free of natural resources that may prevent this use. The presence of jurisdictional wetlands, state- or federally-listed plants or animals, and significant oak generation are among the natural resources that could be damaged by farming5. These resources are generally less affected by livestock grazing, and in some cases may be enhanced by grazing, so this is less critical on parcels used for grazing. Densely wooded properties are not suitable for farming and are usually not appropriate for grazing.
USDA. 1972. Soil Survey, Sonoma County California. Washington, DC, Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office. 188p.