Last month the Ag Commissioner presented to the Board of Supervisors the 2013 Crop Report. Winegrapes held the leading position among the county’s numerous crops. Noteworthy was that ornamental plants, Christmas trees, and cut flowers showed the highest percentage gains from the previous year: 27%, 31%, and 46%, respectively. These nursery businesses cater mainly to urban and suburban clients within our county or region. The emerging picture may be that we are developing into a successful metropolitan agricultural economy.
Sonoma County has been the agricultural leader in the nine-county San Francisco Bay Area. Practicing agriculture in a metropolitan area is a challenge. Unlike the farmers in Iowa or Nebraska, we face the problems of limited and expensive land, more complex regulations, and day-to-day conflicts with the urban population that often have a different way of thinking and value systems from us.
Many of such problems are being addressed by political measures such as the Williamson Act, Right-to-Farm and Greenbelt ordinances, well-crafted Ag Zoning Codes, and the effective programs of the Ag Preservation & Open Space District. Also, the Agricultural Commissioner is increasingly involved in bridging the gaps between the urban concerns and the agricultural needs through updating the VESCO and by a host of other means ranging from public information, pesticide regulations, and involvement in court cases.
However, the true measure of success will be how well we adapt to our unique business environment. It is a lucky coincidence that our climate and soils are suited to high-quality winegrape production. The continued growth of this sector, however, has been aided by the astute marketing by the local wine industry and Winegrape Commission to capitalize on the closeness to the population center and the international transportation hub, as well as by striking the common chord of environmental and sustainability concerns with the urban consumers.
Other successful adaptations are organic dairies, grass-fed beef, organic fresh fruit and vegetables, and, as the Crop Report shows, fresh cut flowers, Christmas tree farms, and ornamental plants.
Besides the crop types, there are emerging practices of marketing agriculture in our metropolitan area. More supermarket chains are selling locally grown produce. Farmers Markets are by now well established and new legislation (AB 2488, Marc Levine) would allow tastings and sales of local wines there. Farms can process and retail their produce on their premises, and offer “farm stay” to give the visitors a first hand experience on farms. Even public trail systems could be integrated to our farm operations to entice hikers to come and deepen their understanding of agriculture.
Yes, we still need a lot of dialogue. Most of us are dirt rich but cash poor, and take a pragmatic approach to issues. Most urbanites, on the other hand, are cash rich but have little experience in taking care of land. Once they believe in a certain ideology, they tend to get overzealous.
We are lucky to have a positive political and institutional support to keep agriculture as the solid economic and social force of the county. It is our task to embrace our urban neighbors and explore new ways of living and working with them to make our agriculture prosper.