Urban growth boundaries, city limits and open pastures may separate city dwellers from country folk, but we should not let those physical barriers stop us from educating city leaders about agriculture. Particularly in our county, the decisions made by city staffers and the elected officials they serve are critical to our farmers and ranchers. As agritourism is a major economic driver in Northern California, there cannot be a “them” and “us” mentality on either side of the equation.
In a recent letter to the editor, Julie Combs, a Santa Rosa City Councilmember, criticized Farm Bureau President Steve Dutton, for not supporting the proposed county-wide housing bond. She went so far as to berate Steve by suggesting the $1000 estimated annual housing bond tax due from a $5 million property should be insignificant to a “millionaire” farmer. Shame on Councilmember Combs for not valuing the agriculture industry’s effort to provide farmworker housing, but shame on us for not educating every municipality decision-maker on the significance of agriculture to all microeconomies in our county. The good news is that Ms. Combs is not seeking re-election to the City Council, but the bad news is that she is throwing her hat in the ring for the 2020 District 3 Supervisorial race against Shirlee Zane, a strong supporter of agriculture.
Recently, on the back of an envelope (well, it was an auction catalog during the fair lamb sale) two friends and I were discussing how important city-based policy is to our industry and our members. We came up with over 20 processing plants in Petaluma and at least 10 similar operations in Santa Rosa that process locally farmed products at plants within the city limits. Sonoma Countians are proud of their slow, local food network, but it requires a production chain that takes the raw product directly from a local farm to a processing facility in Sonoma County or at least within a 100-mile radius to the farm. Shouldn’t all our local governments be interested in sustainability? Isn’t their value in having not only locally grown food, but also locally processed food that is not shipped hundreds of miles away to be processed and then returned to our local consumers?
Besides processing plants, consider how many of our dairy farmers, grape growers and vegetable farmers depend on reclaimed water from the cities of Santa Rosa and Windsor. It is my understanding that the partnership between the municipalities and the farmers started almost 40 years ago in Santa Rosa because the City needed an outlet for their treated wastewater. With a successful water conservation effort on the part of the City’s utility users and, around 15 years ago, the construction of the pipeline that takes reclaimed water to the Geysers, our farmers are left with too little water and no supply guarantees. Do city leaders understand the ripple effect that one less acre farmed has on the overall business climate and economy in Sonoma County? With so much interest in maintaining our groundwater supply and the benefit of significant water recharge done on agriculture land, farmers should be a priority for receiving reclaimed water.
Something else that should be on everyone’s radar is the trend with elected officials to use their local seat to leapfrog to a broader political jurisdiction. Often those seeking seats on the Board of Supervisors got their start as a city council member or mayor. Even though city officials do not represent the unincorporated areas of Sonoma County, farmers and ranchers need to stay informed about city politics and the slant of individual city council members.
I am not suggesting that our city officials have turned a blind-eye to the needs of farmers in their policy making. However, with less city officials having roots directly related to agriculture, the need for Sonoma County Farm Bureau and its members to stay engaged with local elections, policies and city ordinances is significant. The Farm Bureau board is on task and will be interviewing, supporting and possibly opposing some of the candidates seeking seats in the local city elections. We hope all our members will support endorsements or actions taken by the Farm Bureau board so that farmers and the processors who support them can stay viable.