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Coastal agriculture: Withering away, or saved by cooperation?
by Lennie Roberts
Over the years, there have been numerous debates
over the economic health of agriculture on the San Mateo Coastside. As
is the case in many other areas of the state, farmers living and working
in the ever-looming shadow of urban development, can - and do - feel beleaguered.
to local, small-scale agriculture are many, and diverse.
This winter, CGF was one of several co-sponsors of an agricultural
summit that examined some of the issues facing farmers and farmland
in San Mateo County today. The summit focused on two concerns: keeping
productive agricultural land in production and ensuring dependable water
supplies from local streams for agriculture while providing adequate water
for fish. A third and critical topic, marketing local produce and flowers,
was deferred, but the Committee hopes that this will become a central
effort of the Farm Bureau and other interested entities in the future.
Is agricultural land actually disappearing?
The simplistic cry of "disappearing agricultural land" by some farmers doesn't completely explain the many factors that are involved in decisions by individual farmers as to what - or whether - to farm. A major concern is that foreign competition is forcing farmers to innovate. This is no different from changes being required by other sectors of our economy, and should not be a big surprise. The good news is that the San Mateo Coast's agricultural land base is not disappearing, thanks to strict zoning protections that give priority to agricultural uses in the rural area. Key to ensuring the long-term viability of agriculture is the permanent urban/rural boundary that has existed for 23 years around the Half Moon Bay area. This boundary protects the adjacent farmland from being paved over for sprawling development.
A more pervasive threat to agriculture is the trend of urban dwellers
willing to pay huge prices for large parcels of rural land, and turn productive
farmland into country estates with trophy
homes. Often, owners of these luxury homes have a romanticized view
of living in a working agricultural area. This can lead to conflicts with
adjacent agricultural operations. Worse, sales of land at speculative
- rather than agricultural - prices can make it impossible for new farmers
to purchase or lease productive land in the future. When buyers of agricultural
land have a vision that doesn't embrace continuation of the area's agricultural
enterprise, there can be a domino effect on the region's productive farmlands.
Fortunately, organizations like Peninsula
Open Space Trust (POST), working with willing sellers, are actively
stepping up to the plate to ensure that the land base will indeed be available
as a resource in the future. By purchasing land and protecting it as open
space for its habitat and resource values, while helping to ensure that
viable agricultural parcels remain in production, this private land trust
has been a national leader in saving threatened farmland from development.
Several of POST's land acquisitions have been from absentee owners who
had trophy houses, condos, golf courses, and conference centers on the
Innovative efforts are underway to resolve water conflicts
Balancing the needs of threatened fish and farming that both depend on the limited water found in Coastal streams is a major challenge that has, out of necessity, forged new relationships between often dissenting parties. Rather than pitting threatened fish vs. threatened farmers, this has led to the successful formation of a historic coalition.
On the San Mateo Coast, farming interests, environmentalists, land trusts and park and open space agencies are working together to remove existing on-stream dams that interfere with fish migration, and replace them with off-stream impoundments. This will ensure dependable and adequate water supplies for farming - and also enhance the recovery of steelhead trout and Coho salmon, both listed as threatened species in central Coast waterways. Such cooperation may be anathema to individuals who would prefer to fight or complain, but it's essential to moving forward in today's more complex society.
Marketing offers real hope for sustainable agriculture
Without customers, even well-watered agricultural land is worth nothing.
As Jered Lawson points out in his article, "Looking
for local," in this issue, targeted marketing efforts offer real hope
for local agriculture.
The greatest untapped resource for San Mateo Coastal agriculture is the urban marketplace right over the hill. There are more than 700,000 people in San Mateo County alone who presumably eat three meals a day. Consumers today appreciate - and increasingly demand - the flavor and nutritional benefits of fresh, local produce, particularly organic.
In nearby counties, innovative efforts are under way to encourage buying
local agricultural products through organizations such as the California
Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF) "Buy
Fresh, Buy Local" campaign. The model of promotion and marketing of
local fresh produce and flowers has been successfully established in Marin,
Sonoma, and other counties in the state for some time. Although Committee
for Green Foothills and other environmental groups have been suggesting
this approach for many years, the San Mateo Coastside agricultural leadership
has been slow to respond.
A marketing campaign with a unique logo that celebrates San Mateo Coastal fresh produce, flowers, and locally-caught fish and seafood is way overdue. It is encouraging now to find strong agreement that this crucial step is a priority for the agricultural community. For a relatively small investment, the payoff from this untapped market could be enormous, and could help ensure that agriculture will remain a vibrant and appreciated land use on the Coast.
Saving local agriculture will take all of us, working together
Revitalization of Coastal agriculture is going to take support from the community as well. Consumers must seek out and buy local, fresh produce; flowers; and seafood. Grocery stores need to label the sources of their food. And restaurants need to follow the model of several restaurants in Half Moon Bay, which describe on menus the farm origins of such Coastal specialties as artichokes, fava beans, leeks, baby beets, and fresh peas. Connecting consumers and farms through roadside stands, farmer's markets, community supported agriculture programs, and green grocer tags all bring the urban bayside and rural Coastside communities closer together.
On the San Mateo Coast, our climate and soils are among the best in the world for agriculture. We have some excellent policy tools and protections that provide a conducive environment for profitable farming enterprises. Despite these favorable conditions, as with other economic sectors, those farmers who remain entrenched in old ways may indeed find their future withering away. The farmers who are willing to innovate and change with the times will successfully rise to today's challenges and opportunities, and will enjoy the positive support of consumers, land management agencies, and environmentalists.
Published July 2003 in Green
Page last updated
September 13, 2010