Big Potential in Small Farms

For over a decade, claims have been made that farming on small parcels – those that are 40 acres or less – is simply not viable in Santa Clara County. To be successful, according to this argument, farming requires much larger parcel sizes. With 83% of agricultural parcels in the county below this 40-acre threshold, one would think that farming in the valley was doomed and those parcels might as well be paved over for development immediately. However, a new report dispels these claims, proving that small farms in the Santa Clara Valley are not only viable and worth preserving, but are critical to our County’s strategy for climate resilience. 

Help Needed to Continue Success in a Challenging Environment

The report, Small Farms, Big Potential: Growing A Resilient Local Food System by the Santa Clara County Food System Alliance (of which Green Foothills is a member), showcases small farms succeeding in a challenging environment. Most importantly though, the report points out that additional efforts are needed to protect the future of these small farms, including:

  • Making farmland affordable and accessible to small parcel farmers
  • Investing in permanent preservation of farmland and climate smart practices
  • Increasing sales and consumption of locally produced food
  • Streamlining burdensome regulations that disproportionately affect small farms

The report, funded by a Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority Measure Q grant, builds upon the recommendations of the Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors in 2017 but with a unique focus on the needs of small farms. 

Land speculation represents one of the biggest threats to small farms in the Santa Clara Valley. As the current generation of farmers in our valley retire, their land is often sold to non-farm owners who purchase it with an eye toward development. Farmers who do not currently own land cannot afford to purchase these farmlands, which sell at their speculative development value rather than their agricultural value. This makes it particularly challenging for immigrant and first-generation farmers to get a foothold in farming in our valley.

Current and new farmers are forced into short-term rent agreements with landowners who are reluctant to enter into lengthier leases that could hinder future plans to develop these parcels. With no certainty of being able to farm on these parcels for longer than one to two years (or, in extreme cases, a month-to-month basis), these tenant farmers can’t afford to invest in infrastructure (e.g. barn, greenhouse, or fencing) or climate-smart practices such as increasing soil health to better absorb carbon and improve groundwater recharge. 

Public Benefits Deserve Public Investment

A key fact in the report is that an acre of farmland produces far less greenhouse gas emissions than an acre developed with urban uses, which generate up to 77 times more C02 emissions. Loss of farmland to development is thus a serious climate change issue. And if farmed with climate-smart practices, farmland can sequester even more carbon than farmland left to fallow. 

Small farms can also create a resilient and healthy urban food supply, drive a local food economy, provide valuable ecological services like pollinator habitat and groundwater recharge, and minimize impacts of flooding and reduce fire hazards.

As County Supervisor Joe Simitian stated, “By preserving our farmland, particularly small parcels at the urban edge, we maintain these benefits – benefits that are essential to the health of Santa Clara County’s people, communities, economy, and environment.” Without public investment in the preservation of these lands, their climate smart practices, and purchase of the food they produce, we risk losing these critical benefits. 

Unfortunately, current public and private funding for local land trusts is insufficient for conserving the county’s threatened prime farmland. Further public investment in the preservation of these lands will be critical moving forward and Green Foothills is very supportive of the recommendation – both in the Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan and this report – that a local funding source be developed for the purchase of agricultural conservation easements. 

Board President and County Supervisor Cindy Chavez put it well during her State of the County 2020 Address: “…we must be mindful to avoid another environmental catastrophe: the loss of our precious agricultural lands. And this is an urgent challenge…we must find reliable funding sources to save our farmland. We’ve got to lead the efforts to address changes in our food system…” 

Supporting Our Local Small Farms

Green Foothills has been advocating for the protection of farmland for decades. Our work in Coyote Valley and southern Santa Clara County attests to the importance we place on preserving the thousands of acres at risk of development. These lands contribute an important sense of place in our valley and can help people connect with the origins of their food and share knowledge of local food production.

We encourage you to learn more about the report and some of the small farms in Santa Clara County featured in the report. Helping existing and new small parcel farmers get started will be critical going forward. You can start by visiting them at your local farmers’ market or joining one of the community supported agriculture (veggie box) programs in our county.

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