From the Valley to the Coast: Setting the Table for the Future of Farming

An aerial shot of farmland along San Mateo County’s coast. Photo credit: Peninsula Open Space Trust

For over half a century, Green Foothills has worked to preserve farmland, because local, well managed farms are indispensable to our community’s resilience.

Here in our region, our local farms not only offer us fresh healthy food, but they also provide us with open space, carbon sequestration, flood control, fire hazard mitigation, and wildlife habitat, among other essential natural services.

These natural services play an important role in climate change adaptation and resilience. Recent research has shown that an acre of farmed agricultural land in our region produces 58 to 77 times fewer greenhouse gas emissions than an acre of developed land. And using climate-smart, “regenerative” farming practices can increase farm soil health and its ability to capture carbon. This was the driving force behind Santa Clara County’s newly adopted and innovative Agriculture Resilience Incentive grant program which Green Foothills supported. The pilot program will provide farmers and ranchers funds to implement agricultural practices that promote soil carbon sequestration and conservation of natural resources.

Small Farms Are the Linchpin of Our Local Food System

Down in the Santa Clara Valley and along the San Mateo coast, a new generation of farmers dedicated to making a positive change in our food system has emerged. They embrace “regenerative” farming practices that include minimizing or even avoiding tilling; growing a great diversity of crops and rotating these crops; using cover crops, compost and organic fertilizers; irrigating more efficiently; and providing habitat for beneficial insects, pollinators, and other wildlife. This ecologically sound approach to farming builds healthier soils to support more nutrient-rich, high-quality foods, reduces a farm’s carbon footprint, and increases climate resilience. Many innovative farmers also seek to create more equitable access to farming and educational opportunities, to the healthy food they grow, and to fair and fulfilling work environments.

The majority of farms here are considered relatively small in scale and are the linchpin of our local food system. The current public health crisis has only further served to highlight their critical role and value to our region. As the coronavirus pandemic exposed vulnerabilities in our national food system and agribusiness-scale practices, consumer concerns over the threat of empty supermarket shelves or uneven availability of groceries led to more people turning toward purchasing food grown on our local small farms.

During the past few months, a remarkable spike in subscriptions to our local farms’ Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, better known as “veggie box” programs, has led to many with waiting lists of hundreds.

New Generation of Farmers Face Challenges

Despite this growing appreciation for locally grown food, our farmers face many challenges, including invasive pests, lack of storage and processing facilities, labor shortages, shortages of affordable housing for both farmers and farmworkers, cumbersome regulations, lack of access to markets and financing, and inadequate and undependable water sources particularly in San Mateo County. Climate change has added extreme droughts and flood events to the list of challenges.

One of greatest obstacles is the purchasing of farmland. Given the high price of land in our region, it is nearly impossible for a beginning or small farmer to buy a plot of land. Many farmers cannot compete with investors or developers speculating on the development value of farmland or the very wealthy wanting to build a luxury country home. Aging farmers whose heirs have no interest in taking up the farming mantle can often sell their farm for its speculative development potential versus the actual agricultural value. This is an unsustainable pattern if we are to achieve the meaningful preservation of farmland and a robust farming environment in our counties.

Leasing land is also difficult, as some landowners have no financial interest in renting the land for farming purposes. Other owners often will commit to only a one-year lease in order to keep their options open to a lucrative selling or development opportunity. Such short-term leases make it very challenging for farmers to plan for their businesses or make costly investments in infrastructure or long-term improvements to the soil and property.

Green Foothills’ Efforts Have Protected Thousands of Acres of Farmland

Green Foothills’ work to protect farmland dates back to our support of the 1972 California Coastal Initiative, which mandates protection of prime agricultural lands. We championed the 1976 Coastal Act, which created permanent boundaries between urban and rural areas in coastal San Mateo County. We advocated for the adoption of San Mateo County’s Local Coastal Plan which has protected the coastside’s rural agricultural lands from subdivision and other uses. We led the successful effort to persuade Santa Clara County to zone 20- and 40-acre agricultural parcels as a minimum to stop developers from further fragmenting the rural landscape. We campaigned for Gilroy’s voter-approved urban growth boundary in 2016 to stop significant sprawl on over 720 acres of farmland. And now we are leading the Protect Coyote Valley coalition to permanently protect a unique Santa Clara Valley landscape that includes over 4,000 acres of farmland.

In addition to these efforts, throughout the decades we have served on numerous committees and task forces seeking to strengthen our local agriculture. We have given input or coauthored reports on agriculture and our local food system. We have supported policies and actions that help farmers, farmworkers, and the preservation of farmland. And we have fought numerous egregious proposals to pave over thousands of acres of our farmland in both counties.

Recently, we urged the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to uphold the initial commitment they made in 2019 to spend $5 million for farmland preservation. Taking the form of an agreement between the County and the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, it fulfilled the County’s $5 million local match obligation for the $15 million it received from the State Department of Conservation for the acquisition of agricultural conservation easements.

Our local land trusts, whose founding we ardently supported, have permanently preserved many acres of our local farmland that we had fought to protect from development. Now many of these protected acres have been leased or sold to farmers at appropriate prices.

Our efforts have garnered notable progress, but so much more needs to be done. There are still many thousands of acres of farmland in the counties of San Mateo and Santa Clara that continue to be at risk of being lost to development. Local funding sources for the purchase of agricultural conservation easements remain inadequate given the immense need. Protecting Local Farmland Is an Ongoing, Urgent Issue

Over the next few years, we will continue to help set the table for the future of farming, focusing on ensuring policies, plans, and programs better protect our local farmland from inappropriate development and sprawl. We will also continue building coalitions that collectively shift political will and empower thousands of people to take action for positive change toward a more robust food system that enhances climate and community resilience.

Keeping our fertile farmland in the hands of farmers is a challenge our communities must meet. Our counties harvest a cornucopia of produce: artichokes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, garlic, leeks, peppers, beans, peas, tomatoes, pumpkins, and a variety of leafy greens. And there are still a few orchards in the former Valley of the Heart’s Delight that produce cherries and stone fruit to make your mouth water.

It takes 500 years to make an inch of the fertile soil that produces our local food. It takes only a fraction of that time to destroy it. It’s up to us to ensure that these lands remain open and productive now and for future generations.

What You Can Do to Support Farmland

Through our collective efforts we can seed a better future for our local farms, food system, and public and environmental health. There are many ways you can help!

  • Buy local food through one of our farms’ CSA programs, roadside farm stands, and farmers’ markets; and patronize grocery stores and restaurants that purchase directly from local farms.
  • Respond to Green Foothills’ calls to action that will protect farmland and support farming.
  • Support local, regional, and state funding for the permanent preservation of farmland to ensure that the productivity of these lands is maintained in perpetuity.

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