Greenbelt Alliance Report Outlines Challenges to Farming

By Rowena Coetsee, rcoetsee@bayareanewsgroup.com

The disappearance of large swaths of farmable land is among the top obstacles facing Bay Area farmers today.

The finding was one of a handful that a nonprofit dedicated to preserving open space described in a recently released report that it hopes will prompt local government agencies to rethink their land-use policies.

Well over a year in the making, the document that Greenbelt Alliance has published enumerates factors that make it difficult for farmers in the nine-county region to thrive — or even survive — and highlights how some growers and government officials are overcoming those problems.

Topping the list are the thousands of acres of arable land that are disappearing under developers’ bulldozers: Contra Costa County lost 19 percent of its farmland from 1990 through 2008 — 21,272 acres — most of which is in its easternmost reaches, according to Greenbelt Alliance.

That matters to Bay Area residents who want to support local farmers by buying their produce, which in Contra Costa County is both diverse and top quality, said Joel Devalcourt, Greenbelt Alliance’s East Bay regional representative.

Whether this food source remains plentiful “ultimately comes down to the ability to keep farmland productive,” he said.

And that’s becoming a challenge as developers and speculators buy farmland, driving up the price of what remains. Although the rising values are good for farmers who already own all the acreage they need, they don’t bode well for those who want to expand or are trying to break into the business, said Kathryn Lyddan, executive director of Brentwood Agricultural Land Trust.

Unless a beginning grower inherits property, “it’s almost impossible to farm,” agreed Alli Cecchini of First Generation Farmers, a Brentwood nonprofit she founded to help newcomers get started. Her group offers a three-year training course where participants learn the basics of running a farm, how to borrow money for seeds and irrigation and keep business records.

The housing market has rebounded in East Contra Costa County, which has most of the county’s richest farmland and where Greenbelt Alliance is keeping a close eye on Brentwood.

The city turned more open space into housing from 2000 to 2012 — nearly 2,700 acres of farmland — than any other Bay Area city, according to a report the Metropolitan Transportation Commission just released.

Brentwood has designated 378 acres of farmland outside its easternmost limits as land that it eventually might develop if the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission approves the annexation, and voters consent to expanding the Urban Limit Line.

An additional 815 acres beyond Brentwood’s western border also appear on maps showing where the city’s long-term construction plans might materialize, although much of that land wouldn’t lend itself to development because it is hilly.

Greenbelt Alliance’s report suggests that counties follow the example of Santa Clara County’s Local Agency Formation Commission, or LAFCO, which is responsible for approving boundary changes. That agency is the only one in the Bay Area that encourages cities to build within their limit — except on rich farmland — before annexing more open space.

LAFCOs also can require cities to prove that they don’t have enough space to build all the homes they think they will need, the report noted.

In addition, Greenbelt Alliance pointed out that Alameda County voters agreed to tighten a portion of the Urban Limit Line and redesignate land that had been targeted for development as agricultural parcels.

The report also mentions that local government can mandate developers to compensate for the farmland they build on by paying for conservation easements on comparable tracts elsewhere. Easements are legal agreements in which property owners relinquish the right to develop some or all of their land in return for tax benefits and money.

Brentwood is the only city in Contra Costa County that requires developers to do this, Devalcourt said.

Prohibitively expensive real estate is not the only obstacle farmers face, however.

Another barrier is the host of government regulations they must comply with, according to Greenbelt Alliance.

Brentwood grower Al Courchesne says he must pay fees that others don’t to have his produce certified as organic, a requirement that drives up the cost of doing business. What’s more, farmers have to slog through reels of costly, time-consuming red tape to install improvements such as cafes, roadside stands or farmworker housing, he said.

“They have all these weird rules,” Courchesne said, noting that it took him three years to build a 10,000-square-foot packing shed with a cold storage facility because of all the permits and inspections he had to get.

Although he understands the need to adhere to certain standards, Courchesne wishes county employees understood the challenges of farming so they could help farmers navigate the paperwork more efficiently, which a couple of Bay Area counties have done by appointing “farmbudsmen.”

“Over the years, it’s been one obstacle after the other,” he said, adding that the degree of government bureaucracy could discourage young farmers from pursuing this career.

As it is, the average age of those who work the land is increasing while the number of new farmers has declined significantly, according to the report.

Greenbelt Alliance’s findings also acknowledge the conflicts that arise when urban sprawl butts up against farms.

Instead of appreciation for their contributions to the local food supply, growers get complaints from suburbanites unaccustomed to the spraying, early morning noise from farm activities and tractors that hold up traffic.

Agritourism can be a useful way of teaching the public to value farming, which enriches local economies by creating jobs that in turn generate revenue for other businesses, the report says.

Maintaining strips of undeveloped land to create a buffer between homes and farms is another method of reducing friction between the two worlds.

While Greenbelt Alliance’s analysis describes efforts to help growers maximize profits by selling directly to the consumer and sharing production equipment to cut costs, Cecchini’s organization focuses on equipping fledgling farmers with the skills they need to survive.

 

This article was originally published by the Contra Costa Times.

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