Report Urges Marin and Region to Be Vigilant in Protecting Farms From Development

Marin and the Bay Area should do more to protect local ranches and farms that produce local food that ends up on breakfast, lunch and dinner plates across the region, according to a new report.

The Greenbelt Alliance, a San Francisco-based open space advocacy group, issued “Homegrown,” a report highlighting some of the issues ranches and farms face in the urbanized Bay Area as they produce food.

Greenbelt is a supporter of farms because they speak to its mission — protecting open space. Of the 3.6 million acres of open space in the Bay Area, 2.3 million acres are farms and ranches. Specifically, the region has 600,000 acres of farms and 1.7 million acres of ranchland.

Farmers and ranchers have capitalized on Bay Area food interests with annual gross production value of almost $2.7 billion. That figure jumps to $6.1 billion when jobs and other labor-related income are added, according to the report.

But the report found that there continues to be threats of converting working lands to urban development, risking the future of the region’s food industry and the social, economic and natural values the industry provides.

“People in the Bay Area who love to eat local, homegrown food don’t realize all the challenges ranchers and farmers face,” said Teri Shore, North Bay representative for the Greenbelt Alliance.

Marin has led the way on promoting local ag through protective zoning, regulatory relief, support from organizations like the Resource Conservation District, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust and the University of California Agricultural Extension.

The report notes Marin’s Local Agency Formation Commission — which has the power to annex land into cities — incorporates agriculture-specific policies in its general “Policy and Procedures Guidelines.” These policies prohibit the annexation of actively farmed land and encourage developing non-prime agricultural lands before prime agricultural lands.

The Marin Agricultural Land Trust recently added a mandatory agricultural use provision to all new easements it purchases. The provision requires that the land remain in productive agriculture in perpetuity, regardless of the landowner. The trust pays an additional cost to include this provision, since the ag requirement reduces the land’s value.

The county has also been able to work with state and federal agencies to address regulations. The Resource Conservation District last year helped facilitate a deal with a group of farmers to develop the Pine Gulch Creek Watershed Enhancement Project. This project maintains important habitats for endangered species, while providing water to a small agricultural community. The plan allowed farmers to build storage ponds to divert creek flow in wet months and then leave the creek fuller in dry months when water volume is needed for fish spawning, the report noted.

Marin also has a Farmland Preservation Program, which spends $2 million annually to protect Marin’s agricultural land by purchasing conservation easements. The revenue was generated through a 2012 voter-approved sales tax.

ECONOMIC GAINS

The work has paid off for ag in Marin. Livestock and farm production in the county was valued at a record $101 million in 2014 as agricultural goods generated $16 million, or 19 percent more than the year before, thanks in large part to organic milk.

With 25 of Marin’s 29 dairies being organic, the value of organic milk production is soaring, rocketing 61 percent last year to $33.6 million for the milk product equivalent of about 12.6 million gallons.

But there are still threats. Earlier this month, a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the National Park Service in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, alleging cattle on leased ranches in the Point Reyes National Seashore are causing erosion, polluting waterways with manure, harming endangered salmon and other species and blocking public access.

“Farmers markets are popular year round and you didn’t see that 10 years ago,” said Stacy Carlsen, Marin’s agricultural commissioner, underscoring the boom in locally grown food. “People look to Marin to learn how to farm in an urban area. We have been emulated and protecting farms and ranchlands is part of that.”

 

This article was originally published by the Marin Independent Journal.

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