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The Fight for Food Farms: The Crisis of Affordability

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The Fight for Food Farms: The Crisis of Affordability

By Lynda Hopkins

Nine years ago, when I started farming in the Russian River Valley, I could count the number of my fellow young farmers on one hand. Today, bountiful produce stands overseen by young farmers fill our farmers markets. New farm names pop up on local restaurant menus every season.

Food farms play a central role in our agricultural marketing as well as our community ethos. And yet the question remains: is food farming sustainable in Sonoma County? Will the young farmers who are selling Tuscan Kale hand over fist at the Sebastopol market still be there five years from now?

None of us knows. But unless we act as a community to protect our small farms, issues of affordability will eventually price farmers and farmworkers out of the County.

My Greenhouse“Sonoma County is flush in farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants and an overarching ethos of supporting local agrarians growing healthy food,” said Farmers Guild Executive Director Evan Wiig. “However, we still import the vast majority of our food from outside the county. Divide up the total acres of vegetables grown here, for instance, among the total population and each of us has only a six by six foot plot from which to harvest.”

Food farmers represent a minority of our agricultural community. Over time, economics have shifted our agricultural economy away from dairies, orchards, ranches, and row crops. In 2014, the total value of our row crops represented a mere two percent of the winegrape total value. Cattle and calves equaled 2.7 percent of the winegrape total. Dairy fared better, at 18 percent. 

“Most of the farmers I know have to work second jobs, in addition to the tremendously demanding work of farming, in order to make ends meet. I wish this most venerable vocation were more appropriately valued and supported,” said Carmen Snyder, Executive Director of Sonoma County Farm Trails

The bottom line: everyone living in Sonoma County must eat. We live in a place in which year-round food growing is possible. Our local farmers can produce everything from vegetables to heirloom grains, from sheep milk cheese to grassfed beef, from microgreens to Gravenstein apples. As a community, we value sustainability and resilience. So, how can we produce more local food?

Our County needs policies that directly support a diversified agricultural economy. Diversified agriculture starts from the ground up – but not the ground you might be thinking of. To grow local food, we first need affordable housing.

“The skyrocketing cost of rent and housing is hugely prohibitive, in particular for new farmers just getting started, but also to established farmers who want to provide their employees with a living wage, but can barely afford to live here themselves,” Evan Wiig said.

Solving the affordable housing crisis will take collaboration between the County of Sonoma and our nine incorporated towns and cities. For young working families, the situation is urgent. We need a systems-wide approach to this crisis that involves not only the creation of new affordable units – infill and transit-oriented development, of course, not sprawl – but also consideration of a housing trust model to offer rent subsidies and mortgage assistance for homebuyers. 

Affordable housing for the workforce is only the first part of the puzzle. When asked what the top concern facing farmers is, Carmen Snyder answered, “Access to affordable land. Sonoma County is largely cost-prohibitive.”

Aspiring food farmers simply cannot afford to purchase agricultural land. And even successful, established farmers may have a hard time passing their land down to the next generation. To help tackle this challenge, the Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District should consider utilizing affirmative agriculture easements. Unlike traditional easements, which purchase development rights from private property owners, affirmative ag easements include an additional stipulation that the property be actively farmed. (The easement can stipulate the type of farming, such as row crops, orchard, or ranching.) In exchange, the property owner receives a payment, and the value of the land decreases – because potential buyers are limited to people who want to actively farm the property. In some models, easement payments are spread out over time so that future generations or owners can benefit. 

Affirmative ag easements have been used successfully to maintain agricultural greenbelts around cities. They have also been used to support productive agriculture in counties facing skyrocketing real estate prices – and to increase the availability of agricultural land for purchase or lease by aspiring farmers.

Is it worth it to invest in productive local agriculture, just as we have invested in open space? The farmers, restaurants, grocers, wholesalers and non-profits who comprise our local food system believe that feeding our community does more than fill bellies. Engaging our community in how their food is grown promotes a healthy diet. Community gardens and you-pick farms encourage exercise. Sustainable agriculture offers wildlife habitat and can sequester carbon from the atmosphere, mitigating climate change. Food farms, in all their glorious diversity – whether they produce dairy or eggs, meat or fruit, vegetables or grains – maintain a resilient agricultural fabric: polyculture, not monoculture.

Tim Page, owner of Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights Sonoma (F.E.E.D. Sonoma), noted that a local food system isn’t just about us: it’s about the next generation.

“Our children will ‘inherit’ a food system that is better than the way we found it… This is 100 percent the intention I set everyday as steward at F.E.E.D. Sonoma. We are all indigenous to this planet, and when we work for the children to come, we live up to our own potential as keepers of wisdom.” 

I’m not sure I can live up to the title “keeper of wisdom,” but I would certainly like our children to inherit a County that is agriculturally diverse, affordable, and vibrant. These policies are just a start, and this conversation is just getting started. To continue the dialogue, feel free to email me. And don’t forget to support your local farmers by shopping at the markets or joining a local CSA.

lynda@foggyriverfarm.org