Without a doubt Wayne James can say the hunt for affordable land has proved the most elusive part of his 30 years in farming on the North Coast.

Fields he leased for vegetables were sold off for vineyards and subdivisions. Competing for the next patch of open land, he'd see grape growers pay 10 times what he could manage as a farmer.

Salvation came in 2002, when Tierra Vegetables, the company James runs with his sister Lee and wife Evie, found 17 fertile acres off Airport Drive in Santa Rosa in which to sink roots.

Because the land is owned by the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District, the farm has been able to make a go of it, paying lower rent than it would on the private market.

"It basically makes our business possible," Lee James said.

A decision Tuesday by the Board of Supervisors could offer the same opportunity for other small farmers and provide free garden acreage for neighborhood projects.

Under a program endorsed by supervisors, more county land — including parts of parks, open space parcels and vacant lots in residential areas — would be opened to community gardeners and small commercial farmers.

A wider swath of county rangeland would also be looked at for lease to livestock ranchers.

Supporters see the program as a way to bolster local agriculture and provide easier access to high-quality food, especially for low-income populations.

"If we want to have a sustainable, healthy community, then we have to start with the food people eat," said Supervisor Valerie Brown.

The cities of Oakland and Portland have pioneered similar programs, turning over hundreds of acres of public land to urban gardens.

Sonoma County first got into gardening last year with the iGrowSonoma effort, a grow-a-thon that resulted in the creation of more than 600 projects, mostly on private land and school yards. The county undertook its first garden project on county land with a coalition representing The Springs community in Sonoma Valley. The garden, involving up to 30 raised beds in Larson Regional Park, is set to debut this year.

Already farmers, including the James family, lease 30 acres of open space land from the county. Ranchers rent another roughly 4,700 acres of open space and park land for grazing.

A planned study approved Tuesday will look at finding suitable county land to expand those opportunities. In addition to parks and open space, officials will look at property owned by the county Water Agency and land controlled by the General Services department. The study is set to wrap up in June, along with plans for an application and training process for those interested in the program.

At first glance, officials said they've identified as many as 20 one-acre sites for community gardens, including spots in Santa Rosa, Windsor, Sonoma and Petaluma.

About 20 10-acre sites for farm plots and about 10,000 additional acres for ranching were also identified in a preliminary look.

"We've got this land. How do we go about giving people access to it?" said Stephanie Larson, head of the UC Cooperative Extension Office in Santa Rosa, which will conduct the inventory.

Health advocates cheered the program, noting the need to tackle the county's rising obesity rates, now at 28 percent of adults and nearly 25 percent of children.

Better access to locally grown food can help turn the trend around, said Dr. Mary Maddux-Gonzalez, county public health officer.

The effort can also help support the county's next generation of food growers, said Wayne James, the Santa Rosa farmer.

"There are a lot of young farmers who want to get into business," he said. "(The county) should really be doing more of this."