Sonoma County public land opened to growers

  • Wayne James, owner of Tierra Vegetables, has been farming land that he leases from the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District since 2002.

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.

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