Local food and wine producers pressed lawmakers Monday to relax some agricultural regulations while also emphasizing the merit of their voluntary efforts to create sustainable food systems.

Joe Pozzi, president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau and fourth-generation rancher from west Sonoma County, argued that private landowners play a key role in sustainable food production, and said producers need more acreage to feed people in Sonoma County and across the state.

"To me the private owners are the ones that make their conservation work," Pozzi said. "I think we need to look at private ownership as a way to keep things fresh, keeping things vital, keep things vigorous in the sense of production."

A state legislative committee focused on California's local, organic and sustainable food systems met in Santa Rosa to discuss how the Legislature could help improve food production. Led by Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, the committee heard from a range of agriculture and wine industry representatives, environmentalists and public health advocates.

"Without farmers, we have no food," Evans said, agreeing with Pozzi that farmers play an important role in land stewardship.

Speakers argued that environmental goals were best achieved by collaborating with landowners, rather than imposing regulations that can be confusing and costly. They praised the success of certification programs such as Fish Friendly Farming, organized by the California Land Stewardship Institute, which works with farmers to create and sustain healthy fish habitat on private lands.

In Sonoma County, 22,000 acres are enrolled in the program, and Napa County has 52,000 acres, said Laurel Marcus, executive director of the California Land Stewardship Institute.

"It's important to note that all of this was done through voluntary means and working collaboratively with landowners," Marcus said. "In the Russian River as well as Napa River, we do see a lot of stream restoration going on. . . . We see farmers being willing to give up some of their land and turn it back into habitat."

The Code of Sustainable Winegrowing has been a popular tool for local grape growers to improve their operations, said Nick Frey, president of Sonoma County Winegrape Commission.

"As a result of this voluntary program, we've had over 400 growers do self assessments and over 300 have submitted data for the statewide sustainability report, and those growers farm over 60 percent of the grape acreage in the county," Frey said.

Pozzi asked committee members to reconsider regulations on meat processing that have local producers driving two hours each way, once a week, to have their meat processed at permitted facilities.

"It's nice that we have local producers, but if it has to travel all over the place to become local, that's not very efficient," he said.

Meat processing woes also were raised by Kathryn Quanbeck, project coordinator of the Mendocino County Meat Processing Project. Current regulations don't allow meat processors to compost the animal by-products not used for food production, she said. Instead, processors have to pay a renderer to pick them up, and must keep them in a refrigerator until they're hauled away.

"It's a missed opportunity to return nutrients to the soil, improve soil quality and increase organic matter," Quanbeck said.

Assemblyman Michael Allen, D-Santa Rosa, and Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, also participated in the hearing, held on World Food Day. Filmmaker Melissa Balin asked the lawmakers to name their favorite vegetables, so she could tweet their replies as part of a campaign to promote organic produce. Yamada's reply: spinach.

"There's nothing more fundamental than food," Yamada said. "It's what we need to continue to be healthy and strong."You can reach Staff Writer Cathy Bussewitz at 521-5276 or cathy.bussewitz@pressdemocrat.com.