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County looks to ease regulations for food producers


When Sarah Silva started her Sebastopol-based company Green Star Farm five years ago, she used her business savvy to find innovative ways of selling her meats to get her venture off the ground. But countywide restrictions imposed strict rules on farms like Silva’s from selling manufactured products made on site and selling raw goods year-round.

Permitting requirements could have cost thousands of dollars.

“One of the hardest things for local farmers is there are so many permits we have to get,” Silva said. “Even five years later, managing Green Star Farm, we are still climbing an uphill battle with permits, licensing and regulations.”

But new agricultural zoning proposals mean those requirements could streamlined somewhat for businesses outside of city limits. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors Tuesday is expected to ease restrictions on manufacturing and selling goods produced on agricultural land, giving momentum to local farmers who want to grow their operations.

Following goals outlined in Sonoma County’s general plan, an ordinance before supervisors would revamp rules, allowing farms to sell fruits, vegetables and other products at farm stands year-round, instead of just seasonally. Another change would permit area growers and producers to make and sell their products — such as jams, cheeses and olive oils — on site, directly to consumers.

“This will help our smallest operations get started under a faster, more streamlined permitting process without having to put up a lot of money up front,” said David Schiltgen, a land use planner with the county’s Permit and Resource Management Department. “We want to encourage startups, and right now the costs for local artisans can be prohibitively expensive.”

If approved, the ordinance would allow small-scale agricultural processing facilities to operate with a zoning permit, and skip the clunky, expensive conditional use permit process. In Sonoma County, those permits, which can also involve public hearings, cost $10,000 to $20,000, and sometimes even more than that.

The new ordinance would reduce startup costs to about $600.

“That’s just to get started,” Schiltgen said. “What we’re doing is slightly increasing what local farms can sell, so instead of just selling berries, for example, they could sell the jam they produce, and maybe a T-shirt advertising their farm.”

Supervisors in 2012 advised county departments to make the new rules a priority, noting that “successful promotion and marketing of agricultural products grown in Sonoma County can both enhance the county’s image, and reduce pressure on farmers and ranchers to subdivide or convert the land into non-agricultural uses.”

Creameries could sell cheese made on-site, olive farms could market their olive oil directly, ranches could market fleece made into wool.

“It’s not going great for so many sectors of our agricultural community right now,” Schiltgen said. “Selling raw commodities isn’t enough to help ensure their long-term economic viability and in Sonoma County, we’ve seen declines in all kinds of commodities — everything from dairy and beef, to fruits and vegetables. So this is going to help ensure a more diverse, robust agricultural economy.”

For startup operations and producers with small yields, the new, cheaper permitting process and relaxed land use rules could help their bottom line, and increase farm-to-table consumer awareness, proponents of the ordinance said.

“People want to see and learn where their food comes from,” said Shelley Mills, a program coordinator at Redwood Hill Farm in Sebastopol, which produces cheese. “We’re getting 10 calls a day from people wanting to do tours.”

Mills, who is also on the board of Sonoma County Farm Trails, a network of farmers who create a map and guide to local agriculture, said the ordinance will help add value to existing operations that might not be able to compete with large farms.

“This is huge,” Mills said. “We as farms are trying to support each other so we can make a living on farming in Sonoma County, whether its cheeses and oils, or chicken and pigs.”

The rules do not apply to sales of alcohol or medical marijuana, or to slaugherhouses and meat-packing facilities. Farmers would still be required to comply with existing agricultural land use, environmental and safety rules. On-site farm markets would be limited to 500 square-feet, and small-scale agricultural processing facilities would be limited to 3,000 to 5,000 square feet, depending on the size of the farm. A similar ordinance was passed in Marin County several years ago. Since then, six permits have been issued in the county.

“Anything the county can do to help encourage year-around sales to small farms is a step in the right direction,” Silva said.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.