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Sonoma County envisions small start in effort to help new farmers

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Sonoma County officials are scaling back their ambitious plan to expand agricultural production on thousands of acres of county-owned land and public open space after the initial effort largely fell apart, with much of the acreage deemed too pricey or environmentally sensitive to be used for farming.

The initiative, launched four years ago, originally called for opening up as much as 1,900 acres on vacant county-owned lots, county park and open space land to budding farmers for crop production and livestock grazing.

But government officials charged with advancing the effort said they ultimately found only one of 17 identified sites suitable for developing as farmland at this point. Most of the vacant parcels lack sufficient water supplies, and many of the park properties contain sensitive wetlands or other wildlife habitat, including land covered by protections for the endangered California tiger salamander, according to Stephanie Larson, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension for Sonoma County.

Still, officials said they did find one grassy 45-acre plot on the eastern edge of Rohnert Park that could serve as a good proving ground for farmers just getting into the business. The idea, unveiled at this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting, is to lease plots to budding farmers and ranchers who are interested in growing produce or raising livestock, akin to the business incubators that help entrepreneurs with funding and expertise to advance their ideas.

Supervisors this week endorsed the concept, pointing out that the county will benefit threefold — by supporting agriculture, encouraging a new generation of farmers and boosting the amount of food grown locally.

“So many people interested in farming and agriculture want to stay here and farm here, but they don’t have access to land,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose district includes the planned farm. “So we’re saying, let’s give them land and hook them up with farmers who are retiring.”

Zane, working with Larson and county departments, helped develop the initial concept. It grew out of a 2011 countywide food forum that sought to identify ways to increase food production on public lands and to prevent farmland from being permanently developed.

“We should not be allowing one acre of agricultural land in this state to be lost,” Zane said. “If it’s in agricultural production today, it needs to stay in agricultural production.”

Larson proposed the pilot program on the Rohnert Park property after finding that parklands and other county-owned sites were not suitable for farming and grazing activities.

“The problem is there are site constraints and not enough water,” Larson said.

County officials spent $50,000 to study the broader effort, looking at sites such as Crane Creek Regional Park, vacant plots near the county airport and open space atop Sonoma Mountain. After an additional $75,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Larson found those properties were too environmentally sensitive and that it would cost too much to build the infrastructure needed for farming.

With unanimous support from the Board of Supervisors, parks and agriculture officials said they plan to launch the smaller effort in the next year or two. It could take that long to raise money and develop the business plan for the 45-acre farm site. The rough proposal calls for greenhouses, row crops such as strawberries and tomatoes, and livestock grazing.

The land, off Snyder Lane on the outskirts of Rohnert Park, was purchased in 1997 by the county’s Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District to serve as a greenbelt, preserving open space between city boundaries. It is surrounded by residential subdivisions and small-scale farms.

Bill Keene, general manager of the county’s Open Space District, said the incubator farm would help demonstrate that farming and environmental conservation can coexist.

“We hope to show how farming and protecting the land can go hand in hand,” Keene said.

Beginning farmers have shown significant interest in leasing local public lands to get their start, county officials said.

About 75 people attended a meeting in January at Crane Melon Barn, near the planned incubator farm. Many were young farmers or people seeking to become farmers, Keene said. The county’s model was inspired by a similar farming program in Monterey County, which provides training and other resources for aspiring farmers without resources to get started on their own, officials said.

Farming industry representatives said the effort and others like it are critical to ensure the future of local agriculture.

“We need young people to take over farms and ranches,” said Tim Tesconi, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau. “Farming is a tough business, and it’s even harder when young people can’t find land.”

The search for affordable farmland can be more difficult in Wine Country because of the high value that arable acreage can fetch as vineyard land. Vineyards are valued from $60,000 to $125,000 per acre in Sonoma County, compared with $35,000 to $80,000 for other farmland, according to the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers, which tracks agricultural land values throughout California. In Sonoma County, 60,000 of the county’s 500,000 acres of farmland are planted with wine grapes.

“From a financial standpoint, with grapes and vineyards, there’s a higher rate of return than other crops,” said Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economics professor who studied the Rohnert Park site as a model for a farm incubator. “So yes, there are going to be significant challenges when it comes to supporting agriculture by providing land for students to go out there and experiment with farming.”

The incubator idea already has generated interest among members of the Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers and Ranchers program, according to Tesconi. In addition to offering a starter plot of land, the effort could help future farmers draw up business plans and attract investors.

Former Santa Rosa Junior College student Vince Trotter is one of the new farmers looking to get involved.

Trotter, 39, worked for a school and for a hospital before becoming a supervisor at Santa Rosa Junior College’s Shone Farm in Forestville. He recently began working at Belden Barns, a new winery and farm under development atop Sonoma Mountain.

“I’m in the process of making the jump myself, so I know so many people like myself could stand to benefit from having a place to work out the kinks, who maybe aren’t ready to operate independently,” Trotter said.

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

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