Close to Home: Celebrating Sonoma County agriculture
After October’s devastating fires and the continued hardship faced by surrounding counties, there is something that feels refreshingly normal and renewing about the harvest season upon us. Somehow seeing dormant vines spring back to life and fruit start to ripen reminds us of the special place that agriculture has in the cycle of life and roots of Sonoma County.
Local agriculture has been celebrated in several ways over the past few weeks — with the steer auction and Ag Youth Foundation breakfast at the fair, apples and more apples at the Gravenstein Apple Fair, the showcase of Sonoma County’s commitment to sustainability at the Sonoma County Winegrowers Sustainable Winegrowing Field Day, the Farm Bureau’s Love of the Land event and the release of the 2017 crop report, which tells the story, once again, of ag’s economic importance to Sonoma County.
Agriculture does more than bring people together for events a few times a year. It is the foundation of our community. Its history, dating over 200 years, has evolved from vegetables and prunes to dairies and poultry to apples and wine grapes. And while the crops have changed, the hardworking, multigenerational farming families have remained. Both of us grew up amongst the vineyards, orchards and gardens of Sonoma County. Our fathers tilled the soil and built businesses that supported Sonoma County’s transition to Wine Country in the 1970s and ’80s. We both studied and practiced agriculture, and while we have diverged into differing careers, we continue to stand unified in our love and support for Sonoma County agriculture.
In the l980s and through the ’90s, there was a great threat to agriculture. The danger was following the same path as Santa Clara County, which at one time fed the Bay Area but chose to pursue housing and high tech. While tremendously successful in establishing Silicon Valley, the rural agrarian environment was lost forever. The mantra in Santa Rosa was to not become San Jose, for Sonoma not to become Santa Clara.
Urban growth boundaries were adopted by local municipalities, and the county adopted community separators. The county also instituted a “right to farm” policy in its general plan. But lines on a map and words on paper weren’t enough.
We were fortunate to have agriculture running in our veins through our families, with the likes Warren Dutton and Tom Gore, two salt-of-the-earth farmers who aren’t with us today in flesh but continue to speak to us through the vines and wine. Even more so, we all have been blessed by visionary leaders, like Saralee Kunde, who recognized that there needed to be economic reasons to not pave over the county. They began a process that continues today, branding Sonoma County by stressing quality. Sonoma County is now recognized as the global leader in sustainability in the wine and ag communities, and we continue to do more.
What is the value of agriculture today in Sonoma County? The latest crop report would say $894 million, but there is so much more to what farming contributes. With its vintner and tourism partners, it is responsible for 1 in 4 jobs in the county and $13.4 billion in economic impact. Ag is the industry that provides the most employee housing voluntarily, with over 30 percent of the farmers providing housing for their workforce. Grape growers alone pay more than 60 percent above the hourly minimum wage. In addition, grape growers contribute more than $26 million annually through cash and in-kind donations to local nonprofits and spend almost 13,000 hours of their personal time giving back to Sonoma County through local volunteering.
And the real value of agriculture, the value beyond the numbers, is the small family businesses that keep our working lands viable. It is the land that is tended and stewarded with minimal development. It is healthy soils and a cared for workforce. It is the beauty that attracts locals and visitors from around the world alike. It is the love of the land and of community. It is Sonoma County.
It is September, and the harvest is well underway. At the end, good harvest or bad, farmers celebrate. They prepare for the next one with the same optimism and apprehension. Theirs is a lesson for us all as we rebuild the community from damage done by wildfires.
James Gore is a Sonoma County supervisors. Steve Dutton is president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.
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