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A different, more optimistic view of Half Moon Bay's farmland

Lennie Roberts
Friday, May 2, 2003

The pessimistic view expressed by some farmers ("Withering away," Peninsula Friday, April 18) overlooked many important and positive initiatives under way to address the most thorny challenges facing San Mateo County farmers -- keeping farmland affordable, ensuring adequate water and securing markets for fresh, local coastal produce and flowers.

The simplistic cry of "disappearing agricultural land" doesn't completely explain the many factors that are involved in decisions by individual farmers as to what -- or whether -- to farm. The article noted that foreign competition is forcing farmers to innovate. This is no different from other sectors of our economy, and should not be a big surprise.

The good news is that the San Mateo coast's agricultural land base is not disappearing, thanks to strict zoning protections that give priority to agricultural uses in the rural area. Key to ensuring long-term viability is the permanent urban/rural boundary that has existed for 23 years around the Half Moon Bay area. This boundary protects the adjacent farmland from being paved over for development.

A more pervasive threat is the pressure for urban dwellers to pay huge prices for large parcels of rural land, and turn productive farmland into country estates. Often, owners of these luxury homes have a romanticized view of living in a working agricultural area.

Not only can there be conflicts with adjacent agricultural operations, but the pricing of land at speculative, rather than agricultural, value can make it impossible for new farmers to purchase or lease productive land in the future.

Fortunately, organizations like Peninsula Open Space Trust, working with willing sellers, are stepping up to ensure that the land base will indeed be available in the future. By purchasing land and protecting it as open space, while helping to ensure that viable agricultural parcels remain in production, this private land trust has been a national leader in saving threatened farmland from development.

Several of its land acquisitions have been from absentee owners who had trophy houses, condos, golf courses and conference centers on the drawing boards.

Another issue -- balancing the needs of threatened fish and farming, which both depend on the limited water found in coastal streams -- is a major challenge that has, out of necessity, forged relationships between often dissenting parties.

On the coast, a historic coalition of farming interests, environmentalists, land trusts and park and open space agencies is working together to remove on-stream dams that interfere with fish migration, and replace them with ponds. This will ensure dependable water supplies for farming, and enhance the chance for recovering steelhead trout and Coho salmon, both listed as threatened species in the central coast.

As for marketing, the greatest untapped resource for coastal agriculture is the urban marketplace right over the hill. There are more than 700,000 people in San Mateo County, who presumably eat three meals a day. Consumers today appreciate -- and increasingly demand -- the flavor and nutritional benefits of fresh, local produce.

In nearby counties, innovative efforts are under way to encourage buying local agricultural products through organizations such as the California Alliance of Family Farmers and Michael Straus' "buy local" campaign. The model of promotion and marketing of local fresh produce and flowers has been successfully established in Marin, Sonoma and other counties in the state for some time.

Although Committee for Green Foothills and other environmental groups have been suggesting this approach for many years, the San Mateo Coastside agricultural leadership has been slow to respond.

A marketing campaign with a unique logo that celebrates San Mateo coastal fresh produce, flowers and locally caught seafood, is way overdue. It is encouraging now to find strong agreement that this crucial step is a priority. For a relatively small investment, the payoff could be enormous.

Revitalizing coastal agriculture is going to need support from the community as well. People must seek out and buy local, fresh produce, flowers and seafood. Restaurants and grocery stores can even feature the farms along with their products.

In Half Moon Bay, several restaurants are including blurbs that describe the farm origins of such coastal specialties as artichokes, fava beans, leeks, baby beets and peas. Bayside restaurants can easily do the same.

Connecting consumers and farms through roadside stands, farmer's markets, community supported agriculture programs and green grocer tags all bring the urban bayside and rural coastside communities closer together.

Lennie Roberts has been the legislative advocate for Committee for Green Foothills for the past 25 years.

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