Farmers Still Struggle; Some Succeed
Consuming and serving local food has become the latest hallmark of good living. Here on Sonoma Mountain many of us take pride in knowing the names of the farmers we buy from. Growing numbers of consumers belong to CSAs (community supported agriculture organizations) and many more buy from farmers’ markets.
How affordable and sustainable is this locavore trend? Is it profitable for the farmers and ranchers? What is the future of locally produced commercial commodities from the mountain in our own backyard?
Many factors contribute to the viability of local food production in our region, especially on the mountain itself, but one tops the list.
“The high value of land is the most restricting factor for people to get started in small scale, diverse ag,” observed Balyn Rose, founder of Wild Rose Ranch, near Jacobs Ranch on the north west slope of the mountain. “There are other land-based challenges,” he added, “but with commitment and perseverance anyone could successfully farm on the mountain.”
Balyn and his partner Elli Hilmer live with his uncle on nine acres. They tend a one-acre garden, keep 59 chickens and two pigs. They plan to expand to mixed orchard, more garden and intensively managed livestock rotations. Balyn said, “We started this business with our passion for farming and a love of this land which has been in my family for three generations. Our goal is to create an economically viable farming business, providing nourishing food for the local community while respecting the health and beauty of the mountain.”
He added that they have been successful in the past four years but prospects for the future look challenging.
Their operation provides a sharp contrast to the majority of large scale farming operations on the mountain, which tend to be monocultures, usually vineyards, operated on an industrial scale, which can take advantage of the mineral-rich volcanic soils of the mountain and the still relatively high value of wine grapes.
According to another small farmer, Nick Rupiper, who raises rabbits, laying hens and pigs to the west of the mountain, regarding the future of his type of operation: “I would like to think that it will grow, but as vineyards get bigger and dairies dry up, it’s hard to imagine that this style of ag production will flourish in Sonoma. There is a demand in the Bay Area for good, clean food but Sonoma is too wine oriented to become the next Yolo or Capay Valley (where there are many small farms, many organic/ sustainable). In general though, I do think that consumers are becoming more concerned where there food comes from, thus creating a demand for smaller farms. If the diseases and pollution of factory farms keep making headlines more and more people will turn to their local farmer.”
The Williamson Act, which provides property tax relief for owners who farm their land, has been placed on moratorium due to the state funding crisis. (The county distributes the tax relief, but depends on reimbursement from the state to manage the program.) The tax break contributes greatly to larger holdings. Grazing for cattle, sheep and goats takes up at least a few thousand acres of the mountain and helps to meet the demand for locally raised, grass-fed meat.
Dr. Gene Harlan, a veterinarian who leases 200 acres on the mountain for grazing, estimates he sells 20 to 30 percent of his annual beef production for local consumption. He too, expressed cautious optimism for the future. “A big concern is the Williamson Act. I’m growing and improving my stock; I have a long term plan.
My children and I do all the work on the herd. But will my children be able to rent this land and continue this tradition? It’s a big concern.”
As it is for all of us who want to see diversified agriculture remain a part of our life on the mountain.