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Trouble Down on the Farm

A new report says local farms and farmers are endangered.

The organic produce at your weekly farmer’s market isn’t the product of helpful elves, you know. As the name suggests, it’s grown by Bay Area farmers, an oft-overlooked demographic in our tech-obsessed cultural climate.

According to a new report by the Greenbelt Alliance, the San Francisco non-profit that jealously guards every square foot of open space in the nine counties, your friendly neighborhood farmer is having a hard time of it these days. The problem: city slickers, greenhorns, land flippers, and city hall. (In other words, the usual suspects.)

Maybe the most shocking thing in "Homegrown," the GA’s 2015 survey of farmer gripes, is seeing precisely how much land in the nine counties is set aside for agriculture. All told, it’s 2.3 million acres, about a third of it farmland and the rest used for ranching.

(Not a speck of this land is in San Francisco or the Peninsula, of course, although some of the city’s hottest neighborhoods were once grazing land. Bernal Heights used to be plagued by quasi-legal, borderline piratical livestock impounders who would round up your stray cattle and then charge you an irksome fee to get them back).

Bay Area agriculture is a multi-billion industry. It’s also a serious pain these days. For one thing, all that land is mighty attractive to development, and prices are going through the roof. You know that scene in movies when the slick salesman with the fancy suit and Cadillac drives up and offers to buy the family farm for seven figures, and they heroically turn him down? Well, in real life, they’re just as likely to take the money.

Which is great for that farmer, but not so great for you, because where are those farm-fresh tomatoes at the Ferry Building going to come from now? The new owners will often sit on land and wait for it appreciate, or flip it to an even wealthier buyer who wants to turn it into a rural estate.

Those farm folk who decide to keep working the land of their fathers’ fathers now have to put up with new neighbors, as development brings increasing numbers of non-farmers right up their property line. "Growers report incidents of trespassing, hunting, theft, littering, and property destruction," says the report. "One rancher’s barn was set on fire."

(The report doesn’t provide enough information to corroborate this, although barn fires are not unusual in some counties, often blamed on squatters who take refuge in them.)

For that matter, living next door to a farm is a pain for homeowners too, who grumble about the noise and early hours, as well as "the slow speed of tractors on streets." "They drive by honking and cursing. You have to do public relations all the time," opined one focus-grouped farmer. These comments were all apparently made anonymously. Consider the plight of the stalwart Greenbelt researcher who spent month after month listening to East Bay farmers complain.

Since those farmers still in business are largely aging in place (the average farmer age is now 63), youngsters have trouble breaking into the industry for lack of land. When they do, they often have trouble navigating the permitting process, making contacts with local sellers, or even just raising capital. Do you know how to start a new farm? Do you even know who to ask to find out? Well, you’re not alone.

Curiously, the report makes no mention of drought woes, although the research was conducted pre-El Niño (which isn’t really a cure-all anyway). Last year, UC Davis estimated that California farmers would take a $2.7 billion financial hit for lack of rain—coincidentally, the exact estimated annual revenue of the Bay Area’s combined regional farms. The drought essentially erased all local farms from the books last year.

This is all bad news for the folks at Greenbelt, who have a keen interest in keeping farmland from filling in with suburbs, and for Bay Area gourmands who value the locally-grown label.

Of course, almost everyone supports the idea of cutting some breaks to local farmers--Greenbelt suggests such fixes as county "farmbudsmen" whose job it is to help growers and ranchers navigate legal red tape and more aggressive agricultural zoning that sets hard limits on residential development.

But that only amounts to action if we stop to think about it. And how often do most of us really give a thought to the folks growing our food? Every other day brings news of a hot new tech property people can't stop talking about, but you can’t eat an app.