Agriculture Ombudsman
University of California
Agriculture Ombudsman

Ag Processing on the Farm

On July 29, 2014, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors approved a zoning code change to allow small-scale agricultural processing and small-scale retail sales on agriculturally zoned properties with a simpler, faster, less-expensive, zoning permit approval process with Sonoma County Permit & Resource Management Department (PRMD). Prior to that code change, those types of operations required a very costly and time-consuming conditional use permit.

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Agriculture is beset by a variety of different regulations and an alphabet soup of regulatory agencies that create and enforce those regulations. This code change only affects the permitting requirements under the County’s Zoning Code. So it is helpful to understand the different land zoning districts and permitting levels for land use.

Land Zoning Districts

Every parcel in the county is defined by a Zoning Code District which is used to categorize how lands are intended to be devoted to different uses such as residential, commercial, resources, etc. There are three agricultural zoning districts in Sonoma County:
• LIA – Land Intensive Agriculture 
• LEA – Land Extensive Agriculture 
• DA – Diverse Agriculture
Also included in the “ag zone” category:
• RRD – Rural & Resource Development (ag, mining, forestry)
NOT included in the this particular code change is: 
• AR Agriculture & Rural.
Find your zoning district on on PRMD’s ActiveMap.

Code Change Highlights

The adopted ordinance established a simpler zoning permit approval process for small-scale agricultural processing facilities. 

The following briefly describes some of the key criteria for a zoning permit under this code change. Apply for a zoning permit with PRMD. These two criterion apply to both small-scale agricultural processing and small-scale retail sales:

  • May only be applied for in the agricultural zones (LIA, LEA, DA) and Rural & Resource Development (RRD) zone.
  • Cost: The zoning code permit will cost around $600 for each. Prior to the code change, a use permit was required with a cost of around $10,000 or more (including studies and fees).


Ag Processing: taking the raw product and transforming it into another product such as taking milk and making cheese.  
Processing does not include: Incidental cleaning, grading, packing, polishing, sizing and similar preparation of crops which are grown on the site as these activities are “allowed uses” incidental to the agricultural production. 

You may also want to consider Cottage Food Operations

Cheese in process

Small-Scale Agricultural Processing

As the name implies, this is for small-scale start-up sized facilities. The intent being that if an operation decides to grow beyond the scope of the zoning permit allowance, they will have an income stream to help offset the cost of the use permit. A few key criteria are:

  • Minimum parcel size: 2 acres.
  • Maximum building size: Lots of 2 acres to less than 5 acres: 3,000 square feet. Lots 5 acres or greater: 5,000 square feet.
  • Production: At least 70% of the agricultural commodities used in the processing must be grown on-site or on lands owned or leased by the farm operator.
  • This zoning permit does not allow the processing of alcoholic beverages, animal slaughter, meat processing or cannabis. A use permit is required for those activities.
  • A Waste Management Plan for storing, handling and disposing of any waste by-products is required. Above ground (pond) discharges must be permitted and comply with applicable regulations of the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
  • Groundwater: The County utilizes a mapping and classification system to indicate general areas of groundwater availability in the County as follows:
    • Class 1 areas are Major Groundwater Basins
    • Class 2 areas are Major Natural Recharge Areas
    • Class 3 areas are Marginal Groundwater Availability Areas 
    • Class 4 areas with Low, or Highly Variable, Water Yield

The review requirements for proving adequate groundwater vary by these classes and more thorough analysis, including possible test wells may be required in the marginal groundwater availability areas. 
For small-scale agricultural processing facilities, the water supply serving a criteria are:

Groundwater Availability Area Criteria
No net increase in water usage Allowed if analysis verifies
Class 1 and 2 groundwater availability areas and outside adopted groundwater management plan areas Allowed
Class 3 (marginal groundwater areas) or in an adopted groundwater management or in plan Allowed with groundwater study
Class 4 (low or highly variable groundwater yields) Use Permit required with groundwater study

Find your groundwater class on on PRMD’s ActiveMap.
PRMD's Guidelines for Preparing Groundwater Studies for Small-Scale Ag Processing Facilities for projects with Class 3 groundwater availability.

Other Permits, Insurance & Legal

Operations that process and/or allow the tasting of food products will require health permits. Depending upon the type of inputs you are using and products you are making, the operation could be subject to more than one regulatory agency. In general:

Food Safety

Foods processing regulated by CDFA may not require a HACCP plan (in most cases) however you will still need to have food safety protocols in place.

Foods processing regulated by CDPH will require compliance with Food Safety Modernization Act.

Local food scientist and food safety consultant Richard Stier may be a good place to start.

Selling Permit

Required for selling products in California from the State Board of Equalization. Register for a Sellers Permit online.


Nearly all buildings will require some sort of permit (there are exemptions). Anything from building to plumbing to electrical to remodels will most likely require a permit. Work on septic and well also require permits. PRMD links:

Insurance & Legal

Make sure you and your business are covered for these activities. Farm Liability Insurance policies generally only cover farming activities (ag processing may not be considered a farming activity). You may need a Commercial General Liability coverage. Talk to your agent. View webinar Adding Value to Farm Products: Getting the Legal Ducks in a Row by Farm Commons to learn about insurance, employment laws, liability potential, and tax factors.

Getting Started

So you have a killer recipe for juices and extracts that you can make with fruit from your orchard and you want to create a new enterprise on the farm, where do you get started? Here are some suggestions:

Additional suggestions:

  • Create a business plan looking ahead at least 5 years – this will be helpful with the permit process and for any needed financing
  • Check your zoning and permit history using ActiveMap on PRMD’s website
  • Visit PRMD to discuss your plans with their Planning Desk
  • Contact the Agriculture 565-2328

Yes, this is a lot of information, however it is not comprehensive. To learn the fine details, requirements and restrictions, you can visit PRMD’s webpages about this code change or contact the Agriculture Ombudsman to discuss your project.

With much emphasis on local products, this is a great time to venture into the value added business with delicious artisan foods and products that build on your family’s legacy!

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