Excerpts from the1997 Agricultural Summit
In May 1996 Marin County Agricultural Commissioner, Stacy Carlsen, called together a coalition of agriculture related groups to meet as a follow-up to the Agricultural Workshop held earlier in that year. The groups’ purpose was to continue exploring opportunities which would benefit agriculture throughout the county.
The group gradually evolved into a task force with a goal to design a conference which would attract producers within the county who represented the broadest possible range of agricultural production. An additional goal was to maintain a conference structure which would include a component of participants from various sectors which support, regulate or network with agriculture.
On January 10, 1997 a group of ninety people gathered at Walker Creek Ranch to attend the “Marin County Agriculture Summit”. The intentionally inclusive range of attendees represented the full spectrum of agriculture and its attendant concerns: farmers, ranchers, aquaculture, educators, environmentalists, marketers, county government, non-profits, sustainable food system advocates, water and resource conservationists and more. Its primary purpose was, as stated by Commissioner or Agriculture, Stacy Carlsen, in his opening remarks, “to create a vision for sustaining agriculture in Marin into the 21st century and to define strategies for the development and promotion of agriculture.”
The entire assembly was moved by a common sense that Marin has so much to offer in terms of agriculture, the food system itself, and the quality of life within the county. The broad range of experience represented by the keynote speaker and a morning panel of four agricultural entrepreneurs provided inspiration and motivation for new ventures and approaches which respond to market driven opportunities. These opportunities are created when consumers are engaged through marketing programs which highlight local production and food product safety.
At the end of the presentations, participants broke into table discussion groups in order to compile a list of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats impacting agriculture in Marin County. Table seating was organized with an emphasis on diversity of viewpoint and experience. The participants were asked to identify concerns and record their findings for later presentation to the group.
In keeping with the work of the day, which was to formulate strategies for sustaining local agriculture, lunch was prepared using Marin grown ingredients. Many producers attending the conference contributed their products to the seasonal menu.
After lunch, participants returned to their working groups and began to sort through issues of concern in order to identify major themes. A group process separated concerns into eight broad categories:
- Land Protection
- Animal Damage Control
- Water Policy
- Community Food Security
Concerns ranged from very specific strategies for predator control with industry specific impacts, to the whole-systems approach of community food security which entails a re-orienting of the entire food system toward local production and distribution. Participants were invited to select one of the eight identified categories and move to a roundtable dedicated to an in-depth discussion of that topic. The purpose was to create a specific agenda for action-oriented solutions for each topic. These eight agendas for action, together with the core groups of informed, motivated stakeholders, are a potential multi-issue agricultural task force within the county.
On an individual basis, participants were also asked to identify a single thing they would change about Marin County agriculture. Review of responses revealed four dominant themes:
- Preservation of farmland as a productive and foundational resource of the food system. Protection of farming as a way of life through policies which encourage the economic viability of farms.
- Desire for a continuation and enhancement of sustainable and ecologically sound farming practices within the county.
- Need for a regional marketing strategy which engages consumers and retailers, one which promotes Marin County farms and agricultural products. The program would emphasize quality, freshness, and environmentally sound farming practices which are particularly considerate of Marin’s countryside.
- Necessity for a coordinated educational outreach program which is targeted at Marin County school children at all grade levels, consumers and voters and visitors, and at Bay Area markets. Such an effort would complement and reinforce the regional marketing program and also build relationships between various segments of the agricultural community itself.
The day was an exploration of the economic, environmental and social impact of agriculture on the lives of Marin County’s farmers and the population in general. The depth of commitment of those who attended can hardly be overstated. The day was designed to identify important questions about farms and farmers, and to assess the possibilities of sustaining farming as a way of life in this county into the 21st century.
It would seem that, in addition to the benevolence of nature, the power for positive change lies in the informed actions of people. With regard to the preservation of farming as a way of life, public policy will, intentionally or otherwise, contribute to a resolution. Therefore, part of the solution lies in engaging the stakeholders in this local food system in such a way as to elicit their informed support. This modern and necessary reality will lead to new alliances among producers and consumers.
Understandably the day was filled with more questions than answers. While the work undertaken in this conference relates specifically to agricultural enterprises in Marin County, the broad issue of sustainability that it addresses pertains to agriculture all across the county. The Marin County Agriculture Summit represents the commencement of efforts of one farming community to call the question regarding its own inventiveness and ability to adapt to changing conditions.
A Summary of Recommendations
The Executive Committee, from the 1997 Marin Agriculture Summit’s planning group, recommend the following action, based on our collective impressions from transcripts and attendance at the meeting.
Create a more locally oriented food system through implementation of these recommendations:
- Recommend and implement governmental regulations and a permit process that benefits agricultural development.
- Promote agricultural land preservation as distinct from open space preservation.
- Develop county supported, technologically appropriate water projects for agricultural use, such as ponds, tanks, roof catchment, and recycled water systems.
- Facilitate understanding and cooperation between farmers, environmentalists, fisheries advocates, aquaculture, and resident and commercial water users.
- Improve predator control through additional funding for ADC (Animal Damage Control) specialists and tools.
- Build and promote a landholder/farmer partnership model.
- Create a Marin agricultural identity within the regional marketplace through value added products.
- Educate consumers and growers about agricultural practices that promote sustainability.
ASSESSMENT OF MARIN AGRICULTURE
Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats (S.W.O.T.) Facing Marin County in 1997
Several studies have looked at the value of agriculture to the local economy. Most of the studies conducted about Marin Agriculture focused on farmland preservation and viability and are over 25 years old. The Economic Impact of Certain Industries on Marin County was prepared by Dominican College for the Marin Economic Commission in 1995. In its eight page analysis of Agriculture, researchers discuss the potential for economic growth. Their study concluded that growth would be very small, in the foreseeable future, for topographical, climatic, and competitive reasons. In February, 1996 partially as a result of that report, 122 participants met at Walker Creek Ranch for a one day workshop on agricultural diversification possibilities in Marin. This assessment provides a more qualitative evaluation of the future of Marin Agriculture.
Individual table teams worked in small groups to brainstorm and discuss their ideas. Each group reported their three highest priorities. The following analysis is a summation and compilation of the entire group’s work.
Proximity to Bay Area market
Grass roots people committed to the land
Climate and land excellent with good drainage
Public and institutional support
Diversity of product line varieties
Natural resources: open space, environmental value, land, climate
Committed, experienced and innovative producers
Receptive local and regional markets
Political support of agriculture industry: MALT, County-wide plan
Agriculture protection: County-wide plan, zoning, Williamson Act, MALT
Supportive county agencies
Good natural resources
Human resources/historic connection/community support
Openness to new and innovative ideas
Geographic, demographic and historical position
Regional economic possibilities among counties
Preserves large amount of agriculture land
Unique list of cooperation with ranchers, government and environment
Local base of consumers with intelligence and money
Hillside ideal for sheep
Lack of agri-business – primary family farms
Government permit process is cumbersome – local ordinances not taking agriculture land into consideration
Not enough irrigation projects
Burdensome process in product development (regulations)
High land values
Lack of sustainable models and solutions to sustainable practices
Burdensome regulations and permit costs
Lack of public education: limit of public access
Low recognition of Marin agriculture products
Lack of government protection for agriculture products
Lack of scale for production, marketing and distribution, costs
Historic focus on one industry – dairy
Open space equals agriculture preservation – a weakness
Low market price
Lack of political representation
Limited financial resources and incentive
Lack of government understanding support for agriculture and food production
Limited land, water, capital
Lack of critical mass coordination/communication
Water rates are expensive
Overhead costs: money to produce fixed amount of product, startup costs, housing for laborers
Regulations that favor large farms versus small farms
Commodity prices too low
Limited public access to land and ranches for education
Limited warm weather growing areas
Less productive hillside soils
Agriculture tourism, e.g., farm trails
Large businesses working with farmers in various partnerships
Marin Bay Area markets
Access and utilization of land
Better food security
Sliding scale permit fees
New economic potential: for agriculture tourism, value-added agriculture, processing and diversification
Beneficial use for agriculture waste
Proximity to market: discriminating consumers with money, u-pick, CSA
Tourists: tastings, farm stands, tours, education
Linkage/partnerships between landowners and small growers
Create local identity and regional recognition
Cooperative support structure – grow market groups
Education: schools and communities
Regional cooperation with marketing and distribution
Broad based agricultural education
Regional cooperation with marketing and distribution
Broad based agricultural education
Green waste composting County-wide
Chance to revitalize agriculture industries
Education of public about agriculture
Progressive Marin population equals more money
Market captures by big companies
Competition from mass production
Real estate development
Cost of developing product
Environmental: laws, threats, regulations
Lack of education of voting public
Water supply is a huge constraint
Irreversible land conversion leads to a critical mass problem
Need to show more products to respond to increasing demand for products
Coyotes and big cats – animal rights groups
Large urban population versus small agriculture population
Money available for agriculture
Financial – high cost of property
Incompatibility of urban and agriculture land use
Uneducated decisions regarding immigration and labor supply
Over-regulation at all levels
Loss of local control if park (Pt. Reyes National Seashore) expands
High degree of technical knowledge needed to be competitive