Issues Facing Agriculture
As usual the issues facing agriculture seem to be increasing in both numbers and complexity. The County of Sonoma is nearing completion of its General Plan Update. A citizen’s advisory committee completed their work and the County Planning Commission spent several months with their review and analysis. The study cover five broad areas: agricultural processing & support services, agricultural tourism, water resources, riparian corridors and biological habitat and circulation (transportation).
Two additional key topics of the year have related to endangered species issues. SCFB has been actively participating in a California tiger salamander cooperative conservation strategy process and development of best management practices in areas which have salamander habitat.
SCFB has also participated in an innovative project for recovery of salmon populations. Extensive studies of habitat and factors affecting their survival in the Russian River and its tributaries have involved many land owners.
Because of low rainfall amounts in the spring of 2007, available groundwater has triggered recommendations for water conservation. Every sector of the county is being asked to conserve water or a water rationing program may have to be implemented in urban areas.
Illegal immigration has become a national issue which has a direct impact on farm labor locally. Growers have expressed serious concerns of labor shortages for this harvest season. Many say there are far fewer Hispanic workers looking for work and domestic workers simply are not interested in farm labor jobs.
The State of California has threatened to eliminate the Williamson Act, a tax relief measure for rural farm property owners. SCFB and the California Farm Bureau Federation have been working to retain this important tool for farm land preservation.
General Plan Background Information
Agricultural Processing & Support Services: The discussions are about whether there are too many wineries in the county and when will it ever stop. Some rural residents object to wineries because of their visual impact. Processing facilities are vital to all types of agricultural production. Some believe they should not be located on agricultural land. The concern is that some food processors or packaging companies try to locate in rural areas because the cost of land is cheaper.
Agricultural Tourism: Tourism is becoming a larger issue. While tourism brings in additional money to the local economy and provides the opportunity to market products and related items, some would argue that it increases traffic and noise as well encourages sales of non farm items like shirts, dinner ware and art objects. What clouds the issue is the abundance of non agriculture related tourism in the region. Also a concern is resorts being considered on agricultural properties.
Water Resources: Water, the lifeblood of agriculture is in competition with urban and environmental uses. No growth advocates use water as a tool to stop urban development. Environmental advocates use water as a tool to protect wildlife and species preservation. Coho Salmon are said to be threatened or endangered along the Sonoma Coast. Water levels in the Russian River are said to be decreasing due to increasing build up of gravel and sedimentation. Farmers, timber harvesters and builders are accused by environmentalists of causing the problem. Locally, the City of Santa Rosa has struck fear in local farmers by reducing the availability of recycled water for irrigation purposes. Ironically, urban growth has grinded to a stop and developers are building few new homes.
Riparian Corridors & Biological Habitat: There is an effort to create or label natural vegetative areas that would provide protected corridors for species and their ecosystems. There is concern over how we protect native species and keep livestock out of waterways. One dilemma is how to fence livestock out and let wildlife in. Others don’t want any fencing of wildlife because it interferes with their migration patterns. The riparian corridors also can serve as hosts for predators and noxious weeds and pests. The irony of all of this is that when the Sonoma County Water Agency removed vegetation in a stream for important flood control needs, they received a bit of bad press coverage. When a local rancher did a similar task, they were made a poster child for environmental destruction.
Circulation: The county population continues to grow. Traffic congestion is a growing concern. With lack of funding to make significant road improvements, many smaller communities are highly impacted by commuters. All arterial roadways are impacted. With fuel prices in the $3 to $3.25 per gallon range, farmers are experiencing higher production costs and expenses to get their products to market. Fuel costs also affect the price of products coming to the farm.
Endangered Species: The Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in federal court to place the California tiger salamander on the endangered species list in Sonoma County. Farm Bureau took the lead by joining with CFBF and other state and local groups to hire biologists and legal council to stop the listing until further scientific date could be obtained. We met with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to voice our concerns. Farm Bureau believes there is far more habitat for the tiger salamander than the CBD has suggested. The USFWS eventually listed the CTS as endangered. The year ahead will determine if 18 other counties also have the species listed as endangered. This ongoing saga will remain a hurdle for farmers and anyone who wants to build anything.
Sedimentation Control: The growth in vineyard plantings has raised the level of concern and responsiveness to prevention of soil erosion. Planting on hillsides has placed agriculture under the microscope of various governmental agencies. Great efforts have been made to prevent soil erosion and the Agricultural Commissioners office has done a great job of enforcing the Vineyard and Sediment Control Ordinance. Farm Bureau has met with land owners over their continuing loss of soil from erosion along the Russian River and other creeks. Farm Bureau is very concerned about the environmental destruction that is occurring without the interest by regulatory agencies to help solve these problems.
Dairy and Livestock Waste: The entire state is debating the impact of larger dairy farms in the central valley. The impact on air and water quality has made the states number one commodity group a lightning rod of protest. Locally, the dairy industry has been hit hard by lower milk prices and rising costs. Continuing to address dairy waste issues, the SCFB animal resource management committee maintained its educational environmental program to help dairies maintain compliance with state and federal air and water quality regulations.
The committee meets for about six months in the winter with regulatory agencies to reduce or eliminate run off of animal waste into waterways. SCFB hires a consultant to conduct water monitoring tests in various watersheds.
Producers are contacted if a problem is developing. This self monitoring effort has been very successful in correcting potential problems. Regulatory agencies have praised our efforts. State budget cuts will trim back the resources of public agencies to continue education efforts. This past year was one of the best in the history of monitoring our watersheds.
Pests: The grape industry continues to fight against pests and detection of glassy-winged sharp shooter and vine mealybug. The agricultural commissioner’s and farm advisors offices are working with industry on detection and research activities. The light brown apple moth was the newest pest of concern. Traps were set up in the southern part of the county for detection. The moth can have a devastating impact on some 200 different species of plants.
Wastewater Irrigation: The availability of water from the City of Santa Rosa’s wastewater irrigation program continues to make producers nervous. In spite of projections of more waste or reclaimed water, a north county project for storage and irrigation could have effects on the availability of reclaimed water for current users.