It could have been a scene right out of the movie City Slickers. Here we were last Thursday, about two dozen city and county elected officials from the regional transportation planning agency (called the Sacramento Area Council of Governments or SACOG) tiptoeing in our nice shoes between cow patties amongst the roaming black Angus cows at the Beard Ranch, observing the meticulous packing of delicious mandarins at the Highland Orchard and then watching in awe as a 92-year old grandmother of Japanese-American heritage lovingly massaged the hanging persimmon (to create a dried fruit delicacy called Hoshigaki) at the Otow Orchard and Fruit Stand. The farm tour was a part of SACOG’s “Rural-Urban Connections Strategy,” which is designed to help educate local leaders in our region on challenges facing farmers and ranchers and to develop ways to enhance the sustainability of our rural working lands. I represent the City of Auburn on the 28-member SAGOG Board of Directors, which encompasses the counties of Placer, El Dorado, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo, and Yuba.
What did we learn? It was clearly evident that if our local leaders and state legislative representatives fail to pursue a truly aggressive and thoughtful pro-agricultural policy, that most of the rural workings lands in Placer County will eventually turn into suburbs. Too often all levels of government put up expensive regulations that pose no compliance problem for large corporations but instead drive hard-working small farmers and ranchers out of business. Burdened by these expenses, the kids see Mom and Dad working for pennies and decide, not surprisingly, to pursue urban careers. The workings lands in Placer County will either be profitable for small business owners or they will disappear. That’s the bottom-line and we all lose when it turns red.
Local leaders shouldn’t assume that just because Placer County has enacted “A Right to Farm” ordinance that everything is honky-dory. It doesn’t take very long for city slickers moving to an idealized and sanitized picture of “the country” to build a 8,000 square-foot “McCastle” and swimming pool next to a working farm or ranch and then start complaining to the county about the dirt on the roads, the occasional noise of tractors, and the flies. If a county supervisor or county staff person, two or three generations removed from the farm, isn’t supportive of the farmer or rancher, the hassle factor could eventually convince those who work the land for very little money to retire from agriculture and sell the land to a housing developer.
On the tour, several farmers mentioned to us a few examples of expensive and illogical impediments put in front of them by Placer County. We met a woman business owner, whose family has beening working the orchard since 1912, and who spent thousands of dollars to build a state-of-the-art kitchen to make her fabulous jams, salsas, sauces, pies, and dried fruit. She was finally told, after getting the runaround for a while, by county staff that she can sell these foods at the farmers markets and at the Newcastle Produce Market but can’t sell the food directly from her orchard. Why does that make sense? The condition of the food hasn’t changed one bit. She was also told by county staff that she would have spend tens of thousands of dollars to widen the road because of an “inundation” of people coming to the orchard. This isn’t Apple Hill. This is foolish and arrogant bureaucracy.
One hard-working farmer told us that he’s paying $10,000 every year for treated water because the local water agency has chosen to interpret state law in such as way as to maximize their revenues instead of supporting agriculture. He has been paying these outrageous water bills over the years, but not a single state legislator has lifted a finger to try to clarify state law so as to stop the arbitrary decision by the water agency.
I salute the supervisors for recently enacting a Winery Ordinance and for making progress on developing the Placer County Conservation Plan (PCCP) in the Lincoln area. These are important steps forward. But more can be done. If we want future generations to continue to enjoy the beautiful working lands of Placer County the solution is quite simple. Each of county supervisors representing rural areas should sit down and meet with every single farmer and rancher in their district. They should write down all the challenges that these small business owners face and clarify whether the problems can be fixed locally or through working with our state and federal legislative representatives. Each year in a public meeting, the supervisors should actively put together an aggressive and thoughtful pro-agricultural policy. They should carry it out and review it each year. A pro-agricultural policy should always be high on the agenda.
Placer County was once known as the “Fruit Basket of the World.” Our farmers and ranchers are doing an amazing job because they love the land, producing food and fiber, and enjoying family life in a rural setting. We city slickers also benefit from the beauty of the rural working lands and a local food supply. It is up to local leaders and concerned residents to cherish and preserve this very special gift.