Bolinas satellite farm pushed back at edges to appease neighbors

David Briggs
Public lands leased to a Bolinas resident for dry farming came into the spotlight in recent months, leading to a revised lease.
03/27/2014

Bolinas farmer Mickey Murch met with a group of locals 10 times since last fall to address concerns about the four acres of public land, located below the town’s sewer ponds, that he has been cultivating since 2011 as an extension of his family’s Gospel Flat Farm. 

He met with them at the office of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, which owns the land, and on the land itself, where he farms vegetables without irrigation, a practice known as dry farming. They discussed possible setbacks of the row crops from trails, whether fencing would disrupt the wanderings of gophers and the feeling of open space versus the presence of farming machinery, among other things. 

After months of negotiation, last Wednesday the utility district amended Mr. Murch’s lease, which runs to 2016 at a cost of $100 a year. 

Under the new terms, Mr. Murch will not be able to keep livestock or machinery on the site for more than 30 consecutive days, and his work will have to be set back from trails by 15 feet. The land will also have to be certified organic, which Mr. Murch said will happen by the end of spring. (“The BCPUD process has made the organic certification seem easy,” he said.)

The plot comprises roughly 30 percent of Gospel Flat Farm’s acreage; the rest sits on the edges of Bolinas Lagoon and is often flooded during the wet season—so the BCPUD plot is critical for the farm’s year-round production of things like arugula, spinach, beets and fava beans.

“My life’s work is to be a husband of these lands,” Mr. Murch said. “It’s not just planting crops. It’s taking care of the land as a whole.” 

He added that the land was previously often scattered with trash from homeless encampments. 

Last fall, after residents began airing concerns about the effects of agricultural operations on the town’s public lands, the district formed a committee to tackle the issue. The group included Mr. Murch, BCPUD directors and concerned citizens. One of those was Ken Masterson, who lives near the leased land. 

“Since it is public land, I think my primary concern was that the public still be able to have the same positive joyful experience walking through the sewer pond land, and to minimize the interaction between machinery and pedestrians,” Mr. Masterson told the Light.

Mr. Murch, who had a few goats on the land last year, originally thought he would add more goats, and chickens, too. The district has leased a nearby piece of land to Bolinas resident and landscape designer Alethea Patton, who keeps goats and bees, since 2008. But because Mr. Murch’s plot is closer to private property, some residents fretted about noise from his animals and the possibility that they would attract predatory wildlife. 

At Wednesday’s meeting, which drew other local farmers and a standing-room only crowd, Bolinas resident Mary Abbott questioned the legality of the lease and the process by which it was approved.

“I just felt like I had to stand up and give a voice to the love of the open space,” she said. She said the entire process was a “fait accompli” that did not solicit public input, and added that if the lease was inevitable, the district should ask more for it. 

Mr. Murch responded that the inexpensive rent reflected the work he had to undertake, not just to provide food to the community, which is sold at a farm stand that operates on an honor system, but also to tend the land.

Ms. Abbott cited a provision of the town’s community plan that she said excluded the land in question from an agricultural preserve established in that plan. 

But Jennifer Blackman, the district’s manager, said that exclusion doesn’t mean the land cannot be used for agriculture; it just does not specifically protect it for that purpose. 

According to board director Jack Siedman, Mr. Murch’s agricultural use of land is nothing new; back in the 1980s, then-resident Jimmy Friedrich grew cucumbers that he made into pickles. 

The committee that formulated the lease will now focus on finding ways to better manage the district’s open space acreage, including a survey of native and invasive plant life.

 

Note: This article was amended on April 2 to clarify the length of time Mr. Murch is allowed to keep farm equipment onsite, and to add that BCPUD directors were also a part of the committee that negotiated the new lease terms.