Restoring the bond between agriculture and the environment, one meeting at a time

05/01/2014

On Friday morning, ranchers and environmentalists sat side by side for a wide-ranging discussion of the most pressing challenges to the region’s agriculture at the first meeting of the Marin Conservation League’s new Agricultural Land Use Committee. 

For decades, a broad coalition like it—the forward guard in sustainable agriculture—would have been a familiar sight at the Marin County Farm Bureau office in Point Reyes Station. But recent controversy over Drakes Bay Oyster Company made last week’s gathering seem unlikely, a fracture between potential allies that M.C.L. is taking steps to repair. As the Point Reyes National Seashore begins scoping on a ranch management plan and the county drafts a decade-long invasive weed program, M.C.L. wants to provide a forum for dialogue and resources for advocacy and education that will support local food production.

“We want to kick off this committee in such a way that it is perceived as inclusive and productive. We know there are potential pitfalls, but we see great opportunity and promise,” Sally Gale, the committee co-chair and a Chileno Valley rancher, told a packed room. “We want your ideas, we want your comments, we want your opinions.”

Seats at the center of the room were filled quickly, and more people continued to stream in until a second row lined the wall. The sign-up sheet was a who’s who of West Marin: leaders from M.C.L., Marin Agricultural Land Trust, Marin Organic, Marin Carbon Project, the county’s Department of Agriculture, Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture, University of California Cooperative Extension, the National Park Service, Save Our Seashore and multiple ranchers.

The first item on the agenda was identifying the issues on which the committee should focus. “Alright, who would like to start?”  Ms. Gale asked. Two people commented on the problem of invasive weeds, but then the group fell silent. 

“I can see you’re going to be a hard group to get started,” she said to laughs. “The question is how can the environmental community assist the agricultural community toward mutually held values and goals? You know, how can we work together? That’s the basic question.”

From there, the conversation didn’t stop for more than an hour. Many of the concerns dealt with changes farmers and ranchers were facing: some were perennial issues like generational turnover and government regulations over zoning, permits and leases; some were more recent challenges, such as climate change, exemplified by this year’s drought, and the fragility of the region’s infrastructure, demonstrated by Rancho Feeding’s beef recall and subsequent closure.

Others addressed how the group could facilitate a balancing act between different priorities, increasing yields but also protecting stream conservation areas and other sensitive wildlife areas. 

“[A farmer] said, ‘We’re concerned about habitat taking too much out of production,’ and someone else said, ‘We’re concerned about agriculture taking too much out of habitat,’” Nona Dennis, the chair of M.C.L.’s Parks and Open Space Committee, commented. “From different perceptions, looking at the same stream, two people will have different views. How do you balance productive agriculture with habitat conservation?”

But in an early example of the common ground the group aims to find, many spoke to how the two could be reconciled. Agriculture that is “sustainable” could become a U.S.D.A.-certified term like “grass-fed” and “organic,” designations that carry monetary value once regulated, said Gordon Bennett. The same could be true for “local,” another term on the verge of losing meaning, Ralph Grossi, a rancher and the first chairman of MALT, chimed in. The organization could also connect urban consumers from around the Bay Area with rural farmers at site visits, said Judy Teichman, another committee co-chair.

John Wick, a Nicasio rancher, added that sustainability is not necessarily a constraint on agriculture; the Marin Carbon Project, which he co-founded, is demonstrating how the application of compost and other best management practices can result in dramatic carbon sequestration while also increasing yields.

After considering the fundamental question of where the group should hone its attention, the committee turned to a number of procedural matters, the quotidian tinkering that any organization confronts at its inception: where to have meetings and how regularly, and at what time of day, in person or through teleconferencing; how to divide up all the work; what to do next. As they hashed out answers, another existential question seemed to arise: how does this committee’s work fit in with the numerous other organizations focused on supporting the foodshed?

As the meeting wound down, the group tried to distill its purpose. The committee’s regular forum could allow an exchange of facts among community members before decisions are made, rather than escalating to emotional debate before policymakers, said David Lewis, the county farm advisor with the U.C.C.E. “It sure would be nice that we talk as a community—as agriculturalists and environmentalists—and we actually help decide if an ordinance is needed or not, instead of dancing in front of the Board of Supervisors, back and forth with point and counterpoint,” Mr. Lewis said. “If we wait until that point, I don’t think anyone’s happy. I don’t think we’ve had a good community dialogue. I don’t think we’re working on things together.”

After that dialogue from multiple perspectives, Mr. Wick added, there’s an opportunity “to envision a future we can all agree on and a pathway to get to it.”

 

All committee meetings, which will be held quarterly, are open to the public, though only M.C.L. members are eligible to vote for recommendations to the board.