New Star Route owners open ears to community

09/14/2017

Despite it being balmy and clear last Sunday afternoon, Bolinas residents flooded indoors for an informational meeting and question-and-answer session with representatives from the University of San Francisco concerning the recent purchase of Star Route Farms. Though attendees were largely welcoming of the new owners, some asked that the university be sensitive to the community, including by contributing to community services, allowing students to continue crossing the property on their way to school and not adding to parking congestion. 

Bolinas resident Mark Butler kicked off the event at the community center by recounting the recent history of how U.S.F., a private Jesuit university with 11,000 students, came to pay $10.4 million last month to acquire Star Route Farms, the oldest continuously certified organic farm in California. “We were concerned that the farm would be swooped up, that it might be developed,” Mr. Butler said, describing how he and others banded together when the farm first went on the market.

Melinda Stone, a Bolinas resident who directs the school’s urban agriculture program and is an associate professor of environmental studies there, received numerous rounds of applause for her role in flagging the opportunity for collaboration between the community and the university. With her as a liaison, the community group wrote a proposal to the university, which drew enough enthusiasm from faculty and students—and support from donors—to make the purchase possible. 

University representatives at the meeting included the provost, chief financial advisor and general counsel. Following Mr. Butler’s introduction, they presented plans for the property, assuring the audience that business would largely continue as usual. 

Provost Don Heller said all of Star Route’s employees have remained in their positions. Warren Weber, the farm’s owner and operator since 1974, will serve as a consultant for at least the next three years. 

“We are foremost interested in the land continuing on as a working farm,” Mr. Heller said. “We did not buy the property to turn it into the West Marin campus of U.S.F. Instead, we are looking at how our academic programs can collaborate with the farm as it is.”

Mr. Heller said the university will consult faculty this fall for possible ways to incorporate the farm into curriculum in departments such as urban agriculture, ecology, and hospitality and tourism. The university is “taking things slow,” and likely won’t bring students to the farm before next spring or summer, he added.  

Many residents expressed warm greetings on Sunday, but a handful had tentative concerns. 

The question of whether students at Bolinas-Stinson School could be integrated into programs at the farm, which was raised by several speakers, was received well by the university’s representatives, who said they had heard from superintendent John Carroll about that possibility as soon as the purchase was completed in August. 

One resident expressed concern that the 100-acre property under the ownership of the university, which is a nonprofit, would be tax exempt, resulting in a loss of revenue for the community. Representatives responded that they are not yet sure whether the property will be exempt, but that they will commit to making contributions to the school and fire department and other community services if that is the case. 

They were also amenable to another suggestion that the Marin Agricultural Land Trust purchase a conservation easement on the land to ensure that it is not developed down the line. According to chief financial advisor Charlie Cross, conversations with MALT have already begun. 

And there were other concerns over the long-term uses for the farm. Resident Travis Smith asked whether the university could guarantee that any research of genetically modified organisms or pesticides would not take place there. 

“We are first and foremost concerned with continuing to operate the land as a certified organic farm,” Mr. Heller replied. “We cannot, however, assure that a faculty member of ours would not be doing research related to that type of agriculture, as we value academic freedom in that regard.” He explained there would be an internal application process for all uses of the farm.  

That concern was echoed, in a rather raucous manner, toward the end of the meeting, by one Bolinas resident who said he grew up on Kauai, where conventional agriculture research had been devastating. “We had a similar meeting 15 years ago, with similar promises, and look what happened!” he shouted. 

University representatives did not have much to say in terms of a plan to address sea-level rise, which resident Howard Dillon said will have a large effect on the low-lying site in the near future.

Charlie Kain-Williams, a West Marin native and recent U.S.F. graduate, asked what the university could do to help its students prepare for careers in agriculture. 

Though the provost wasn’t certain about that aspect of the university’s programs—they do not have an agricultural school or plans for one—general counsel Donna Davis said the issue was very close to Mr. Weber. 

“How do we train the next generation?” she asked. “Warren has some great ideas about programs we might put together to help excite people of your age and also that will help to educate about the business side of things so we can facilitate them getting jobs and taking over.” 

Grace Godino, who provides staff support at Bolinas-Stinson School, highlighted some of the problems the town is facing, including a “people drain” resulting from the high cost of living and lack of affordable housing. 

“My request, and my hope for the partnership we are embarking on, is that the faculty and students that come here understand that we are a small community that’s been heavily impacted by these issues and that can therefore get a little gun-shy sometimes,” she said. “Additionally, we rely on volunteers—for the fire department, for the community center—and we need help.”

Though Mr. Cross had made clear earlier in the meeting that the university was a nonprofit and that community members should not “expect money” from it, he also said the issues Ms. Godino raised were of “great importance and interest to the faculty and student body.” 

His colleagues also emphasized that they would not be bringing “busloads of people” to the farm on weekends and contributing to parking congestion. It was more likely that a group of 20 students accompanied by one faculty member would visit during the week, for instance. 

Toward the end of the meeting, rancher Bill Niman echoed the thanks offered by numerous speakers. “I want to express my personal, deep appreciation for you guys coming out here and keeping this land in food production and doing it in a regenerative way,” he said. 

Mr. Niman also asked that those who walk from the Big Mesa to school continue to be able to cross the farm to avoid the busy road. 

“This is why we are here: to learn about how this farm works and the intricacies of the role it plays in your community. We’ve only owned it for 42 days,” Ms. Davis answered.