RALPH GROSSI'S family have been dairy farmers in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, since ``before the turn of the century.'' Mr. Grossi was directly involved in the efforts of that county to preserve the farm operations that dominate its hilly western portion. At present, he's executive director of the American Farmland Trust, a Washington-based organization involved in protecting agricultural land nationwide.
If farms are going to survive in an urbanized region like the Bay Area, says Grossi, you first need a significant amount of acreage still being actively farmed, as in Marin. Then, most important, you have to send the ``right signals to farmers and ranchers.''
He describes those ``signals'' as an ``indication from the public and policymakers that they'll do all they can to ensure that agriculture has a chance to survive.''
Two basic signals are (1) land-use decisions, such as the strict agricultural zoning that exists in Marin County, and (2) nuisance ordinances that protect farmers' property rights.
In Marin, cooperation has at times gone even beyond these formal steps.
Grossi describes how the county helped dairymen solve their water pollution problems, how it hauled water to farms in time of drought, and how local people testified before the California Legislature in behalf of dairy price supports.
When there's that kind of commitment within the larger community, says Grossi, farmers begin ``to think in terms of passing their land on to their heirs and making investments for efficiency,'' rather than looking over their shoulders at creeping subdivisions.