Bay Area farms: an endangered species?

From milk to apples, cattle to artichokes, the San Francisco Bay Area's hillsides and valleys grow an impressive array of farm products. And all of it virtually next door to housing tracts and industry. Stretches of farmland, just as much as the blue expanse of the San Francisco Bay itself, give this region its distinctive flavor, according to People for Open Space, a private, nonprofit group that's been working to build and preserve ``greenbelt'' areas here for 27 years.

A recent report by the organization says that the nine counties around the bay have lost ``over three-quarters of a million acres of crop and grazing land over the past three decades.'' There are still 1.9 million acres of agricultural land left, the report concedes, but it adds that current growth pressures would probably absorb 250,000 more acres in the next 20 years.

Is there any way to stop the loss of open land in a burgeoning metropolitan area of more than 5 million people?

The underlying need, according to Larry Orman of People for Open Space, is to get everyone involved -- citizens, community leaders, and farmers -- and to ask themselves, ``Do we want permanent agriculture or not?''

A recent, widely circulated report, ``Endangered Harvest,'' is one way of doing this. People for Open Space also works closely with community groups that lobby local governmental bodies. An organization called the Greenbelt Congress has active chapters in all nine Bay Area counties, explains Judith Kunofsky, a colleague of Mr. Orman.

The message to Bay Area residents, says Orman, is: ``You've got an incredible thing of value here.'' Not only the aesthetic benefits of farmland should be put in the balance, he asserts, but its economic value as well -- $800 million yearly in direct sale of agricultural products and some 50,000 jobs related to agriculture.

Publicizing the threat to farmland can lead, eventually, to concrete steps by planning bodies -- specifically, ``drawing the line and saying, `This is going to be farmland,' '' as Orman puts it. Marin, Napa, and Sonoma Counties have already done that to varying degrees, through use of zoning laws and general plans, he says.

A related task, Orman continues, is to help farming become ``a truly viable way of making a living'' in this area. That involves generating support among the public for local products and working with farmers on marketing strategies. Farm-stand operations are one option. Development of specialty products -- such as a premium cheese made from surplus milk -- is another.

The main point, Orman and Ms. Kunofsky emphasize, is to give farmers an alternative to ``wait and cash out'' -- simply holding on to land until its value is so high that the profits from selling it are irresistible.

The People for Open Space staff readily concede that getting farmers interested in their program can be ``very difficult.'' It's not just farmers' well-known independence that makes them wary, says Orman, but their economic self-interest as well. They're often not willing to give up development rights, and understandably so, he says.

Some farmers, however, are committed to protecting agriculture as a way of life, he says, adding it ``might be a big misconcep-tion'' to assume that farmers should be a key element in preserving farmland. After all, ``local government decides what'll be industrial, and it should have the right to decide what'll be agricultural land.''

The other side of that coin, critics of the open-space concept say, is a likely shortage of land for residential development and consequent sky-high housing prices. In his 1979 book, ``The Environmental Protection Hustle,'' Bernard J. Frieden charged that crusades to preserve farmland and other greenbelt areas are covers for ``a new ideology of elitism'' aimed at choking off the growth of affordable suburbs. His case study is the Bay Area.

People for Open Space, on the other hand, has often repeated its view that farmland and adequate housing can coexist -- if greater housing densities are allowed.

For folks of like mind with Orman and Kunofsky, Marin County provides something of a model for the preservation of farmland. In the '70s, Orman explains, the county master plan allowed for the suburbanization of the whole area. But people became concerned about rapid growth and voted in a new set of county supervisors; the new supervisors began work on a plan that eventually preserved the sparsely developed western section of the county as open land -- largely dairy farms and other agricultural uses.

But it wasn't an easy choice for the county, and it generated a good deal of hard feeling, says Orman. Down the road, the consensus could change, Kunofsky points out. Still, the kind of ``working relationship'' that exists in Marin -- among farmers, community activists, and political leaders -- is ideal, says Orman. ``That principle, writ large, is what we're trying to do for the whole area.''

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