MARIN COUNTY'S NEWS
MONTHLY - FREE PRESS
(415)868-1600 - (415)868-0502(fax) - P.O. Box 31, Bolinas, CA, 94924
Marin Ag: The Perfect Storm
By Jeanette Marie Pontacq
Rural West Marin is the only area of Marin County hosting real, independent ranching. In the summer of 2007, a perfect storm of dangers to the continuing existence of ranches is hard to miss. This latest 3-part threat to the largest part of local agriculture is just the latest reincarnation of threats to the existence of ranching in West Marin; it is not new, only a ratcheting up of a process openly advocated behind the scenes for years. CP investigation has brought up a long history of subtle and not so subtle attacks, only now attempting an almost-final victory over independent ranching.
Much evidence supports the fact that the local National Park Service administration, the County of Marin and perhaps even the Department of the Interior itself would prefer to see 1) independent agriculture cease within the purchased confines of the Point Reyes National Seashore and 2) the County of Marin, via the countywide plan, would prefer to put ranching out of business by degrading its financial viability. There are three (3) storms swirling to make #1 and #2 become reality on the hillsides and pastures of West Marin.
The first is the renewal of the federal Farm Bill as is. The second is the renewal of the Marin Countywide Plan/2007 with deliberate onerous regulations to wound Marin Ag, and the third is the attempt by the local superintendent of the National Park Service to get rid of agriculture grandfathered onto local parkland.. In order to understand how all three storms work together historically, it is necessary to pay attention to both history and who has had the influence on these issues and how they have benefited. CP staff has been fortunate enough to be able to personally interview a number of people who 'were there' at the time of the creation of the local national park, as well as within the county and federal processes, then and now.
Readers should expect that this issue, along with more and more information on 'what really happened' in the past, to be made available to the public for the rest of the year on these pages. This is just a start.... There are lots and lots of interesting stories and eye-witness accounts of what has happened in the past. To get started, we can begin with the desire by the local Park administration to rid the Park of Ag in any form.
Smokey the Bear versus Ranching
The administration of the local national parklands has always wanted ranching to disappear from Point Reyes National Seashore boundaries. If their previous attempt (thwarted) to put the east side ranchers (of Tomales Bay) within the Park had succeeded, those ranchers would be under the same threat as Park ranchers now. Onerous regulations and restrictions from the County of Marin's Countrywide Plan, however, seem designed to set the stage to finish off all ranchers, in the Park or not, contrary to the perfunctory kind words of local politicians and appointees saying they 'support local ag.'
A lot of the problem stems from the individual, independent power base given to the bureaucrat named as Superintendent of our local National Park. He is basically unaccountable to the local public, which has no real clout to counter the political reality, because of lack of numbers. Myriad recent examples support this statement. Ten years ago, during a personal interview referred to by two locals, the present Superintendent of the local national park, Don Neubacher, was quoted as saying that ag was dead in Marin and he wasn't going to do anything to sustain it. Recent quotes from Neubacher supporters reiterate this belief that Parklands should be devoid of both historical uses and agriculture. Actions by the Park administration also support the reality of the original quote.
Going back in time, at the start of requisitions to form the Park in the late1960s, social anthropologists showed up to gather an extraordinary amount of personal data on over 5,000 locals in West Marin. Subjects of interest were personal proclivities, family problems, financial issues and general 'weaknesses' that might be used to allow the federal negotiators to get land for cheap off the backs of always-struggling farm families. The goal was 'to take out the weakest really cheap," while paying more to the stronger (or even allowing a parcel to be excluded from the Park to help a supporter) and more politically 'plugged in.' Some weaknesses engendered a form of condemnation.
Loose, subjective regulations give the local superintendent extensive powers that are being used to forward Neubacher's image of 'purity' of nature, negating the reality of either historic or present land use in West Marin. In our local national park, as well as in other national parks, the local community's desires or needs are rarely, if ever, addressed other than by required soundbites of enviro-entertainment.
Doing "what is necessary to rid the park of ranchers" is playing out now via the refusal by the Park to uphold the traditional definition of an AUM (Animal Unit Measurement) on the Lunny Ranch off Drakes Estero. Every ranch has a carrying capacity regarding the number of animals that can be kept without degrading the pasture or leaving excessive grasses that become a fire danger. That figure (how many AUM) is site-specific because each land area is different (i.e. 50 acres of pasture land could potentially carry 4 times as many animals as a hillside property)
Historically, AUM has always been calculated yearly as an average, because weather and seasons change, thus changing the carry capacity of a piece of land. That means that one ranch, with an AUM of 90 animals, may have 180 animals on the land at one point and none at another point. It is the average that defines the AUM. Thus, if the new stance of Superintendent Neubacher is not overturned, in judging a rancher's allowable number of animals via one month rather than via one year's average, all ranchers are at risk of being closed down as animal numbers (and thus the possibility of even breaking even on costs) are forcibly reduced. Marin Sun Farms and others within the Park use the traditional AUM average too!
Why is this happening? Evidence points to a stated Park administration purpose of getting rid of ranchers within the Park and anyplace else in West Marin where the Park holds sway. In addition to the fact that Superintendent Neubacher seems to want to personally punish Lunny for having the audacity to not roll over and accept the myth of no-history, no-use, at Drake's Bay in regard to the oyster operation. The rest of us can turn a blind eye, but we do so at the peril of losing our patrimony.
MARIN COUNTYWIDE PLAN 2007
The Marin Countywide Plan is renewed every 10 years. The portion of the plan that addresses agriculture has engendered a number of issues that need to be settled in a way to help agriculture survive long term in this county and retain our agricultural heritage. Those issues are numerous, all of which are strongly supported by the Marin County Planning Commission at Civic Center and protested against by farmers and ranchers in West Marin. Civic Center seems far removed from the reality of what it takes to keep a farm or ranch going financially and physically. Here are the top three issues, although the rest are collectively as onerous.
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Issue One: Imposition of public trails on privately-owned agricultural lands
It is proposed by the County to force ranchers/farmers to allow a number of public trails to cross privately-owned agricultural properties. How would you like that on your own land, potentially disrupting private use of your hot tub? Unfortunately, forcing public trails across private ag lands will disrupt ag operations, open the property to poaching, theft, vandalism, threat of fire, biological contamination and disease, predation/ loss of sheep and cattle, and the potential introduction of invasive, non-native species.
There is a further proposed County requirement that the private landowner/rancher must dedicate a public easement across his or her property as a condition for certain County permits. It does not, however, offer insurance indemnity to the rancher or farmer for any accidents, injuries or deaths that may occur by the public being allowed to cross ag lands containing farm animals and farm equipment in use. It also offers no compensation for the transfer of disease (i.e. Mad Cow disease or others to come) from the general public to livestock herds.
Issue Two: Restricting residential floor area on agricultural parcels
The Planning Commission has proposed an aggregate cap (i.e. total) of 6,000 square feet for the total residential floor area on all agriculturally-zoned property. That means that ALL of the residents, for extended ranching families on 800 acre properties, along with residences for workers and their families, cannot total more than 6,000 square feet. This proposal seriously impacts the value of the land for the ranching family and restricts the number of kids and workers who can live on the family property. It also does not take into consideration the county-approved idea of having B&B;'s on ag land to contribute to the generally low farm income.
The A-60 and A-APZ-60 zoning rules already allow only one dwelling per 60 acres. If the property consists of 800 acres, that means that 13.333 residences would be allowed, but each would be allowed no more than 461 square feet! That is the size of the average garage in urban Marin, where the rules are being made. In another example, let's say that the main ranch house (built 100 years ago) is 3,000 square feet. (medium sized for Marin). That would leave 3,000 for the families of two sons, two daughters, and the families of 6 long-time farmworkers. The problem is evident. The regulations become a nightmare of grand proportion and immediately seriously lower the value of the land to the rancher in the eyes of lenders, when times are tough and extra monies are needed.
All of the contested issues within the Countywide Plan are important, not just the 'top' three. The Planning Commissioners do not have experience in trying to farm or ranch. 101 Corridor beliefs about agriculture are often myths and worse. We all need to support our farmers and ranchers, the stewards of our open lands in West Marin. It will be a sorry day when, like our destruction of manufacturing in this country, we also destroy independent agriculture, not even understanding what we are doing.
Federal Farm Bill
The federal Farm Bill (which expires in September) is now being debated by the United States Congress. The Farm Bill is a law renewed every five years that governs our federal farm, food and conservation policy. It is very broad legislation, affecting everything from federal food stamps for low-income families ($32 Billion of the total bill) -- to government support for the people who grow and harvest our food, and lots more in between. It affects all of us, rural or urban. In order to understand its magnitude, know that programs and policies of the Farm Bill totaled an average of $84 Billion over the last five years.
Current federal farm policy has its roots in the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Back then, farmers accounted for 20 percent of the US population and Agriculture made up almost 8 percent of the GDP (Gross National Product). Today, farmers make up less than 2 percent of the US population and AG less than 1 percent of the GDP.
In contrast to the widely-hailed food stamp program, only about 1/4 (500,000) of the country's farmers received commodity/subsidy payments in 2003. Growers of only five crops alone (corn, wheat, cotton, soybeans and rice) account for 92% of all the federal subsidies. This is where reform is necessary in order to stop the continuing erosion of our agricultural heritage. Even the food stamp program is hostage to the Bill's support of fat-producing, non-organic foods.
Originally, commodity subsidies were intended as 'temporary' support for farmers to overcome economic hardships. Now, instead, the bulk of commodity subsidies go to Big Ag corporate farmers. These special-interest subsidies mirror the lobbying by Big Ag's people in Washington DC. The result is that these massive monies paid to big corporate producers of our food enables the consolidation of land ownership by fewer and larger producers. Thus, we allow the biggest producers to drive land prices up, making it very difficult for smaller farmers to stay in business and nearly impossible for an independent farmer just starting out to make it.
The concentration of these huge subsidies in only a few big hands would be less onerous if somehow the benefits trickled down to rural communities. But they do not. Even worse, by encouraging these big growers to grow more than they would usually do (in order to get more subsidy), the over-production is 'dumped' on international markets at prices well below the cost of production, thus undermining farming in other countries, and threatening the livelihood of millions of poor people. The unfair distribution of subsidies, then, is also fueling immigration movements.
How does this affect Marin agriculture? The Farm Bill supports Big Ag Biz farmers and ranchers, most part of large corporate entities. There is a move to add large vegetable and fruit growers to the list, but the emphasis is on 'large' if it happens at all in the end. So far, the Big Ag lobbyists seem to be winning, West Marin organic and traditional farmers and ranchers are simply not looked at for help for basic needs., and the Bill's support for Big Corn, Big Soy and Big Rice creates a built-in obesity problem for our lower-income citizens. In addition, the influx of cheap labor is disturbing the traditional workforce, causing issues on wages, benefits and longevity of hiring for many of those same people.
How to Change. We need to push Nancy Pelosi to appoint Congressman Earl Blumenauer of Oregon (who understands what is needed to reform the Farm Bill) to the reconciliation committee that puts together House and Senate versions of the ultimate Farm Bill. Unless the Farm Bill is reformed this year, 2007, it will be five (5) more long years for even the next attempt to do so. Pelosi therefore holds the key to small, independent ag producers here and elsewhere in getting help to stop the death of small farmers and independent AG in this country. We all need to promote the quality of food and food production, rather than just quantity and big bucks for companies likeADM.
Ranching is being buffeted by the winds of a 'perfect storm' of attacks. This is not hyperbole. It is real, very real. Nobody but Big Ag Biz is getting rich off agriculture these days inthis country. While environmentalists pursue a 'purity' of historic ag lands, a 'purity' that never was, independent farmers and ranchers are going out of business, and leaving the land at record numbers. Is that what we want in West Marin too? The world has changed and the ranches and farmers are now at the mercy of political decisions made by urban people, most without any real knowledge of how to produce food for many or what such a thing entails. For decades, there has been danger of extinction for our ranchers in West Marin. The danger is now code red.
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