Investing in our 'AgGems' for Regional Vitality

For a fraction of the dollars moving through the virtual-tech world, the Bay Area's working landscapes could be permanently protected. And the clean air, water and foodsheds that we all rely upon could be safeguarded.
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Like most Bay Area residents, I'm not originally from here, but I've made it my home. What makes the Bay Area such a vital place for me and many others is the cosmopolitan urban core surrounded by stunning natural beauty, open space and working farms and ranches. The natural terrain close by helps return me to my senses, freeing me from the ever-more-pervasive digital world.

Both dense downtowns and urban green spaces are accessible by public transit and bike. Concerts and club scenes are just miles from quiet, scenic trails. Dishes served in restaurants of every tradition are within hours of the fields and seas that produce their ingredients.

Bay Area farms and rangelands cover 1.87 million acres, comprising around 40 percent of the region's total land area, and produce almost enough food to feed all Bay Area residents. While urban eyes look at these working landscapes as timeless and enduring, many farmers see uncertainty. High land prices and marginal returns make it tough for the next generation to enter agriculture, and despite regional smart growth planning, 17 percent of this land is still at risk for conversion to urban development.

For over 30 years, as I've dedicated my career to promoting regional agriculture, I continue to ask whose responsibility is it to protect these critical working landscapes, the vital food they produce, the knowledge of generations of farmers they represent, the ecosystem services they provide and the jobs they directly and indirectly support? At SAGE (Sustainable Agriculture Education), we have recently focused the organization's energies on one working landscape in particular: the Coyote Valley.

The Coyote Valley is an area of 7,400 acres -- mostly prime farmland -- that borders the southern edge of San Jose, the San Francisco Bay Area's largest and fastest-growing city. This valley is the last remaining farmland of the legendary "Valley of the Heart's Delight," famous for much of the last century for its orchards of prunes, pears, apricots and cherries. For decades this area looked to development for its future, expecting to harvest the far more profitable fruits of the tech boom taking place in Silicon Valley, just north of San Jose.

The Coyote Valley Specific Plan, designed to accommodate 50,000 new jobs and 25,000 new dwelling units, was already years in the making when it was abruptly set aside in 2008, a result of the recession, a problematic Environmental Impact Report and signals that many tech companies would rather locate in a hip city than on a farm field.

Rural Coyote Valley is literally a quick jog away from suburban San Jose. At the crest of the Tulare Hill ridge, look north and you see the grid of houses, schools and malls, with downtown in the distance. But to the south, a different vista awaits: miles of farmland, valley oaks, pockets of wetlands and lush growth along seasonal streams -- all critical, landscape-scale habitat. Less immediately evident is the giant question mark hovering over this landscape.

In 2012, with input from multiple stakeholders, SAGE produced the Sustaining Agriculture and Conservation in the Coyote Valley Agriculture Feasibility Study, which assessed the potential for creating a permanent ecological agriculture resource area within the valley. Funded by the California Coastal Conservancy, the study concluded that it is feasible to sustain agriculture and conservation in the Coyote Valley, provided stakeholders take significant, strategic action towards implementation of a new long-term vision:

The Coyote Valley is home to a regionally significant agricultural resource area that contains important farmland and key habitat; supports livelihoods for its farmers, ranchers and agricultural employees; provides healthy food and a recreational amenity for Bay Area communities; and protects important ecological and cultural resources of the region.

Where development was once a given, there is now a remarkable opportunity to consider a different future. But the question is: Who will make that decision?

Developer landowners are still hoping for campus-industrial customers. Are they willing to hear offers and pursue urban infill? San Jose needs to build its business tax base. Is Coyote Valley the best place to do that? Local food systems advocates and eager new farmers eye this prime farmland as an urban-edge foodbelt. Is this potential realizable? Conservationists see the irreplaceable ecosystems services provided by the valley. What is their economic value and who could or should pay for their protection?

Silicon Valley tech companies are flush. Do they want to invest in more land for campuses or in the quality-of-life amenities -- recreational open space and great local food -- that attract bright creatives to live and work in the Bay Area? California is deciding the disposition of cap and trade revenues. What better recipient, in terms of climate change mitigation, than urban-edge agriculture that contains and sustains cities?

For a fraction of the dollars moving through the virtual-tech world, the Bay Area's working landscapes could be permanently protected. And the clean air, water and foodsheds that we all rely upon could be safeguarded. In the Coyote Valley, this translates to a need for bold, strategic private and public investment in farmland preservation, agricultural infrastructure and natural conservation. For around $50 M of investment over 25 years, the Bay Area would gain an urban-edge agricultural and ecological resource area -- and an ag gem -- that would be a game changer for the region and a model for metro-regions around the country.

Throughout my career, I've been told that my ideas are ahead of my time. Receiving NRDC and BFI's Growing Green Award for Regional Food Leader is a great honor and an affirmation that the time has come to make investment in agricultural resources and local food systems an integral priority for regional sustainability planning.

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