Santa Clara County, Environment, Agriculture

Agricultural plan: County, partners seek climate resilience

County, partners take steps to save remaining working farms and ranches

Cherry grower Chris Borello’s extended family has been farming in Coyote Valley and other parts of southern Santa Clara Valley for generations.

But the clan is also among the South County landowners who have cashed in over the years on the sky-high price of Bay Area land. Just recently, in fact, the Borello family sold 120 acres off Cochrane Road to Pennsylvania-based Toll Brothers. The powerful builder plans to construct 244 luxury homes on the Morgan Hill land.

It’s not always easy to sell land the family has held for ages, Chris Borello says.

But business is business, and Silicon Valley needs houses like a mountain lion needs access to deer, and market forces are strong.

Farming in the blood

Borello says his cherry-growing dad never pushed him to farm. If anything, he urged him not to. After all, running a productive orchard is no bowl of cherries.

But when Chris graduated from college, he found himself drawn to the land anyway; farming is in his blood. There’s no doubt Borello would like to see agriculture continue to thrive in South County. But he’s enough of a hard-headed realist to know his future in farming isn’t totally up to growers like him. It’s up to the people of Santa Clara County and whether they think the environmental and societal benefits of farming and ranching are worth keeping.

Residents of Santa Clara County, he said, are “at a crossroads.”

“If they want more houses, we’re on board with that — that’s where the priorities are,” he said.

“If we want to continue to see what we have out here now in Coyote Valley (productive agriculture), there needs to be a way to keep that happening and make that happen. … I think that’s what this new ag plan will do.”

Development pressure

Earlier this year, County supervisors approved the Santa Clara Valley Agricultural Plan that lays out a comprehensive blueprint for preserving the supply of working lands. It was pushed hard by Supervisor Dave Cortese, who grew up in an Evergreen prune orchard.

Tule elk graze within easy site of downtown San Jose.

Coyote Valley rancher Justin Fields photographed these tule elk in Evergreen Valley, within sight of downtown San Jose. Coyote Valley’s open land provides a vital link for wildlife roaming between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Diablo Range.

The plan aims to protect the agricultural economy and help the state meet its climate reduction goals by focusing on land use and zoning, economic development, marketing and branding, and conservation easements.

If it’s successful, it will save thousands of acres of farm- and ranchlands from being converted to housing, roads, shopping centers. These and other intensive spew greenhouse gases, clog traffic, increase stormwater runoff, raise pressure on wildlife, diminish the supply of local food and consume water more water. But it’s going to require the public to pony up some money if they want to continue to reap the valuable benefits for climate change resilience, the food supply, water quality and quantity, wildlife. In fact, a whole way of life lies in the balance.

Gone for good

Consider this: Over the past 30 years, the state has lost more than 50,000 acres of farmland each year, said Matt Freeman, assistant general manager of the Santa Clara Valley Open Space Authority, a key partner in the development and implementation of the ag plan.

For comparison, Yosemite National Park is about 748,000 acres. That means California has lost an area the size of two Yosemite National Parks in 30 years.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, since 1984, the region has lost more than 200,000 acres of farmland, Freeman said. And Santa Clara County alone has lost about 45 percent of its farmland in that same period of time. Today, only 27,000 acres remain in production on about 1,000 farms.

Conservation easements

How does the ag plan envision saving the working lands? There are several ways, and most of them involve the Open Space Authority. The agency can simply by the land outright and manage it as open space. Or it can lease it out to tenant farmers.

But the most popular way is through something called agricultural conservation easements. In that scenario, the deed stays in the landowner’s hands, but a public agency such as the Open Space Authority purchases some or all of the owner’s rights to develop the land.

The County, state and Open Space Authority are currently negotiating with a set of landowners on what they hope will be easements covering nearly 300 acres in San Martin. The price tag? Almost $20 million. If the state signs off, it will kick in some funds raised through the auction of carbon credits as part of the state’s cap-and-trade program.

Santa Clara County is one of the first out of the gate to apply for these funds through the state’s Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program.

Long-term success

But there’s not enough money in that program to fund a successful local ag preservation program. For the next couple of years, the County is planning to buy another easement or two out of general funds, perhaps through a property transfer fee or a sales tax allocation. But eventually, only dedicated funding can get the job done. That may well mean a bond measure will go on the ballot in a few years.

Then, voters will decide whether they want the sprawl to continue or whether they value open space enough to pay for it.

Check out the video above for growers and others’ perspective on what’s at stake. Learn how the plan would work — and your role in a decision that will reverberate through Santa Clara County history.

October 26, 2018

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