The Pleasanton Farmers' Market has connected residents to fresh produce and products from local farmers and ranchers for more than 25 years. Founded in 1993, the market is run by nonprofit Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association, which oversees more than 60 farmers markets throughout the Bay Area. That includes Tri-Valley farmers markets in Danville, Dublin, and Livermore. Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association was created to support regional agriculture by providing Bay Area communities with access to food raised by its members.
For many Tri-Valley residents and other urban dwellers, shopping at a farmers market is their most direct exposure to agriculture and the people who work in the industry. The popularity of farmers markets and farm-to-table dining makes sense given the area's farming history. Buying directly from farmers is a powerful way to connect directly with those who raise our food and benefit from California's status as an agricultural powerhouse.
"California is the nation's cornucopia, producing over a third of vegetables and nearly two-thirds of fruit and nuts eaten in the United States," notes nonprofit American Farmland Trust. "Leading all other states in farm income, California maintains a $50-billion farm economy that provides countless jobs. The state's farming industry is equally important for its contribution to the environment and regional culture. With more than half of California's land in agriculture, its landscapes draw tourism, promote diverse ecosystems, and mitigate climate change. Despite the many benefits of California farmland and ranchland, increasing development pressures and the difficulties of farming have resulted in an average loss of nearly 50,000 acres of California farmland and ranchland each year."
The difficulties of farming are many. They include the expensive investments necessary to start a farm, the number of retiring farmers, and a need for agricultural education. But those problems are solvable. A variety of organizations are devoted to tackling those challenges in the Tri-Valley, the Bay Area, and beyond by fostering innovative approaches to agriculture, including integrating traditionally rural practices into more urban areas. Sustainable Agriculture Education, or SAGE, is one of the important nonprofits doing pioneering work in this area.
According to SAGE, which is based in the East Bay, while roughly 40% of the land in the Bay Area is comprised of farmland and grazing land, "the region's farmland is still at risk. Since 1984, more than 200,000 acres of agricultural land in the nine-county Bay Area have been lost to development. Much of the region's urban footprint was carved from irrigated farmland, the most productive and versatile land for food production. It is this high quality land that still remains the most vulnerable to development. Today, only 237,000 acres of prime farmland are still in production."
As a result, SAGE works to revitalize agricultural places near cities and support vital food systems that connect urban and rural communities. It also works "to advance urban-edge agriculture as a critical bulwark in the face of climate change and to make agriculture more sustainable, viable and accessible for beginning farmers." A pioneering example of sustainable, urban-edge agriculture can be found in the Tri-Valley at the Sunol AgPark, which SAGE created and began operating in 2006 as a collaborative farm and sustainable agriculture education center. "There are very few opportunities for people who want to start farming to have access to land that already has improvements on it in small acreage," says Sibella Kraus, SAGE Founder and President.
The AgPark is located within the Alameda Creek Watershed in Sunol Valley and owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Since its founding, the AgPark has provided land for sustainable farming, support to beginning farmers, and educational opportunities for students and other members of the community. At AgPark, six small-scale organic farms produce fresh food and flowers for diverse Bay Area communities. Today the innovative project is the largest organic fresh produce farm in the Tri-Valley area. In 2017, SAGE's role at AgPark was transferred to the Alameda County Resources Conservation District, which assumed day-to-day management of this amazing agricultural resource.
"As an organic farm located on public lands at the confluence of two creeks, the AgPark places a strong emphasis on natural resource stewardship," according to the Alameda County Resources Conservation District. "The farmers use organic practices such as cover cropping, compost application, and crop rotation to enhance soil fertility and minimize soil and plant diseases. The AgPark's proximity to markets in the East Bay reduces transportation impacts on the environment, lowers farmer's production costs, and provides local consumers with fresher, healthier food."
Through its Urban-Rural Connections Program, SAGE seeks to integrate sustainable agriculture into regional planning and food systems while also fostering greater linkages between cities and nearby rural areas. In the most recent example of its work, SAGE released a new report called Bay Area Food Futures Roadmap: Investing in a Vital Food System as a Foundation of Regional Resilience in June. As the report notes, "In order to safeguard the food system that is the backbone of a healthy, resilient region, we must make the agriculture and food sector a high priority in regional planning processes and investment decisions." The Food Futures Roadmap is an ambitious and comprehensive attempt to educate the Bay Area's Association of Regional Governments, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, regional government and business leadership partners, and other stakeholders on opportunities to include the food and agricultural sectors in regional resilience frameworks and economic development strategies.
"Around 85 percent of edible food waste is sent to landfill," notes Kraus. The idea behind the new report "was to set a benchmark for the region as a whole and individual counties to say where are we and what do we need to do? This comes in the context of more and more reports that show climate change having higher impacts on the future food supply. The way we produce food, in turn, contributes to climate change in many different kinds of ways."
As the report notes, "it is essential that regional leadership and communities across the Bay Area carefully consider the future of our food, and take action to address the challenges and opportunities alike." Collaborative action is needed to insure that the Bay Area can support a robust agriculture and food sector in the future, as well developing a food system with the resilience to handle a regional crisis such as an earthquake. The report encourages action on four "big ideas." The ideas are formalizing a Bay Area Food Futures Advisory Network, aligning food access and affordable housing policies, developing a Bay Area Agricultural Plan, and producing a Bay Area Food Resilience Plan.
"Food, curiously, ends up being taken for granted," says Kraus. "It's something we hope our local governments will take up."
The Bay Area Food Futures Roadmap is public; Kraus hopes the report will help business leaders and community members look for opportunities to make our food systems more resilient and more sustainable. It could also help them discover new and innovative ways in which agriculture can be more directly incorporated into urban areas. With the Sunol AgPark as inspiration, it may be easier than ever for Tri-Valley residents to envision a future in which the sources of our food are acknowledged and protected beyond enjoying and supporting local farmers markets.
The Bay Area Food Futures project was funded by the Kaiser Permanente Northern California Community Benefits Program and was also supported by the Robertson Family Fund and the Wallace Center. The Food Futures Roadmap can be read at www.sagecenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/7.19_Bay-Area-Food-Futures-Roadmap-report_low-res.pdf.
For more information about Pacific Coast Farmers' Market Association, please visit www.pcfma.org.
For more information about Sustainable Agriculture Education, please visit www.sagecenter.org.
For more information about Sunol AgPark, please visit acrcd.org/projects/sunol-agpark/.