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Can the City Save the Farm?

New Ruralism -- an Eclectic Outgrowth of Farmers and Urban Planners -- Wants to Remarry Town and Country
May/June 2007 |
As much of a mistake as it is to be Pollyannaish about New Ruralism, it’s equally foolish to dismiss it as totally pie-in-the-sky. There’s too much happening out there to ignore.
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Even if you’re only the slightest bit familiar with California’s $30 billion-plus farm economy, you may have heard the lament: urban development is steamrolling the state’s agricultural belt. Every day, bountiful fields surrender to big-box stores, fast-food restaurants, and residential sprawl. More than 100,000 acres were paved over in the Central Valley alone in the 1990s, and experts estimate that nearly 1 million more could vanish within a generation. Today’s Country Mouse is tomorrow’s City Mouse (or, more likely, a critter skittering across a cookiecutter suburban subdivision).

But while this threat is real and not to be taken lightly, it tends to obscure another phenomenon that is, in its own quiet way, gaining traction: cities up and down the state -- and, indeed, across the United States and around the globe -- increasingly are championing agriculture and forging beneficial bonds between urban and rural locales.

These links can take many forms, some more commonplace than others: bustling farmers’ markets, "buy locally grown" campaigns, urban-to-ag water recycling programs, agricultural greenbelts and parks nestled in and around densely populated areas, city educational and recreational initiatives that regard the farm as a valuable asset. In each case, the key to success is getting people to recognize that the places furnishing our fruits, vegetables, milk, and meat are not separate from the regional metropolitan framework but, rather, an integral piece of it.

"It’s really important that cities begin to embrace the countryside because that’s what they’re based upon," says Sibella Kraus, director of Berkeley’s Program for Agriculture at the Metropolitan Edge, which is exploring ways to encourage urban planners to incorporate farmland into their blueprints. "The food system is the base of civilization."

In effect, this nascent movement marks the bridging of two trends that many know by the buzzwords "smart growth" and "sustainable agriculture." The former involves organizing cities around compact neighborhoods with a lively array of residential, retail, and leisure-time choices. The latter refers to cultivating food in a way that, without sacrificing profitability, promotes environmental health and socio- economic equity.

Put them together and you have what Kraus calls "New Ruralism" -- a model beginning to generate considerable interest from a variety of quarters. Early last month, more than 200 people gathered on the Berkeley campus for a two day symposium on the subject, and it wasn’t just academics, farmers, and foodies who attended. City planners, developers, architects, and others who have the ability to literally reshape our landscape are beginning to take heed of New Ruralism’s precepts.

Previously, "a master-planned community would be put in, and it would just swallow up all the agricultural land right up to the farm on the other side of the fence," says Renée Robin, a land-use attorney in San Francisco. "Now, people are asking, ‘Why not have the farm be on our side of the fence?’ It makes the whole community more desirable."

In some ways, the basic notion behind New Ruralism is quite old. In his 1898 book, To-Morrow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform, Ebenezer Howard called for seamlessly merging urban and rural environs into what he termed the Garden City. "There are in reality not only, as is so constantly assumed, two alternatives -- town life and country life -- but a third alternative," he wrote. This is one "in which all the advantages of the most energetic and active town life, with all the beauty and delight of the country, may be secured in perfect combination." Howard’s aim was to counteract the poverty, squalor, and overcrowding of 19th-century urban England.

These days, different drivers are at work: a focus on eating things that are fresh and good for us (and, in the wake of a recent string of E. coli outbreaks, not mass produced); a desire to be conscientious stewards of the land by, in part, endorsing small-scale agriculture as opposed to factory farming; and a push to alter the ways we grow, process, and transport our food so that they’re more energy efficient.

As with many young movements, it’s easy to get caught up in the promise of this one and forget that the various concepts falling under the rubric of New Ruralism probably strike most people as utterly foreign -- even a little wacky. So although it may seem as if everybody you know in the Bay Area would just as soon slit their wrists as feed their kids a piece of fruit that has been sprayed with pesticides, keep in mind that as of 2005 -- the most recent data available -- a mere 0.5 percent of all U.S. farmland was organic. Likewise, some 4,300 farmers’ markets may have sprung up around the nation, but that pales in comparison with nearly 14,000 McDonald’s. The golden French fry still reigns over the purple potato.

Nor is the credo to purchase locally grown applicable year-round across much of America, with many farms freezing over in the fall and winter.

"There are a lot of pieces" to making New Ruralism a widely accepted reality -- "and a lot of things still to work out," says Wayne James, who tends 20 acres in Santa Rosa. Recently, James and I stood beside his operation, Tierra Vegetables, where my tongue tingled from a taste of his chile jam.

His farm couldn’t be woven any tighter into the fabric of urban Sonoma County; a row of homes abuts his fields, their second-story windows and rooflines peering down upon his carrots and kale. Just across Airport Boulevard, where Tierra’s farm stand is perched, a new housing development went in last year to accommodate Santa Rosa’s ever-expanding population (now at more than 157,000).

James has been farming in the county for 27 years, and he’s committed to this type of agriculture -- following the best growing practices, catering to a loyal group of local customers who want to feel closely tied to the land. But making a go of it is tricky. Buying or leasing property in these parts can be prohibitively expensive. And being able to pay farm workers enough so that they can find housing in the city is extremely difficult. Wayne wonders, too, whether most farmers’ markets are destined to stay the province of the privileged. After all, how many poor people, or people on fixed incomes, can afford yellow cluster tomatoes at $4.99 a pound?

Looking around at Tierra’s setup, it also occurred to me that it’s going to be tough to replicate this idyllic little vegetable patch in the Great Central Valley. There, individual farms unfurl over tens of thousands of acres, and the politics at the local coffee shop run far more red-state than blue. Property rights are sacrosanct in California’s heartland -- especially for those wanting to trade in their tired old cotton ranch for a fat check from a homebuilder. Just try persuading these people to keep their land in agriculture. "The farmers are holding out for the big bucks," says Danny Espitia, the mayor of Wasco, a town 26 miles north of Bakersfield.

As you peel back these challenges, most come down to one thing: scale. How can New Ruralism achieve enough momentum so that farmers who’d like to be closer to the city are able to find an ample amount of good, reasonably priced land? When will consumers curious to try out seasonal, locally produced, organic fare find cheap and plentiful offerings? How can devotees of New Ruralism ever truly compete with Monsanto Co. and other corporate giants touting genetically modified crops -- food grown in a way that’s anathema to those in the movement?

"What we need is a huge proliferation of farms to ring our urban areas," says Joseph McIntyre, executive director of Ag Innovations Network, a Sebastopol-based nonprofit group that is trying to help foster a sustainable food system. But at least at this point, he concedes, "there’s not the political will for it or the social demand for it." Similarly, while ever more progressives in the real-estate industry are becoming conversant with the ideas of New Ruralism, the vast majority "don’t think about these things," says Michael Dieden, a principal at Creative Housing Associates, a development firm that has worked with Kraus on a farmers’ market project in downtown Santa Rosa. "All they care about it is how many units can I get onto the property and how much money I can make."

And yet for all of this, James and others sense that a genuine transformation is under way -- that more city folks are starting to think about where their food comes from and what goes into it. "Attitudes are steadily changing," James says, especially in the past five years. And, indeed, as much of a mistake as it is to be Pollyannaish about New Ruralism, it’s equally foolish to dismiss it as totally pie-in-the-sky. There’s too much happening out there to ignore.

In Ventura County, Farm Bureau officials, environmentalists, and civic leaders are engaged in a continuing dialogue over the way that land gets developed so that agriculture is preserved. In Santa Cruz and Davis, UC researchers are studying how to hook up small and midsize farms with city hospitals, schools, and old-age homes, presenting new markets for the growers and a better diet for those dependent on institutional cafeterias for their meals. In Napa County, Triad Communities is constructing a village that, in addition to a number of eco-friendly and socially conscious features, is slated to include an agricultural conservancy that will deliver fruits and vegetables to those living in the 391 homes being built there.

And all over the state, big-city denizens are sending advance money directly to small farms and, in return, receiving boxes of whatever is being harvested that week. Called Community Supported Agriculture, or CSA, this approach represents "a small revolution" in the way cities and rural areas interact, McIntyre says. In 1990, there were about 50 CSAs around the U.S.; currently, more than 1,000 are up and running, as more and more farmers have discovered devoted urban customers willing to pay upfront.

Seeds of New Ruralism have been sprinkled from New York to Texas, from Great Britain to Cuba to China. But California -- the nation’s biggest farming state, as well as one of its most heavily urbanized -- is, in many respects, the ideal place to see the movement emerging. And so I decided to set out across the Golden State, eager to get a little country mud caked on my city shoes and, just maybe, steal a glimpse of the future.

Full Belly Farm lies in the verdant Capay Valley, down from the Indian casino along Highway 16, where cell-phone reception instantly evaporates -- poof! -- and a big S-curve forces you to slow your car. Of course, everything slows down out here. A list of nearby amenities includes a mini-mart, Mexican restaurant, sub shop, burger joint, snow-cone stand, and not much else. Though Full Belly is only about 50 miles northwest of Sacramento, it seems as if the city couldn’t be farther away.

Yet Judith Redmond, one of the farm’s four owners, stays closely attuned to the rhythms of urban life.

That’s because Full Belly boasts hundreds of customers in Sacramento, Berkeley, Oakland, and other cities. Making them feel intimately involved with what’s happening here (which is to say marketing to them in the most sophisticated fashion) is what allows Full Belly to thrive at 250 acres when so many farms its size are going, well, belly up.

"It’s about building connections," says Redmond, 50, who grew up a city kid herself in Santa Barbara and found her way to farming through environmental activism. She has been working this land since 1989, four years after Full Belly was founded.

The day I arrived, a handful of Full Belly’s 30-member crew was packing broccoli, beets, carrots, chard, cilantro, dill, garlic, wild mustard greens, potatoes, oranges, and much more. Some of the stuff -- all of it organically grown -- was destined for a farmers’ market in Marin. Some was headed to a Whole Foods in San Rafael and some to Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’s famed restaurant in Berkeley (which, through its Edible Schoolyard urban-gardening program and other efforts, is itself a New Ruralism adherent). And some of the produce was being prepared for Full Belly’s CSA participants, many of whom love to visit the farm and keep up with its goings-on through a weekly newsletter.

Spreading the message -- no herbicides or chemical fertilizers; using "good bugs" to get rid of bad ones; providing medical coverage for many of Full Belly’s farmhands; steady pay raises that mean longtime laborers earn nearly $20 an hour -- is as essential as spreading compost.

"Having a direct relationship with the customer makes for an economic model that works better," Redmond says. "We know the demand is there, that there are consumers who want this food and are willing to pay more for it."

Among them is Berkeley resident Suzanne Marr, whose family invariably refers to Full Belly as "our farm." They fork over $686 annually for their weekly Full Belly box -- one of about 900 shipped out regularly -- and Marr doesn’t mind that this constitutes a premium over what she’d plunk down in the supermarket. For starters, the fruit and vegetables are so fresh, "you can totally taste the difference," she insists.

During January and February, she notes, it can be challenging to cook with what Full Belly sends along. But she uses that as an opportunity to teach her daughters, ages 7 and 10, about seasonal eating. When they ask for a Chilean plum in the grocery store, Marr tells them, "Sorry, girls. It takes a lot of energy to bring that fruit here." Then it’s home to whirr up some Full Belly greens in the blender and make soup. The way Marr looks at it, "I’m paying for the whole system," not just a package of produce. Included in that, she says, is the true cost of respecting the environment and compensating workers decently.

Full Belly is determined to further its philosophy by having a group of interns always living on the farm, many of them twenty-somethings from the cities, who relish the chance to play a role in a burgeoning social movement. They may not have heard of New Ruralism per se, but they are among its foot soldiers.

The day we ate lunch together -- miso, rice, and a tasty mélange of kale, red mustard, garlic, leeks, red pepper, and tofu -- I pressed the five interns on whether places such as Full Belly were at the leading edge of a mass cultural stirring, or whether this kind of farming would remain relegated to a small niche.

The most optimistic of the bunch was Erin Bullock, 26. She was raised in Rochester, N.Y., and after college became a landscape architect in San Francisco. But she didn’t like "divining things for the land" from a downtown office building. "I wanted to get my hands dirty," she says. So she went to Florida to work in organic farming, later moved back to the Bay Area to become an urban gardener, and recently joined Full Belly to learn more about agriculture.

Bullock is convinced that "we’re on the brink of something that’s going to take off” and reach well beyond a narrow subculture. She sees "clues," she says, not just among her friends in the Haight-Ashbury with their community gardens and their chickens in the city. Even her parents -- "conservative Republicans" -- are paying more attention to environmental concerns and have started buying organic food.

Up Highway 16, at Capay Fruits & Vegetables, Thaddeus Barsotti is intent on turning many more people on to this way of thinking -- and eating.

Just 26, he and his siblings inherited this 240-acre farm from their mother, Kathleen, who died in 2000 after a long struggle with breast cancer. She was a pioneer in organic farming -- more commonly called "alternative agriculture" when she began to experiment with it in the mid-1970s. She and her first husband, whom she later divorced, helped establish the farmers’ market in Davis, and she started a CSA here in 1992.

Today, Thaddeus oversees the growing. An older brother handles the marketing. And a younger one runs two tony retail outlets at the Ferry Building along San Francisco’s Embarcadero -- a vital nexus between city and farm -- where $9.50 will get you an organic Cobb salad.

Like those at Full Belly, the Barsottis are keenly aware of how to peddle "pure, unadulterated nourishment," as a sign at their Farm Fresh To You store puts it. Thaddeus, too, writes a newsletter about the farm for his 3,000 CSA customers, as well as a blog. "People like to know when the peaches blossom or what the dogs are up to," he says.

The afternoon that I met him, though, he was looking way beyond this level of customer contact. In fact, what he suggested as we strolled past his asparagus crop was nothing less than a complete revamping of the food distribution system in America.

Barsotti envisions selling an incredible selection of organic food from all over the western U.S. on the Internet -- sort of like an Amazon.com for produce. "I can do what grocery stores are doing a heck of a lot cheaper," he says, glancing over his fields from under a Harley- Davidson cap. Already, he has tweaked his CSA so that it has some characteristics of an online supermarket. The boxes ready to go out when I was there included not only five kinds of crops grown at Capay Fruits & Vegetables but also apples from Washington state and grapefruit from San Diego.

Ultimately, Barsotti says, he can foresee enlarging this strategy so that customers have a tremendous range of seasonal buying options. A computer database tracks their fruit and vegetable preferences, and a network of farms will dispatch trucks right from farms into nearby cities -- no warehousing required. A lot more money, he believes, will wind up in the pockets of growers -- small growers like him -- if he can remove the wholesalers from the equation.

If it sounds quixotic, Barsotti doesn’t care. He’s in no rush. "What we’re talking about will take another 30 years," he figures. He’s got the time. And, besides, movements like this take a while to gel, to reach a tipping point. Thirty years ago -- long before the Prius hit the road and An Inconvenient Truth hit the theaters -- who would have guessed that being green would become so mainstream? Why, then, not Barsotti’s vision? Why not New Ruralism?

For the movement to flourish, it’s going to require more than the diligence of experienced farmers such as Redmond and even more than the dreams of an ambitious young man like Barsotti. It will take public policies that nudge things in the right direction.

Searching for some, I tacked toward the coast, 100 miles from Fully Belly Farm, and made my way to a bucolic stretch of Sonoma County called Two Rock Valley. There I met Bob Camozzi.

When I first shook hands with him, Camozzi seemed to have little in common with his Capay Valley counterparts. He didn’t come to farming in the ‘70s or ‘80s as a social cause. His family has been in the dairy business for four generations. At 42, he’s refreshingly old-fashioned, chatting about going to church on Sundays and how he expects his five kids to acquire "a love for their parents and a love for the land," the same way he and his brother and sisters did.

But like Judith Redmond and Thaddeus Barsotti, Camozzi is committed to organic food and to understanding how his dairy fits into a larger rural-urban context. He has gotten to this stage thanks in large measure to a program that’s intended to keep land like his in farming forever.

It is funded by a countywide quarter-cent sales tax, first authorized in 1990 and now yielding $15 million to $20 million a year. The Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District uses the money to buy up property (including 17 acres leased to Tierra Vegetables at a discounted rate) and to create conservation that restricts the type of development allowed on the land. In other words, every time somebody buys a latte or a LoJack in Santa Rosa, it helps keep agriculture alive at the city’s fringe.

The arrangement grew out of a plan to put green space -- buffer zones -- between cities in Sonoma County, so that one wouldn’t just bleed into the next, a la L.A. "The thought was, ‘Hey, we can turn this into edible green space,’" says Andrea Mackenzie, the district’s general manager. Today, the district also assembles greenbelts, wildlife refuges, recreational areas, and agricultural parcels, having set aside some 33,000 acres of farmland so far.

Camozzi purchased his 800-acre ranch for $3.9 million; $1.5 million came from the Open Space District. In exchange, Camozzi agreed that the land won’t be subdivided, helping to ensure that it remains a working farm. The previous owner had contemplated opening the way for high-end housing. The deal gave Camozzi the cash necessary to convert into an all-organic outfit in December 2002. By doing so, he says, he has been able to defy the trend in which most dairies have become supersized and highly industrial -- or gone bust. "Before I got into organic, I thought, ‘They’re a bunch of nuts. All they want to do is come in and regulate me," he recalls. "But now I believe."

Camozzi pays about $350 a ton for organic grains to feed his 400 milk cows and their 440 offspring, as opposed to $200 for conventional fodder. To make the finances work, he then sends his herd out to graze a lot more than they used to. Because they’re not just "lying down and making milk," he says, his cows don’t produce quite to the extent that they once did. But he thinks their output is more nutritious and his animals are in better shape. And people are willing to shell out for it: $6.29 for a gallon of organic whole milk compared with as little as $2.50 for regular milk.

The bottom line: it’s all penciling out for Camozzi. But it’s also penciling out for the public.

Area residents "want their food to be produced here," he says. And because his cows spend more time in the pasture, not as much feed is being trucked in, leaving the roads less clogged and saving energy.

Last November, Sonoma County residents voted to extend the sales tax, which had been set to expire in 2011, an additional 20 years. The proposition passed easily, with more than 75 percent of the vote. "I like to think that it’s part of a larger consciousness-shifting, from a little environmental niche to something broader," says Kathleen Marsh, the Open Space District’s interim stewardship manager. "It speaks to people waking up."

It isn’t just land that’s being preserved in Sonoma County, either. At another dairy on the outskirts of Santa Rosa, the Beretta family has tapped into a regional government program that takes wastewater from homes and businesses, treats it with filters and ultraviolet light, and then redistributes it through 500 miles of underground pipes. Some of the recycled water winds up being sprinkled on parkland and school ball fields. But most of it is sluiced on agricultural land -- about 6,000 acres of hay, vegetables, wine grapes, and other crops. The price to the farmer: zero.

"It’s been helpful to keep us in business," says Doug Beretta, who runs the dairy with his father and his wife, Sharon. Back in the 1960s, it became so expensive for the Berettas to pump water from their wells that they let their fields lie fallow. But since signing on with the city’s water reuse program in 1981, they’ve been able to keep their pastures irrigated and their 600 cows well fed on homegrown silage. In turn, that has helped them, like Bob Camozzi, go organic as a means of survival.

"I think that market is going to work," says Beretta, citing a recent deal to supply an organic yogurt company. "The cash flow is there."

Just how big a business it will become is unclear, though Beretta is pretty certain that it has its limits. "I don’t see the people who shop at Wal-Mart as the kind who are going to buy organic," he says over a chorus of mooing cows. But who knows? Much to the consternation of its many critics, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is now preaching sustainability, and the corporate behemoth stands as the world’s biggest seller of organic milk.

A hundred miles down the interstate, there was one more stop to make on my New Ruralism road trip: a 290-acre lot in San Jose.

If all goes according to plan, this property will in the next five years become a showcase for what Berkeley’s Sibella Kraus is advocating -- an agricultural park smack in the middle of California’s third-biggest city.

Walter Cottle Lester, whose family has farmed this land since 1864, has been bent on this idea for decades, and, if nothing else, he’s a man of conviction. All around him, thousands of houses have sprouted up over the years. A shopping strip now sits just across Branham Lane to the north. But the octogenarian has never given up his farm.

"He’s the last holdout," says Mark Frederick, planning and real estate division manager for the Santa Clara County Parks & Recreation Department. "He could have sold for a lot of money -- and I mean a lot."

Lester’s land still grows tomatoes, melons, peppers, corn, and other row crops, and includes a small fruit orchard -- cherries, apricots, and plums. "Up until a few years ago, you’d see him out there on his tractor," says Marilyn Rodgers, president of the local homeowners’ association.

But Lester’s goal has always been much grander than keeping his own farm chugging along. He wants a park where kids can congregate, play, and learn about agriculture. So he made a gift to the county of about 153 acres and sold the state the remaining 137 or so acres for a relative pittance -- $5 million.

Lester "thinks that today’s children don’t have an understanding of where our food comes from," Frederick says.

Actually, they do. Just across from the Lester property, where scores of white egrets were frolicking in the empty fields, I watched a girl cruising on a skateboard past a Subway, a High Five Pizza, and a McDonald’s. Before long, though, families around here will have another choice.

Preliminary plans for Martial Cottle Park (named for Lester’s grandfather) are just being hatched, but this much can be counted on: Organic food will be grown, and neighborhood residents and others in San Jose will be able to enjoy what comes off the land, possibly through an on-site farmers’ market.

For Lester, it’s a way to make sure that the county’s agricultural heritage isn’t lost.

But for others, this project is about looking forward, not just backward. Among those advising the county are Kraus and several organic farmers, including Paul Muller, one of Judith Redmond’s partners at Full Belly. "You’re pulling something right into the city," says Jacob Tobias, a landscape architect at Wallace Roberts & Todd, a design firm working on the park. "It seems to be right on the cutting edge."