Albert Straus Comments at California Coastal Commission Workshop on Agriculture
On May 8, 2013, the California Coastal Commission held a workshop on agriculture in the coastal zone in San Rafael, California. A number of speakers were invited to share their thoughts and expertise, Albert Straus among them. Below is a transcript of his talking points, which he shared during the workshop:
Thank you to the Coastal Commission for this opportunity to speak and to share my experience as a farmer. I would also like to thank Steve Kinsey for his important role and leadership in supporting farming and agriculture in Marin County for so many years.
An overview of agriculture and the environment
- Agriculture is vital to creating a local, sustainable food system.
- Agriculture is also a part of the solution to problems like the effects of climate change and global warming.
Over the last 20+ years, farming has changed fundamentally in order to address the long-term economic viability of agriculture. And it has also has changed in order to create a more sustainable food system.
Organic farmers are part of the solution
Organic farming addresses major issues, such as climate change, environmental protection, and sustainable food systems. More than 70% of the dairies in Marin and Sonoma counties are certified organic including all six dairies within the Point Reyes National Seashore. In Marin County, 20,000 acres are farmed in certified organic production. None of this progress would be possible without the Coastal Commission’s flexibility and its support of agriculture.
Organic farmers have adopted and implemented a wide range of sustainability practices to protect resources and environment, including:
- Fencing off streams to avoid pollution and to conserve wildlife
- Changing from tillage to minimum or no-till methods
- Sequestering carbon through composting and digestion to avoid and to sequester greenhouse gases
- Eliminating the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers
There already is an infrastructure of regulatory agencies and organizations that work in collaboration with farmers. These practices have been nurtured and supported by agencies such as the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, Regional Water Quality Control Boards, Resource Conservation Districts as well as agricultural land trusts, and organic-farm certifiers.
Many of challenges face agriculture’s future and economic viability
1. The challenge of passing on family farms onto the next generation
The average age of farmers in the US is between 55 and 59 years old. In the next 15 years, most family farms will face the challenges of ownership succession to a new generation. Such challenges include:
- overall economic viability of agriculture
- availability of owner and family housing
- the high costs of entering into farming
- regulatory burdens coming from many agencies, both mandatory and voluntary
- whether farmers will have the necessary flexibility to adapt to changing climate conditions and to changing market conditions
2. The challenge of flexibility
Farmers need to be free to change crops, to change grazing patterns, and to change systems and structures on an ongoing basis, as ordinary parts of farming and doing business over the long run. The Coastal Commission should not label or try to regulate one form of agriculture as detrimental and other forms of agriculture as beneficial.
A permitting process placed on farming operations that tries to limit ordinary practices is simply counter-productive. And interpretation by the Coastal Commission of ordinary farming methods that is punitive, bureaucratic, costly and short-sighted will negatively impact agriculture’s future viability.
3. The challenges of housing
The Coastal Commission must recognize that in order to keep family farms going into the next generation, housing needs to remain available to retiring owners and also be available to new owners.
Likewise, farm-employee housing is in serious short supply in rural coastal areas. It’s very difficult to hire the skilled workers needed without affordable housing being available, both on farms and in nearby communities.
Coastal rural communities have become dominated by second homes and tourism. The character of farming communities and small towns has been lost. Affordable housing is essential to rebuilding our communities.
The Coastal Commission has a mandate to protect non-prime and prime agricultural lands in the coastal zone. In my opinion, the Coastal Commission has failed in its mission by succumbing to urban pressures to close the Drake’s Bay Oyster Company.
The oyster farm is an integral part of Marin County’s agriculture. The end of this farm will result in a critical loss to the vitality of the local agricultural economy. My fear is that the abandonment of Drake’s Bay Oyster Farm will result in the loss of other farms in the National Seashore; and also create a loss of critical mass in agricultural activity in our county.
My recommendations are:
- That the Coastal Commission be pro-active by working in collaboration with other local regulatory agencies and organizations.
- To give the Local Coastal Plans the flexibility to support County-wide agricultural needs.
- To amend the permit process to exclude regular farming activities such as changes in crops or tilling.
- To hire an ombudsman, who is part of the Coastal Commission staff to help educate Coastal Commission staff on farming practices and to provide support for farmers during the permit process.
- To create an agricultural advisory group to the Coastal Commission.
- And the Coastal Commission needs to re-define how “agricultural viability” is determined. The currently used five-year time frame is too short. Realistically it should be a long-term period of 20-25 years.