By Jonathan Kauffman
Advocates of Bay Area agriculture and organics have been waiting to learn the fate of Star Route Farms since owner Warren Weber put his 100-acre Bolinas farm up for sale in 2013.
“The price of land is a huge obstacle,” said filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia, whose documentary “Agrarian Elders” about Weber and other organic pioneers will be released in 2018. “When they sell, farmers want to be able to retire, but the people coming in, no matter how young and enthusiastic — that’s a lot of money to come up with.”
There’s little surprise that it took four years for Weber, who initially listed the property for $12.5 million, to find a buyer. The final sale price of $10.4 million is too steep for most beginning farmers, and such a mortgage would make it hard to succeed financially afterward. Someone rich might have bought the land, but individual wealth wouldn’t guarantee that the buyer would continue to farm.
A university seems like the ideal, and deep-pocketed, successor. Yet there aren’t nearly enough institutions in California to do the same for every retiring farmer.
If Bay Area urban dwellers want to preserve the green space around them, not to mention the area’s rich agricultural history and easy access to local food, they can’t just expect individual farmers to shoulder the burden. Systemic solutions are needed.
The Greenbelt Alliance estimates that 217,000 acres of farm and ranch land in the greater Bay Area have been lost to development in the past three decades, and that another 200,000 acres are “at risk.”
Groups like the Marin Agricultural Land Trust help preserve agricultural land by buying the development rights, giving retiring or aspiring owners more money to prop up the business. “Zoning is temporary,” says Jamison Watts, executive director. “Agricultural conservation easements are permanent.” To date, the trust covers 48,700 acres of agricultural land in Marin County, including the Dierks’ farm. Smaller trusts operate in other Bay Area counties.
California Certified Organic Farmers and California FarmLink have worked together to offer aging organic farmers guides and workshops on succession planning. As a community development financial institution, FarmLink helps young farmers secure funding to buy land. It has also helped retiring farmers sell directly to younger buyers, bypassing bank loans, and negotiate lease-to-own agreements.
Schwartzman said younger farmers are also forming partnerships to buy land, or joining with cooperatives and nonprofits. “I don’t want to put a shadow on people’s visions for being able to afford farmland,” she said. “It is possible. But we have to get creative.”