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The quest for sustainable farming in California's Bay Area

It takes creativity, tenacity and funding to build a sustainable land-based operation in Sebastopol, about 60 miles north of San Francisco, where Green Valley Farm + Mill is situated.

Red tractor on a farm

Farmers play an essential role in our food system. Both the beginning farmers of today and the future generation of farmers are vital to ensuring this role is filled. According to the latest USDA Farm Census, U.S. farmers are 17 years older than the average American worker at 58 years old which means that a large percentage of farmers will soon be phasing into retirement. As this transition happens, it is crucial that younger generations start farming, and in a sustainable way. In order for farming to be a viable career option, young people need the tools to help make land ownership and building a farm business realistic. 

The current reality in California is that it is not only difficult to find land to buy, but it is also expensive. A lot of land will be transferring hands in the coming decade, but is at risk of being sold to developers for real estate and commercial building, not farming. However, young entrepreneurs throughout the country are taking their shot at farming — at building something unique, including small regenerative farms and sometimes in places as intimidatingly expensive as the Bay Area. 

NRDC’s Food Team spent a sunny February Monday visiting Green Valley Farm + Mill to learn more about the nuances of being a new cooperative-style farming, residential and educational enterprise in the Bay Area. 

Green Valley Farm + Mill (Green Valley for short) is situated in Sebastopol, California about 60 miles north of San Francisco in the heart of Northern California wine country. This farm spans 172 acres and originally was stewarded by the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok people and in the last century has passed through a handful of owners. After our team’s visit, I had the opportunity to sit down with Temra Costa, one of the six current co-owners to find out more about how they use their land, what inspires them, the things that make their farm unique, and how they plan to continue building a lasting and thriving farming business.

A lot of land will be transferring hands in the coming decade, but is at risk of being sold to developers for real estate and commercial building.

Temra and her co-owners have been stewarding the land they call Green Valley since 2016. Their operation combines four individual businesses on one parcel of land where each owner contributes to the overarching vision and management with their individual skill sets. The interview below highlights how Green Valley exemplifies the creativity, tenacity and funding required to build a sustainable land-based operation in the Bay Area. 

This interview has been edited for the clarity and brevity. 

Paloma Sisneros-Lobato: How long have you been thinking about purchasing land or working on a farm? Has this been a dream for a long time or something that ended up coming together?

Temra Costa: I have been thinking about living on land with other people from the time that I moved to California in 2003, and started working closely with Full Belly Farm (which has an LLC model and four farm owners). That inspired me and allowed me to see what is possible when you have multiple families living in one place versus the sole proprietorship and struggle that I was seeing most farmers go through. Farm cooperatives aren't common in California but seem like such a great model for living on land. In fact, in the near-term at Green Valley, we’re exploring transitioning from an LLC to a cooperative model with the farms that are currently leasing from us and independently operated. 

Sisneros-Lobato: How much land is Green Valley and how is it being used? 

Costa: Green Valley is 172 acres. We have about 20 acres of grazing lands that are being holistically managed by two of our partners for dairy cows. There are also 10 acres that are part of the CSA with about four acres in active cultivation that are leased to a young farming couple and a vineyard that is another four acres which is managed by a winemaker in exchange for wine. Our property also has about 85 acres of forest which means that about 20 percent of our acreage is farmable. 

Sisneros-Lobato: Do you wish that there was more farmable land for row crops? 

Costa: I think that there is a certain size of farm that people take seriously. Based on my background working with farms, it can seem like you're not really considered a contributor unless you're doing wholesale or major retail sales. As lead of outreach for our project, I felt a little insecure about that perspective in making the case for why what we're doing is important, but we do feed 150 families, we do educate kids and community members. I would say that we're a small, integrated farm and this means greater local food resilience. We're not a big production style farm and I think there's beauty to that. I'm coming into a place where I can speak about the importance of needing more farms this size.

Sisneros-Lobato: What type of infrastructure do you have on the farm and what type of operations does that allow? 

Costa: We’re so fortunate to have seven houses and a lot of barn infrastructure as well as commercial infrastructure, which is where all of our food processing and dairy operations happen. The houses themselves are clustered near the farmhouse and barn which you see first thing when you enter the property from the main road. Just down the way is where the remaining commercial infrastructure sits. Some educational programming happens out of that area in addition to the farmhouse and barn zones. It would be hard to replicate this today because Sonoma County wouldn't allow this level of housing density in this rural part of the county because of their open space and agricultural preservation goals. What this means, unfortunately, is that places like Sonoma County are less accessible for farmers due to their high real estate value. Open space and agricultural land preservation has only kept more people from moving to the countryside, but it hasn’t effectively increased food production and accessibility for those that want to own a farm, produce food and earn a livelihood.

Sisneros-Lobato: What does the day-to-day look like for you and the other owners? 

Costa: It's a very ag-centric land project where each of us plays our unique role in contributing to the greater whole. There are two farming couples on site that run their farms. The rest of us support those endeavors and activities by contributing to the overarching structure, doing outreach, financing and anything else to make this place work. It looks different for each person that's not actively farming but we all do some sort of support for Green Valley, each in our own way and plugging in where we are best suited. For example, one of the owners is an engineer and helps with many of our big infrastructure projects and another is a green social entrepreneur who helps with business development. We each play our part. 

Active, longstanding stewardship of, and relationship with, land is essential for healthy and thriving food systems and ecosystems.

Sisneros-Lobato: Are there financial barriers to farming in this region? 

Costa: Oh, yes since the 2008 recession real estate prices have gone up exponentially. Every year that passes, land ownership becomes less accessible for people. It is disheartening to see much of the land around here be purchased for second homes rather than for farms. Given that, I am excited to be here on this land with other like-minded people because this land needs to be stewarded by people in perpetuity. Active, longstanding stewardship of, and relationship with, land is essential for healthy and thriving food systems and ecosystems.

Sisneros-Lobato: You mentioned that you are interested in taking private ownership out of the equation. Can you tell me a bit more about that? 

Costa: We are exploring putting this land into public trust. That is one of the ways that we want to give back and serve as a model for how land can be held and stewarded by people and also break down some of those financial barriers to access. Our near-term transition goal of becoming a cooperative will help facilitate that. 

Sisneros-Lobato: What are the challenges of moving towards a model like that? 

Costa: In order to transition to our new model, we will need to raise a substantial amount of money to take this place off the speculative real estate market, similar to how a land trust operates. But we’re much more complicated than a conservation easement for example, we have multiple businesses, housing and more onsite. Our new model will raise the money for the land and we will become long term lessees of our houses and buildings.

The transition is one thing, getting there is another. Each of the partners has a different approach, cares and concerns, so getting on the same page takes work and dedication. Regardless of the challenges ahead, it is such a privilege to even be grappling with these questions and I’m really hopeful that we can move land toward more equitable and accessible ownership and stewardship structures through what we are creating. 

Sisneros-Lobato: What is the next step for Green Valley?

Costa: Our next big push is to further explore the question of our business model and ask ourselves difficult questions. How is this going to work long term? How can this land be preserved in perpetuity? How can we support others? We have learned that it takes a lot to keep the place going and that we couldn’t do it off of a farming income unless we planted every inch of this place in grapes or cannabis — which we’re never going to do. We also want to make this an inclusive and attractive place for more people to live and work the land alongside us. As the current stewards of this land, we have the challenge of addressing how we can help transition to a more resilient regional food system through alternative land ownership and stewardship models that are accessible, equitable, and work toward creating conditions conducive for all life. 

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard.

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