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Petaluma agriculture at a crossroads

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Editor’s note: This is part 1 in a series on the changing agricultural landscape in Petaluma.

Colby Accacian gestured with pride at the neat rows of onions, herbs and potatoes cut into the damp earth at the Coyote Family Farm in Penngrove. The fruits of his labor were hard won, a result of a multi-year journey to turn three acres of an abandoned Lichau Road dairy into a profitable cooperative farming venture.

Enticed by the idea of the agricultural lifestyle, the 25-year-old Oakland native moved into a communal home on the 60-acre property purchased by friends he met at a silent retreat. He’d grown fond of dirty hands after dropping out of college to travel and farm in New Zealand, and also sought a way to weave meditation into everyday life. Work on the farm is a perfect fit, he said.

“This is a critical point in agricultural history,” Accacian said. “We’re right on the edge of seeing a big shift in conventional, large scale farming and genetically modified crops and a government system that supports that style of agriculture. It’s a shift toward people saying ‘That’s not what we want. We want to support local communities and small, diversified farms.’”

Accacian, who is as excited about daily tasks on the 3-year-old farm as he is about advocating for policy issues, is among a contingent of young producers in Sonoma County stepping into agriculture as the average age of a U.S. farmer nears 60. Nationally, the number of new farmers is on a steady decline, thrusting the emerging generation into the forefront of shaping the agricultural landscape.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Kim Vail said there are “very few places left on Earth” like Sonoma County, a bucolic landscape ripe with opportunity for both the legacy farmer and up-and-coming cultivator.

“We obviously need to be doing things to encourage young people to get into agriculture,” he said. “Ultimately, if we don’t continue traditions of feeding our nation and community, there’s just all kinds of things that come into play, like national security and food security.”

The Farm Bureau, a century-old nonprofit, has long been heralded as the community and political voice for the county’s cornucopia of producers and offers resources for new farmers. As a upstart crop of farmers sprouts in the county, the chorus of advocacy voices grows stronger as more collectives and groups form, said Evan Wiig, who founded the Farmers Guild to help new farmers network.

Wiig, 30, moved from a career in publishing in New York to work on a ranch in Valley Ford about six years ago. To fight the isolation he said new farmers feel, he invited a small group of young local agrarians to dinner. The Monday night meetings grew out of his dining room and into the Sebastopol Grange hall, now encompassing 12 chapters statewide and merging with the Community Alliance with Family Farmers. It offers classes, mentorships, scholarships and advocates for political causes important to farmers.

For Wiig, providing resources for new farmers is critical.

“It’s the future of our food supply,” he said. “Throughout America, we have this huge aging population of farmers … there’s going to be a point when farmers either pass on or retire, and the total amount of land they collectively own today is going to have to change hands in the next 20 years. Millions and millions of acres of farm land is going to have to go somewhere. There’s a huge crisis in succession planning — there aren’t enough new farmers ready to take on the previous generation’s legacy.”

A reduction in producers could stymie diversity, encouraging monopolies and cobbling the innovation that he said is often incubated in a small farm environment. Though young farmers practicing new techniques may be viewed as disruptors, he said their trial and error will help define sustainable farming. He pointed to Straus Family Creamery Founder and CEO Albert Straus, who was once ridiculed for pioneering the organic milk movement.

“History will tell that it’s those small farms that have the guts and the nimbleness be able to experience what that innovation is all about,” he said.

While attracting new faces to the field is important, Wiig said his focus is also on retention of those upstart producers or young multi-generational farmers seeking their own path, who may struggle putting down roots. In Petaluma, land costs are increasing, as is the cost of housing for farmers and employees.

Small-scale producers face another hurdle in getting products in the hands of consumers or into restaurants, and many compete for space at local farmers markets, Agricultural Community Events Farmers’ Markets Market Manager Kelly Smith said. Smith’s organization operates three Petaluma markets, and she said she’s seen an influx of new names applying for space this market season.

Those producers, vying to stand out, helped redefine offerings and draw in customers who might otherwise be lost to grocery stores, she said.

“There’s a really interesting trend going on in that we’re getting away from carrots and tomatoes and a lot of the chard and kale … The more we can offer at the farmers market as a whole the more customers are going to have more reason to come.”

Accacian and owner Sonya Perrotti, 35, found a niche growing quinoa, which helped them shine in a crowded market, Accacian said. They also offer a Community Supported Agriculture program — better known as CSA — to about 35 subscribers, he said.

As four seasons have passed at Coyote Family Farm, Accacian and Perrotti have continued to work with the community at the farm to overcome obstacles like rocky soil, harsh elements and gophers. Perrotti said despite struggles, she’s looking forward to growing the farm along with the evolving agricultural landscape.

“I love it … when I think about living in any other way, I can’t really imagine it,” Perrotti said.

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