In Petaluma, butter and eggs still reign

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Editor’s note: This is part 2 in a series on Petaluma’s changing agricultural landscape.

When Bob McCoy was a young man in Petaluma, the city’s butter and egg economy was thriving.

“There wasn’t anything else to do but work in the chicken industry,” said McCoy, who started his career as a poultry farmer on 3½-acre ranch outside Petaluma.

In the past six decades, McCoy’s Poultry Services has grown to a 32-acre organic farm that houses 150,000 chickens and sources to Petaluma Poultry. Now 78, McCoy is joining the aging ranks of legacy farmers that are looking to the future in an evolving industry.

Amid a battle with cancer, McCoy said his two children will helm his Jewett Road operation, which he described as one of the few small-scale poultry farms left in the area. Though he outlined a competitive market, he sees new, small producers as a pillar in the agricultural sector.

“These small farms are now doing organic eggs and raising organic cattle, and I think there’s room for it as a specialized thing,” he said. “I think they’ve got a great role in it and they’re going to be the foundation of the organic world.”

Those emerging producers, backed by grassroots organizations such as the Farmers Guild, similarly see themselves as being on the precipice of redefining an industry fronted by farmers whose average age is nearing 60. Though younger agrarians face stark challenges, advocates like Farmers Guild Executive Director Evan Wiig say the next generation is tasked with sowing the seeds for sustainable practices while creating viable economic strategies for preserving farmland and feeding the nation.

For Straus Family Creamery founder Albert Straus, credited with pioneering the organic milk movement, creating a road map for both his own operation and the larger industry is key. His business became the first 100-percent certified organic creamery in the nation, and he still places a high value on innovation.

His creamery draws milk from area dairies, and the model he uses is one that turns a profit while helping farmers reinvest in their infrastructure and succession planning, he said.

“I haven’t given up (on small-scale farms) — there is room and what we’re trying to do is help the smaller-scale farms,” he said. “We have three newer farmers that are supplying us milk. There are huge challenges for them. We want to help the next generation get going.”

As he plans for the growth of his own business and moving facilities to Santa Rosa, he also advocates for increased education and internship opportunities to help high school and college students to succeed in agriculture. The milk industry in 2015 made up more than $119 million of Sonoma County’s overall $756 million dollar agricultural sector, according to county data.

Once regarded as the egg capital of the world, Petaluma’s egg basket has shrunk from its heyday in the 1940s and 1950s, when more than 2,700 small farmers thrived in the North Bay, said Arnie Riebli, a fourth-generation Sonoma County egg farmer and a partner in Petaluma’s Sunrise Farms. The industry is now dominated by two producers, including his own Sunrise Farms which produces a million eggs a day, he said.

According to a 2015 Sonoma County crop report, the $53.2 million commercial egg production industry remains a “critical part of the agricultural system.”

Riebli, a past president and current board member of the Association of California Egg Farmers, said he doesn’t consider Petaluma to be a conducive incubator for successful upstart egg operations. Land costs remain high, as do operational costs while the industry requires a tireless jack-of-all-trades mentality in business and farming.

“There’s an old adage that if you want to become a millionaire in the egg business, the first thing you do is start with $20 million,” he said. “It’s just so capital intensive, and that’s probably the biggest detriment to anyone trying to get into the business.”

Reibli, 75, is focused on the next chapter for his own business, recently bringing on two additional partners in their early 50s, he said.

For Green String Farm co-founder Bob Cannard, a future with sustainable practices, educated consumers and engaged young farmers is vital.

“There’s great hope and great potential,” said Cannard, who is regarded as a visionary in the sustainable farming realm. “It’s really up to the consciousness of people to grow stuff and have that connectivity with the consumer — people that are willing to buy it and don’t want to go to the store but want to go to a farm and know where their food comes from. There are good, educated people in the county that appreciate it and understand.”

In addition to tending to his 140-acre Old Adobe Road farm, Cannard runs the Green String Institute, a nearly decade-old quarterly internship program where he’s educated an estimated 360 students. His attendees are a mix of members of multi-generational families seeking a new outlook and those who are new to the field, he said.

As a teacher, Cannard, 64, does his best to impart the wisdom that’s taken root during decades of farming to help bolster success and innovation, which he said often comes from diversified operations.

“More small minds working independently are far more likely to come up with innovative processes to increase economics and decrease drudgery,” he said.

Kim Vail, the executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, a century-old nonprofit that advocates for the county’s producers, said though there are challenges for new farmers, his vision of the future includes a diverse mix of producers.

“This is an amazing area to be in agriculture,” he said. “There’s an opportunity for everyone.”

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