Can new use permits expand our farmers’ fiscal stability?

When that soul who goes to an office for a living gazes upon a farm, it’s entirely possible that the view is a bucolic poem in the form of tidy crop rows limned with amber light and animated by pleasantly clucking hens. When the resident farmer scans that same scene, the view is perhaps more skewed to that which has failed and is still undone, plus irritation that the damned chickens have escaped into that field again.

At least that’s how Jaclyn Moyer feels when she looks around her 10 acres in the Sierra foothills versus how visitors to her farm respond to the same view. Writing for in January, Moyer titles her essay, “What nobody told me about small farming: I can’t make a living,” lamenting that if she and her partner make as much as $4,000 a year from farming, they can consider themselves lucky. Both have other gigs to support their full-time work—and they’re not alone.

Moyer writes, “According to USDA data from 2012, intermediate-size farms like mine, which gross more than $10,000 but less than $250,000, obtain only 10 percent of their household income from the farm and 90 percent from an off-farm source.”

One answer is to create more income from the work a farmer is already doing by establishing a small cottage industry over and above the actual food production itself.

In Sonoma County, we only grow between 1 to 2 percent of our own food. By creating new products, we can up that percentage and gain more resiliency and independence in the process. Sure, some small farms find that a CSA program adequately fills the fiscal gaps; most do not. Something else has to give.

UCCE Sonoma County agricultural ombudsman Karen Giovannini knows one way that things might improve and it ain’t sexy: Permitting.

Having worked extensively with the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department (PRMD) to create cheaper, easier ways for farmers to create added products for added income, Giovannini is concerned that no one has yet taken advantage of a program rolled out in July 2014. As in: No one. Not a soul.

In Sonoma County, we only grow between 1 to 2 percent of our own food.

At the heart of this project is zoning rather than use permits. A use permit can run around $15,000; a zoning permit, about $600. Of course there may be ancillary costs like a water study or planning fees, because: PRMD. Everyone knows that. And it’s exactly that weary knowledge of high costs that Giovannini suspects is keeping farmers away.

“PRMD is trying to become a kinder, gentler department, but at the end of the day, they are regulators,” says Giovannini. “We worked together for months to get this going. We thought that this would be a great thing for the farmer and to encourage this type of business to help keep farms farming.”

The creation of cottage industries on extant farms is a stepping stone to meeting the challenge of skyrocketing land values, allowing our farmers to compete with those from the cheaper climes of the Central Valley and Mexico. If every farmer did this, we could become the food basket of the 1 percent, a goal not longed for in every proletariat’s heart but definitely friendly to their bank accounts.

Giovannini fairly pleads for local growers to consider it. “The process is much simpler than it was,” she assures. “It’s literally just a checklist of items. If you can check all of these things, then you can get a zoning permit rather than use permit, saving you thousands of dollars. The idea is to get our farms started on a new line of business.”

If nothing else, this opportunity could shift everyone’s view of the farm from bucolic or grim back to center.

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