Can ‘open space’ mean an incubator farm and room for California tiger salamanders?
L-shaped, flat, and nearly treeless, the Young-Armos property doesn’t look like much at first glance. But this 45-acre rural parcel north of Rohnert Park could determine the future of farming in Sonoma County.
Whether the parcel becomes an incubator farm or remains undeveloped speaks to the debate of whether Sonoma County is serious about supporting aspiring farmers and its agricultural base. Here’s a nice twist: What if developing some of the property allowed local endangered species to thrive?
Before the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space District (OSD) acquired the Young-Armos land in 1997, the site was used primarily for hay farming. Left untended for nearly 20 years, the property is now home to deer, foxes, coyotes, quail, and migratory birds.
Although the land boasts gorgeous views of mountains to the east, the OSD has long looked for ways to avoid owning properties like it. The District is only funded until 2031 and is concerned that if it ceases to exist, the properties it owns might not be as protected as they are now. The OSD also has another long-term goal: To benefit agriculture by assisting local farmers.
There's one farmer under 35 for every six over 65. By 2030, a quarter of farmers will retire. Linda Peterson
Recently the District asked the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE)’s Sonoma County office to research which District properties would be suitable for an incubator farm. The UCCE saw only the Young-Armos parcel as appropriate.
Linda Peterson, coordinator of the UCCE’s beginning farmer and rancher program, says that an incubator farm would support aspiring farmers at a time when there is a great need for more people, especially younger people, to enter the business.
“There’s one farmer under 35 for every six over 65,” Peterson says, citing national statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “By 2030, a quarter of farmers will retire. There are 150 incubator farms in the U.S. These are critical for helping people get into a very risky business.”
Situated on the Laguna de Santa Rosa Plain, one of the only habitats for the California tiger salamander as well as such wildflowers as Burke’s goldfield, Sonoma sunshine, Sebastopol meadowfoam, and many-flowered navarretia, the Young-Armos property has the potential to support these species if designed correctly.
There are currently no California tiger salamanders on the property. Wildlife biologists say that there is a good chance that amphibians would come if part of the site was dedicated to grazing pasture or orchards. It would help if the District built or encouraged vernal pools to exist on part of the land. Whether artificially created or natural, maintained vernal pools might also allow the spread of endangered native wildflowers.
Given the expense of land in Sonoma County and its impact on our agricultural heritage, turning the parcel into a place where aspiring farmers could hone their skills while enticing endangered species to grow and repopulate the land seems an inoffensive solution.
Many of the site’s neighbors do not agree. A large number of residents have objected to having an incubator farm across the street. The farm has potential to introduce traffic, parking, people, and such obstructions as storage facilities that could block mountain views. The neighbors are also concerned about activities that will clear the land of most of the plants and animals currently on the site. They are further worried about grazing and fertilization practices that could contaminate the Wilfred Creek Channel, a stream that sits on the south border of the property.
“Right now it’s almost a game preserve. Any people, any kind of human activity will kill the flora and fauna and chase them away,” said Joe Netter, a former Rohnert Park city manager who lives in the Park Estates subdivision adjacent to the property. Netter has organized the collection of 125 resident signatures for a petition opposing the incubator farm.
Kim Vail, executive director of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau, suggests that the City of Rohnert Park, its residents, and the District need to find a middle ground.
“Whenever there’s an interface between a rural and urban area, there’s a tendency for a lack of understanding that makes people afraid or concerned about what’s going on,” Vail says. “We’re supportive of this project and hopeful that answers to lingering questions will ease concerns.”
Teri Shore, North Bay regional director of the Greenbelt Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting open space and encouraging smart growth, echoes Vail’s statement. “This project gives farmers access to land, but I also understand the concerns of the city and neighbors,” Shore says.
Most observers agree that the many recent meetings have increased dialogue between concerned parties. Some residents have come to welcome the farm as the OSD has revised its designs.
At an evening meeting in late March, Young-Armos neighbor Chris Myer, who shares a fence line with the proposed incubator farm, said, “I’m looking at this new design, which I love. I’d like to see more workshops.”
Third District Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who supports the incubator farm, is in favor of more talks.
“Developing the concept of being local, stimulating regional food production, and supporting endangered species is a win-win-win,” Zane says. “We hope to win over some of those neighbors with objections.”