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County’s agriculture at a turning point

Wine grapes and organic vegetables offer hope for Nevada County agriculture and align it with a national effort to consume more locally grown goods.

But some farmers worry that a challenge looms: Developers and small-acreage landowners gobbling up remaining farmable acres.

“We all recognize we need good development, but we need agriculture also,” said farmer Rich Johansen, a member of the county’s Agricultural Advisory Commission.



“We provide working landscapes that offer wildlife habitat and open space,” Johansen said. “We’re providing firebreaks and clean watersheds.

“There’s a lot that we don’t get paid for – a lot that provides for the quality of life here.”




To strike a balance between agriculture and development pressures, members of Johansen’s commission and the county Planning Commission have met in recent months.

The committee is soon expected to provide recommendations to the Board of Supervisors, said county Agriculture Commissioner Jeff Pylman.

The county is full of land zoned for residences and agriculture that need a closer look, he said.

“I’d like to see if there’s a potential for agriculture if the properties come up for a split, so we don’t use up farmland,” Pylman said.

“There’s some unique properties out there with good soils, which is why our wine grapes are doing so well. There are people who want to come to Nevada County, and I’d like to see the land available for them to farm.”

Grazing lands also are a concern, Pylman said, because “you just can’t have five-acre plots” for livestock.

“Development on farmland takes us in the other direction” when more people are buying local products, according to Local Food Coalition activist Rita de Quercus.

A growing number of farmers see the dilemma.

“First there’s a tremendous interest in locally grown food here and all over the country and that’s stimulating demand,” said Allen Haight, at his farm outside of Nevada City. “On the other side, there’s so much development pressure, the cost of land has become so high that it’s prohibitive to buy it to farm.”

A number of young people in the county are using other people’s property to create small farms, but it carries risks, Haight said.

“They don’t own it, and that can be bad because the owners can get divorced, die” or sell, Haight said. If the new owners don’t want to farm, the sharecroppers are out.

Building a costly infrastructure for planting and growing vegetables is another problem for new, small-plot farmers, Haight said.

“You need an eight-foot fence, or you’re just growing for deer, plus there’s the cost of irrigation,” he said. Other equipment and seed also is costly.

“It seems you can sell almost anything you grow these days, but you have to have a place to do it,” Haight said. “It’s the same problem across the country, but it’s more pronounced in California because of land values.”

Some developers are being proactive, such as Phil Carville, while planning his Loma Rica Ranch project just outside of Grass Valley.

The project has yet to win approval, but Carville went ahead and resurrected the old horse ranch as a working organic farm.

“The farm is the central part of our development,” Carville said. “Sustainability is more than just putting (solar) on your roof. It’s where your food comes from, and how it’s delivered.”

Recent studies have shown food often travels 1,500 miles before it arrives to market, Carville said.

“We could have taken the old barns and put horses in them and made 46 teenage girls happy,” he said. “But we turned it into a farm that produces food and will be an activity center for the development.”

Carville also worries that too much good farmland is being consumed by small plots of five to 10 acres for homesites.

“It’s too big to mow and too small to plow,” Carville said.

Although the area’s wine industry continues to grow slowly, some wine growers worry about sustaining the increases, said Kim Crevoiserat, executive director of the Nevada County Wine Association.

People with land amenable to wine grape-growing “make a heck of a lot more money selling their land to contractors,” Crevoiserat said. “The only way we can keep land in vineyards is to keep them profitable and that’s my job – to bring people here to buy wines and take them home to spread the word.”

If demand for county wines increases, “we’ll have to have more grapes to make more wine,” Crevoiserat said.

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To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail davem@theunion.com or call 477-4237.


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