Category Archives: Agriculture/Food System

Valley Ford turkey king sues Marin County, Coastal Commission over agricultural preservation law

Paul Payne, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Free-range turkey pioneer Willie Benedetti doesn’t want to work forever.

Instead of raising fat birds for Thanksgiving tables, the 68-year-old farmer hopes someday to be playing with grandchildren in a house he’d like to build for one of his sons on his 267-acre ranch near Valley Ford.

But he said that’s not possible because of a new Marin County law meant to preserve agricultural lands that would force him to keep farming if he constructs the new dwelling.

Now, he’s teaming up with a conservative legal action group that wages high-profile property rights cases, challenging the mandate in a lawsuit against the county and the California Coastal Commission, accusing them of coercion and violating his constitutional rights.

“What they are doing is not right,” said the owner of nationally known Willie Bird Turkeys, whose family has owned the land near the Estero Americano just south of the Sonoma County line since 1972. “To put pressure on the farming community. It’s ludicrous.”

The stakes could be high for many of the estimated 200 landowners in the coastal zone. A victory for Benedetti and the Pacific Legal Foundation would have broader implications on state and local government’s authority to set such strict rules for development.

“If he got a court to say local land use restrictions and basic tools like zoning are an unconstitutional deprivation of property rights, all bets would be off to maintain any type of consistent character in communities,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

However, the ability to do just that is “battle-tested in the courts” and is not likely to go away, said Huffman, a former environmental attorney whose district runs from Marin County up the coast to Oregon.

Read more at: Valley Ford turkey king sues Marin County, Coastal Commission over ‘forced farming’ law | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use

California water wars rage on as farmers seek more water that now goes to fish

Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler, THE SACRAMENTO BEE

The drought may be over and Central Valley farmers are getting more water than they have in years, but that hasn’t stopped congressional Republicans from resurrecting a bill that would strip environmental protections for fish so more water can be funneled to agriculture.

The bill is likely to meet the same fate as others before it, despite farmers having a new ally in the White House and Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. After passing the House of Representatives last week, the bill faces near-certain death in the Senate, where California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Kamala Harris still have the power to kill it. President Donald Trump, who vowed during a Fresno campaign stop last year to “open up the water” for farmers at the expense of fish, is likely to never see the bill cross his desk.

Nonetheless, the legislation by Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, offers a window into the unrelenting mindset of California’s agricultural lobby as it seeks to secure water for well-funded farming groups.

Some version of Valadao’s bill has been introduced off and on since 2011 without success. And, last year, with Feinstein’s support, farmers succeeded in pushing through a controversial bill easing some of the environmental restrictions on pumping water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta for delivery to San Joaquin Valley farms and Southern California cities. Former President Barack Obama signed the bill into law.

Read more at: California water wars rage on as farmers seek more water that now goes to fish | The Sacramento Bee

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Water, Wildlife

Granting of Point Reyes ranch long-term leases halted in lawsuit settlement

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Granting long-term leases to the two dozen ranching families that have raised cattle for generations at Point Reyes National Seashore would be halted under a proposed court settlement announced Wednesday to resolve a lawsuit brought last year by three environmental groups.

The tentative deal, which involves the groups and the National Park Service, manager of the 71,000-acre seashore on the Marin County coast, requires park managers to study impacts on the environment from decades of ranching and opens up the possibility that grazing dairy and beef cattle could be curtailed or ended.

Both the ranchers and environmental groups claimed victory in the settlement of a closely watched case, seen as having wider implications for management of federal land.

“This is what we asked for in the lawsuit,” said Deborah Moskowitz, president of the Resource Renewal Institute, one of the environmental groups. “It’s good news.”

Dairy rancher Jarrod Mendoza said the settlement was “a temporary win” for ranchers, who would get five-year leases.

Ranchers have been operating on one-year leases and Mendoza, a fourth-generation rancher, said he was “hopeful” that 20-year terms would ultimately be allowed. Mendoza, who milks about 200 cows a day at his ranch, said he hopes to continue in agriculture for the rest of his life.

Moskowitz and Mendoza acknowledged the settlement does not address the question of whether cattle can coexist with wilderness on a scenic peninsula inhabited by tule elk, eagles, black-tailed deer and bobcats.“I think those questions will be answered in the general management plan,” Mendoza said, referring to a park planning update required by the settlement,

Read more at: Granting of Point Reyes ranch long-term leases halted in lawsuit settlement | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Habitats, Land Use, Wildlife

Lawsuit draws Bennett Valley into feud over California’s Grange chapters

Nick Rahaim, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The Bennett Valley Guild hosted a Fourth of July picnic for 200 people last week, as they have for more than a century, albeit under a different name.

Then on July 6, the organization was sued in Sonoma County Superior Court by state and national Grange groups which seek to boot the local chapter from the 144-year-old building and claim ownership.

The new lawsuit escalates a simmering feud between the California State Grange and Washington, D.C.-based National Grange, on the one side, and on the other nearly 100 breakaway chapters in California that four years ago severed ties with the National Grange to join the California Guild. The 130-member Bennett Valley chapter, like the others, changed its name in the process.

The Grange network dates back to the post-Civil War era and its chapters have acted as rural clubs helping farmers to share technology, field practices and general know-how. They have seen a resurgence in popularity over the past decade as young farmers and foodies have been drawn to institutions with deep agrarian roots.

But that new blood fueled discord and factored in the National Grange kicking out the California group, now called the California Guild. A power struggle since then has pitted traditionalists against secessionists, with control of local chapters and dozens of properties at stake.

Read more at: Lawsuit draws Bennett Valley into feud over California’s Grange chapters | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System

Field tests show how pesticides can wreak havoc on honeybees

Mira Abed, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

Humans are big fans of bees. We rely on them to pollinate crops like almonds, watermelons and apples.

But bees probably aren’t big fans of humans — at least, not of our agricultural practices.In particular, they ought to be offended by our fondness for a widely used class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics, for short).

Studies in the lab have shown that some doses of neonics are outright lethal to many bees and that even sub-lethal doses can shorten a colony’s lifespan and harm its overall health. Results have been similar in small-scale field studies.

Still, exactly how these pesticides, which are applied to seeds before planting, would affect bees in the real world remains something of a mystery. Scientists have been locked in a fierce debate over how much — and for how long — bees encounter these pesticides in their daily lives. After all, the conditions in a field are far more complex than those in a lab.

Now, two studies published side by side in the journal Science attempt to answer this contentious question.

One of the studies was conducted in Canada. It combined large-scale field work and laboratory experiments to better understand real-world neonic exposure levels and their effects on honeybees.

The other was conducted in large fields in Hungary, Germany and the U.K. Its goal was to understand how the effects of neonics vary between countries and how exposure during the flowering season affects the long-term health of a bee colony.

Read more at: Field tests show how pesticides can wreak havoc on honeybees – LA Times

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable Living

Officials work to enforce Roundup rules in Sonoma County 

Stephen Nett, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

This spring, a court ruled that the California Environmental Protection Agency can move ahead with its decision to list glyphosate as a cancer-causing agent, a carcinogen, under Proposition 65, after reviewing a body of scientific studies on glyphosate’s potential health risks. The World Health Organization, after its own independent review, took a similar step in 2015.

On a sunny warm May afternoon, Andrew Smith drives around the tree lined, well-tended neighborhoods of Sonoma, on the lookout for a lethal ritual. In a green vest, white Sonoma County Department of Agriculture truck and sunglasses, he’s looking for workers spraying pesticides to kill plants, insects and animals. He stops to make pesticide safety inspections. And when he meets maintenance gardeners using pesticides without a license, he tells them they have to stop until they have one.

Unlicensed pesticide use is a big and growing problem. And Smith, a senior agricultural biologist, acknowledges, his is not a particularly popular job.Armed with colorful booklets, Smith introduces the license, and licensing process, in English or Spanish, as necessary. Sometimes he writes a notice of violation, which can carry a financial penalty. Sometimes, they listen. Sometimes, they turn their back and walk away.

Apart from the maintenance gardeners he approaches, few people even know he’s out there doing it.

But Smith, who grew up in Sonoma County, takes the responsibility seriously. Like his co-workers at the Department of Agriculture, and their counterparts in counties across the state, he’s on the front line to enforce the state rules that protect people and other life in the environment from being poisoned.

Read more at: Officials work to enforce Roundup rules in Sonoma County | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Sustainable Living

Pesticides damage survival of bee colonies, landmark study shows

Damian Carrington, THE GUARDIAN

Prof David Goulson, a bee expert at the University of Sussex, UK, said: “In the light of these new studies, continuing to claim that use of neonicotinoids in farming does not harm bees is no longer a tenable position. In my view we should also consider the bigger picture; the current model of farming based on huge monocultures treated with dozens of pesticides is causing devastating environmental harm, undermining vital ecosystem services that keep us all alive.”

Widely used insecticides damage the survival of honeybee colonies, the world’s largest ever field trial has shown for the first time, as well as harming wild bees.

The farm-based research, along with a second new study, also suggests widespread contamination of entire landscapes and a toxic “cocktail effect” from multiple pesticides.

The landmark work provides the most important evidence yet for regulators around the world considering action against neonicotinoids, including in the EU where a total ban is poised to be implemented this autumn. The insecticides are currently banned on flowering crops in the EU.

The negative impacts found varied across different countries, leading the pesticide manufacturers to question whether the results of the research, which they funded, were real. The new research is published in the prestigious peer-review journal Science.

Read more at: Pesticides damage survival of bee colonies, landmark study shows | Environment | The Guardian

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Wildlife

Here’s how big wine gets to avoid environmental rules in Napa

Alastair Bland, KCET

According to Anderson, vineyard managers frequently install drainage systems incorrectly, fail to plant required cover crops to control erosion, incorrectly place deer fences in a way that prevents free passage of smaller wildlife, and use pesticides illegally. She says erosion control measures often fail to work, causing loose sediment to wash into creeks. There it can smother gravel beds used by spawning salmon and steelhead, which have almost vanished from North Bay watersheds. Many biologists have pointed to vineyards as a leading cause of the fish declines.

In 2006, Napa County officials issued a permit for The Caves at Soda Canyon, a new winery in the hills east of the city of Napa. As most such project permits do, the document set strict limits on how the developer could build his winery.

But The Caves’ owner Ryan Waugh allegedly ignored some of these limitations. Waugh dug an unpermitted cave into a mountain, and hosted guests at unapproved ridgetop tasting patios. After county officials became aware of the violations, they ordered Waugh in 2014 to block off (but not fill in) the illegal cave, stop the unauthorized wine tastings and muffle a noisy generator.

Neighbors had complained about the generator’s din, claiming that Waugh had promised years earlier to connect his facility to silent power lines. They’re primarily concerned, however, about the winery’s impacts on local traffic and congestion.

County documents report that Waugh followed through on all orders to correct the violations (something neighbors, who say they can still hear the generator, dispute). Then, Waugh submitted a request for a modification to his permit, and in April, the Napa County Planning Commission voted to approve it. The new permit brings the unauthorized components of his operation into full legal compliance while also increasing The Cave’s annual production limit from 30,000 gallons of wine to 60,000. The decision is a win for Waugh, who has reportedly put his winery on the market for $12.5 million.

Neighbors say that laws don’t apply to people invested in Napa County’s influential wine industry.

“You can just drill an unpermitted cave and have unpermitted tastings, and just get retroactive approval from the county, and get more allowed production than you initially had,” says Anthony Arger, who lives nearby. Arger is concerned that The Caves’ enhanced use permits will lead to a dangerous increase in vehicle use on Soda Canyon Road.

The county’s decision to clear Waugh’s record while allowing him to enlarge his business illuminates what Arger and other community activists say is part of a countywide problem. They argue that Napa County officials, especially those in the Planning, Building and Environmental Services department, collude with the wine industry, ignoring violations of local rules, to increase wine production and tourist visits at the expense of the environment and local residents’ health and safety.

Read more at: Here’s How Big Wine Gets To Avoid Environmental Rules in Napa | KCET

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use, Water, Wildlife

Windsor looks to extend the life of its urban growth boundary

Clark Mason, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Environmental groups, including the Greenbelt Alliance, support Windsor’s proposal, although they said the town should consider charging developers to offset the loss of agricultural lands and protect them elsewhere in the town’s jurisdiction.

Almost 20 years ago, Windsor voters approved an urban growth boundary designed to keep a greenbelt and discourage sprawl. Now they are being asked to do it again.

The Town Council last week scheduled a special election for Nov. 7 to extend the life of the boundary encircling the town for another 22 years — until 2040 — with slight modifications.

“I’m really proud that this boundary has held for 20 years and that it will basically hold for 22 more. That’s 42 years,” Mayor Debora Fudge said of the expected enactment by voters.

This time around, the council is asking voters not only to reaffirm the boundary, but slightly expand it by adding 22 acres of agricultural land south of Shiloh Road to the town’s future jurisdiction.

Town Council members say they want to accommodate two existing Windsor businesses with expansion plans.

“It’s to keep our valuable business partners in Windsor,” Fudge said.

Read more at: Windsor looks to extend the life of its urban growth boundary | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Land Use

New oversight of groundwater taking shape in Sonoma County – state ending past practice of unregulated pumping

Guy Kovner, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Vickie Mulas, a partner in her family’s Sonoma Valley dairy and vineyard operations, is no friend of regulations.“They’re kind of onerous, restrictive and costly,” said Mulas, stating her case bluntly, as farmers often do.

But Mulas, a member of a prominent local ranching family, relishes her role in California’s newest round of rule-making that will — in an unprecedented departure from past practice — put limits on how much water people can pump out of the ground.

She’s a board member on one of more than 100 new agencies statewide — including three in Sonoma County — being formed to implement a landmark California water law that will bring order to groundwater, the aqueous subterranean stores that collectively hold more than 10 times as much water as all the state’s surface reservoirs combined.

In the aftermath of a historic five-year drought that prompted wholesale overdrafting of Central Valley aquifers — triggering dramatic collapses in the landscape — California is replacing a largely hands-off approach to groundwater with a regulatory system that includes metering, monitoring and potentially limiting pumping, along with fees to pay for the regulatory process.

The new order is just starting to come into shape and will take several years to implement, with still-undefined costs, monitoring and limits that in Sonoma County will primarily fall on thousands of rural well owners, including residents and farmers.

The new legal landscape alone is uncharted for California.

County Supervisor David Rabbitt, a member of the two governing agencies that will oversee groundwater in Petaluma Valley and Sonoma Valley, said the state is making a philosophical shift away from the timeworn notion of “sacrosanct” private water rights.

“The aquifer beneath your well is connected to your neighbor’s well,” he said.

For groundwater users in the 44,700-acre basin that supplies Sonoma Valley, the underground creep of salt water and dropping fresh water levels have long been concerns. Now, Mulas and other public and community representatives appointed to the region’s groundwater sustainability agency will have a formal stake in staving off those threats.

Read more at: New oversight of groundwater taking shape in Sonoma County | The Press Democrat

Filed under Agriculture/Food System, Water