Preserve It: Local Land, Local Farms, Local Food | Civil Eats

Preserve It: Local Land, Local Farms, Local Food

At the Orchard

On a recent Sunday evening, nearly a hundred and fifty people decided to drive out to Brentwood, Ca to have dinner and enjoy the harvest hospitality at the Brookside Farm.  Farmer Welling Tom was busy running about – harvesting fruit for the small vegetable stand set up on the edge of the orchard where his mom Anne would sell some pears before being called over to help serve the grilled fish and meats that accompanied their local bounty.

Far from being a polished corporate event, we sat on hay bales in the orchard as we talked and feasted.  Chefs from around the Bay Area provided dishes to share, mingling with customers Welling and Anne had met at the various farmers markets they attend.  The true feeling of local community was evident in every bite, every conversation.

When people try to talk about the value of local food – the value that doesn’t necessarily relate to dollars or sense – this is it.  There can be no monetary value placed on evenings like these; they can’t be created by marketing budgets or new research and development programs or new strains of genetically modified wheat.  Evenings like this 0ccur when a community comes together to celebrate a family choosing to work the soil they’ve lived on for 35 years by hand.

And yet, this is also part of the problem.  Surrounding Brookside Farm’s 10 acres is an ever-encroaching suburban sprawl, as century-old fruit and nut orchards are ripped out in favor of mini-mansions and big box stores.  As the Bay Area housing market heated up in years past, development roared ahead at a feverish level as farmers were offered larger and larger sums to sell their land for new houses and malls.  Sadly, the market fell even faster when the bubble burst last winter, and now many of those new houses stand empty.  But the deeper tragedy is not the lost property value.  It is that the orchards and open farmland that preceded these empty houses can not easily be replaced.

This very issue – farmland preservation – was the topic of a recent letter sent by the American Farmland Trust (AFT) to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.  “Protecting farmland for future agricultural use is of utmost importance to every citizen of the United States” the letter reads.  The letter brought attention to the federal Interim Final Rule regarding the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP).

A statement released by the AFT reads:

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“The states who signed the letter represent over 70 percent of all the acreage protected under state farmland protection programs,” says Bob Wagner, Senior Director of Farmland Protection Programs for AFT. “The states recognize that the federal government has been a key partner in helping protect farmland since 1995, and they are offering improvements to the FRPP program so that it can be most effective and efficient.”

This issue could not be more important, and the time for increased preservation needs to be now.  As the economy has slowed, the cost of keeping land protected for agricultural use is a fraction of what it was last year – and this price will only increase as the economy recovers.

The demand for development never ends, and at each turn the message is, “We just need a little more housing, but you can save the rest.”  But then the next year, it’s “Just a little more for a small mall we need to build,”  and then “Well, we need to build….”  and so on.  Meanwhile, all forms of open space disapears and we are left with the proverbial “asphalt jungle.”

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Reflecting on these issues, Chef / Owner Peter Chastain of Prima Restaurant in Walnut Creek recently recalled a day, perhaps 30 years ago, when you could look east from the Berkeley hills and see only orchards and ranches and rolling green fields.  Today, all that has been replaced by suburban development.

Thoughtfully, Chef Peter said “Now, our job as cooks is to rediscover the connections to the land through our work, and in the process try to awaken people’s awareness of those connections through the food we serve.”

Connecting to the land through our food – it’s the most natural thing in the world.  But the land needs to be there to connect with, and that’s something worth protecting.

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Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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  1. Thank you for including reference to the recent letter sent to Secretary Vilsack from 13 states concerned about the loss of farmland. For those interested in more information on the variety of techniques being used at the state and local levels to protect farmland for future generations, visit our website here,

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