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Developing an ag “culture”

Mona Hill
Staff Writer
11/9/2011

Last week 20 people with assorted interests and responsibilities related to agriculture gathered at the County Annex to identify and discuss projects to promote Plumas and Sierra counties’ agriculture, livestock and fiber production.

The working group’s efforts are directed at finding a way to enhance and strengthen the ag sector of our local economy.

What is different about this group is that its members are not seeking government entitlements or earmarks: This is a do-it-ourselves plan.

Using methods developed by the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Economic Renewal Program, UC Davis facilitators Gail Feenstra and David Campbell led discussion on local resources — natural, human, governmental and physical — for which products and markets could be created or strengthened.

Participants expanded on information and feedback gathered at the Oct. 7 Sustainable Agriculture workshop. From consumer to producer education, from problems to solutions, the freewheeling discussion began to develop identifiable assets, problems and opportunities.

Here in the mountains, weather and a short growing season hamper farmers and ranchers. Crop diversity is also a problem: Most arable land is in livestock or livestock feed production.

In addition, USDA food safety standards and lack of infrastructure can be prohibitive for small-scale producers. Wolf Pack Meats in Reno is the only alternative available meat packing facility for small-scale ranchers and it’s under threat of closure.

In some California counties, community supported agricultural (CSA) cooperatives are prohibited, which limits effective utilization of economies of scale.

It’s fortunate and unfortunate that Plumas County only has one CSA, High Altitude Harvest, run by Elizabeth Powell through Plumas Rural Services.

The CSA has made great progress bringing fresh produce from local growers to our tables. However, Powell still has trouble expanding the program and obtaining affordable equipment such as tillers or greenhouses.

Another CSA in the area could help through shared work and equipment, increasing demand and making fresh food more affordable and accessible.

For the last 60 or so years, much of our economy has been timber-based. But litigation and production costs have made even fire salvage an uncertain business.

The work of the Herger-Feinstein Quincy Library Group Forest Recovery Act has been stalled in court time and again by environmental groups that subscribe to the laissez-faire approach to forest management.

Rather than wait for government agencies or a large employer to address our economic woes, this ag group is considering ways to address our economic problems with the resources and infrastructure already in place.

Whether one calls it a spirit of entrepreneurship, self-determination or independence, such a plan could include a composting facility for forest products and other biomass utilization, a meat producers’ cooperative, allotments, agritourism and a host of other business ideas.

Plumas residents Valerie Nellor and Cindy Noble have a long cherished dream of a local composting facility.

Others, including Gabe Miller, of Feather River Land Trust, and Kathy Tedford and Solomon Sweeting, small-scale producers, support a cooperative meat producers’ facility.

Powell believes there’s a need for more farmer training to develop high elevation growing, marketing and business skills.

Other possibilities include a cidery that takes advantage of the area’s heirloom apple trees and remnant orchards, and value-added ag products such as jams and jellies made from local berries. Another possibility includes a year-round farmers market.

The fall color season presents an opportunity to combine the county’s harvest festivals, fall color and farm tours to bring leaf peepers to Plumas County.

Plumas County’s history from first peoples to now has a history of all of these activities.

As page 178 of the Oct. 14 draft General Plan (countyofplumas.com) notes: “Although agriculture is a relatively small industry in Plumas County in terms of jobs, it plays a significant role in the history of the County as well as in the current landscape. Agriculture provides not only local food production, agricultural lands make up open space and scenic vistas that are an intrinsic part of the Plumas County environment.”

Further, the draft plan states: “The people of Plumas County … have all been in agreement that the agriculture and timber resources contribute to the reason they live in Plumas County. They agree that these resources constitute the working landscape that is important to the maintenance of local economies, sense of place, recreational values and also for the ecosystem services that are important.”

Representatives from Plumas County Environmental Health and Sierra County’s Health and Human Services Department also demonstrate local government’s willingness to facilitate and support these ambitions.

Plumas Rural Services, Plumas County Food Policy Council, Quincy Natural Foods and many other agencies, groups and individuals at the meeting share a concern for food safety and security. Everyone there wants to promote affordable access to local foodstuffs. Everyone present last week supports improved local producer-to-table distribution and marketing systems to get Plumas and Sierra county food on residents’ dinner tables.

 

Why care?

Whether as meat-and-potatoes or tofu-and-rice, access to fresh, affordable, healthy food affects everyone.

Once upon a time in America, it was our chief export — more than 80 percent. Over time, that number has dwindled to less than 20 percent (agclassroom.org).

A majority of food production costs is tied to the cost of oil: Machinery, fertilizer, energy and transportation all use oil to process, package and deliver food to our tables.

As the price of oil rises and oil reserves diminish, those costs will increase.

In addition, alternative fuel production — ethanol — has driven the price of corn skyward, making a staple food increasingly expensive.

The more we can produce right here, the more control we have over our economic destiny.


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