Close Mobile Menu

A Round table setting

September 18, 2009
by Rick Wartzman and Patrick Dillon

A Berkeley discussion of the future of food and farming

In preparing for this special issue on the future of food and farming, California writer Rick Wartzman and executive editor Patrick Dillon invited food and land-use experts to help frame the questions we subsequently spent several months exploring. Here are their remarks.

My name is Sibella Kraus, and I’m the program director of Agriculture at the Metropolitan Edge, which is a new program under the auspices of the Center for Global Metropolitan Studies at Berkeley. The center understands that we really need to look closely at agriculture as part of the regional metropolitan framework rather than as a thing separate from it. I also run a nonprofit called SAGE—Sustainable Agriculture Education Enterprise. Our primary projects these days are investigating and developing agricultural parks at the edge of the city.

I’m Michael Dimock, executive director of Roots of Change, a statewide collaboration involving foundations, business, government, and NGOs focused on a common vision of creating a sustainable food system in California by 2030. We’re in a five-year development phase to create a structure and institution that will last until 2030 and provide $5 million a year to fund initiatives focused on transforming the food system to a sustainable framework.

I’m Harrison Fraker, dean of the College of Environmental Design. It was formed in the very late ’50s to try to bring the disciplines of urban planning, landscape architecture, architecture, and environmental planning together to collaborate on some of these larger issues. It has great depth and expertise in each of these disciplines, and what’s exciting here is that we’re now actually realizing the vision of trying to collaborate across the disciplines. And this is a perfect issue, and it’s a very important one. Most of the promising sustainability options require deep collaboration. This includes financing, infrastructure, law, and a full range of things to try to create real change in the institutions that have promoted the way we do business now.

I’m Patrick Dillon, an urban planner wannabe, architect wannabe, weekend farmer, and executive editor of California magazine. The beauty of our magazine is that it really acts as a village green, in what Harrison described as hosting and harvesting interdisciplinary approaches to big problems. Berkeley is becoming foremost in demonstrating to the rest of the world how to do this. We and our readers are its beneficiaries. To amplify: when you think about embracing agriculture into the urban landscape, you’re also talking about public health, public health institutions, what Alice Waters is doing with the Edible Schoolyard; you have to factor farming and agriculture into the vascular system of California. But what we are here to talk about now is what California’s agricultural landscape will look in 2025 or 2050. Is it fair to begin looking forward now?

HF: Great. I guess the first question I have is probably—maybe it’s so simple, it’s complicated—tell me what you mean by “sustainability.” And if there’s an example of a community that’s gone from a starting point to closer to what you’re looking at. What does it mean to be sustainable as a community?

MD: I can give you an example from England that you might want to look to. It’s called BedZED. It’s about 20 minutes by train south of London, and it’s a little neighborhood right next to the station. The best way to describe it is it’s a series of live-work row houses, very high density—about 100 homes—and it has tried to push this whole sustainability idea.

First of all, they’re very well-insulated, very energy-conserving homes. And they use passive solar heating, natural ventilation—in a very sophisticated way. So the energy demands and loads have been reduced dramatically. One side of the street faces south: that’s where all the residences are because in London, you need heat for your residences. The north, back, side faces the other street, and that’s where all the work is because all you need in those units is daylight. And you can buy a home and have a workspace with it or you can come in and rent your workspace.

Now, how do all the other systems work? They collect all the water on the site and use it for irrigation. They treat all the sewage naturally. And they give the—let’s just call it night earth—back to the farmers for fertilizer. And the farmers have a market Wednesdays and Saturdays on their own streets. So waste is turned into fertilizer; food’s brought back to the folks. They’re integrating agriculture into their lifestyle. And the city brings its wood chips to the site. They are burned in a very efficient system. It’s an emulsified system and it creates electricity and hot water. The electricity powers the sites. The hot water gives them domestic hot water and it’s the back-up heat. Now, that’s the first built example of starting to do this whole systems integration, where you’re using green systems to help. And agriculture is all part of this.

Also you have the example of Havana, Cuba, where, by necessity, when the Russians moved out, agriculture moved into the city. It was grown locally, organically. They were using composted waste for fertilizer. They sell the produce right there. No transportation costs, no pesticides. And it’s gone from an economy that is essentially an industrial model to a local, sustainable, organic system. About 60-70 percent of the food is grown locally.

So those are two examples that I know worldwide. And in my own work, what I’ve discovered is that the landscape in cities is the most under-utilized imagined resource that we have. And it has tremendous value for the future for food, for cooling, for biomass, for energy, for cleaning water, you name it. So we’re not talking green space anymore. Rather, we’re promoting working landscapes.

SK: Right. It’s a functioning landscape on multiple levels. It cleans water. It provides shade for cooling. It creates biomass for energy. It grabs carbon. It provides aesthetic value. And it represents as much as 50 percent of the site coverage in cities. People don’t think of it as that much, but it’s as much as 60 percent in some places. Just subtract the footprint of the buildings and the travel lanes of the streets. You have to rethink the parking, rethink the sidewalks. You have to rethink the courtyards. You have to rethink the parks—the miniparks and the larger parks. But all of that surface area is a potential green resource. You grow an urban forest in the parking areas.

PD: So where in the U.S. to start? And then, in California are things the farthest along, conceptually, if not actually on the ground? Who in terms of city planners and implementers are actually doing this?

SK: Maybe a neighborhood scale, one that’s fairly well known, is Village Homes. So that’s a development that incorporates a real edible landscape. The predominant function is for housing, but there’s an increase in these projects that are agriculture conservation developments. Homes are clustered and then there’s a certain amount of open space, usually that’s conserved as natural open space. But there are also projects emerging where they’re trying to preserve a farm or include a new farm as part of the project.

On the city scale, what we see so far is a lot of sustainability plans and policies, and I think the beginnings of trying to put some real implementation to various elements.

MD: I think that those examples are fantastic because those are real, living examples that exist out there. But I think that this whole process is a reconceptualization. Sustainability is a process of human beings reintegrating themselves into the biological system, and learning how the systems of civilization—food, energy, water, health, education, those primary systems—how those need to be integrated back in with nature so that we can maintain civilization. In the end, if we do not reintegrate with nature, we break down nature’s ability to continue to support us. And that’s what’s happening in the world in all kinds of ways.

What I see is that there are communities that are waking up to this and people are beginning to embrace the challenge of rethinking how we do these systems. The food system is the base system of civilization. That’s how civilization was born, because of agricultural ability to create excess or surplus. So the food system can affect all the other systems. If this system changes, because it underlies all the others, and is connected to all the systems—if we can get some real traction in changing there, it’s going to affect everything. So it’s really important that cities begin to embrace the rural countryside, because that’s what they’re based upon and they’ve lost track of that.

HF: I’d even preserve it in a metropolitan and regional plan as a valuable asset. And perhaps even to return some of the land to these uses. There needs to be integration.

SK: What you mostly see in exurban areas is that the prime value of the land near cities, especially those that have natural resource value, is for non-farmers. So the higher value of the rural area is for lifestyle more than for production. That’s not a simple view, either, because you’re inviting other people to participate as part of the economics of the vitality and viability of these places. At the same time, it also can really undermine the agricultural economy.

So I think, just as Harrison was talking about the multifunctionality, that happens on many levels. It happens in terms of the resources; it happens also in terms of the social mobilization. People, especially as cities get more congested, want access to the countryside. So there needs to be some way that we can help facilitate that without making farming problematical. I would also say that old the idea of a farmer as a country person only, as a hick, is wrong. We’re kind of rigid, I think, in the way we look at rural communities and the enterprise of farming.

HF: I was in Minnesota before coming here. And there was a tremendous renaissance of some of these rural communities because these farming families would have kids and maybe even invent things. And then they would make little industries and they’d want to get people to work on them, these kind of garage industries. A lot of the towns around the Twin Cities were trying to attract people back to work on the industries that were being invented in these little towns.

So there was a kind of paradox here where there was this demand for people that had moved out of the city to take up a kind of entrepreneurial lifestyle in the small places. And it wasn’t trivial. I mean, a lot of these towns are pretty small. But they wanted 50 new houses, they wanted 100 new houses. And they were trying to figure out ways to get these and make them affordable and to capture the qualities that Sibella just described.

RW: Well, that’s certainly happening here, just in terms of population shifts, because the coast has gotten so expensive. With that in mind, it sounds like you’re focused more on the ways urban areas need to change, or urban/suburban areas should evolve, as opposed to focusing on the heart of the Central Valley. Or is it both?

HF: Rather than thinking of the city and the rural as two things, we think of the metropolitan region as one. And rather than just seeing cities keep growing at their perimeter and slowly pushing all the farmland out farther and farther, if you think of them as a network where you leave agricultural corridors or you leave agricultural zones and you don’t gobble them up with suburban development—you leave them. And you organize the growth in different ways around other kinds of investments. Traditionally it’s been around roads, but here it should be around public transportation. For instance, we can reconceive the Central Valley around a transportation system other than freeways. And all of a sudden, you have a tapestry, rather than one thing that’s all a single-use urban-ness and a single-use rural-ness. You now have these systems woven together.

SK: I think it’s also looking at urban centers as nodes and as regions. Within any given region—maybe it’s Chico or Fresno—there’s urban land surrounding it so that there’s urban nodes of various sizes. But if you look at those as nodes with some measure of their own agriculture, some measure of their own identity and individuality in a broad way within California, you can identify them as having their own geography and their own agricultural products and their own traditions.

Holland has consciously done this. They have really set up agricultural reserves and found ways of financially integrating and, I don’t want to use “subsidizing,” but making it economically viable for the farmers in these areas.

MD:  This makes sense to me in terms of Bakersfield and Fresno and Visalia as they expand. Those are very different places than if you go to the middle of the Westlands Water District (in Fresno and Kings Counties) and it’s just nothing. That seems like a distinctly rural area and there’s nothing urban close to there, even with all the growth and everything projecting.

I was going to say, though, that I do think that there are implications for rural communities. For the last several decades, rural people have felt separate and of a different culture. And there has been an animosity, even, between urban culture and rural culture. And I think that there has been a sense of competition. What’s gone on in the Midwest with the red states and the blue states—you can see that in California in microcosm. Here we have rural counties and urban counties.

SK: Right. So I think part of the reintegration is actually going to come from the cities, urban centers re-appreciating rural communities, reawakening to their contributions. Things like the slow food movement, other things like that, are an awakening to the value of rural people. That could change the dynamic., So the implication is that the rural people who live in those communities far away, but who are integral to the survival of the cities, will begin to reimagine how they can have a more friendly relationship. That is, meet demand from the cities around production techniques, practices, moving to sustainability, and it won’t be antagonistic anymore. It will be, “OK, you’re doing this for us; we’ll do this for you.” That kind of relationship can emerge. I’m seeing it happen.

Going back to your question about communities—if you go to Ventura County, the farmers and the urban people in that community have been working since 1999 to come up with a framework of how they can collaborate on the future of agriculture. It’s emerging now. And there are other communities where that’s happening in the state, beginning to.

PD: What about Salinas and Monterey County?

SK: It’s difficult down there because what you have is a group of old-line conceptual farmers who are thinking that they can win through the ballot box. And then you have a group of environmentalists who think they can win through the ballot box. So you have conflict there. But it’s a stalemate. So eventually they’re both going to get tired and realize it’s incredibly expensive and a waste. And they’re going to start to talk, I believe.

Clearly there have to be other ways the farmers are compensated for other things they’re providing. There needs to be much more risk shared than is currently shared.

RW: So let’s take Napa Valley or Sonoma as an example. Here we have all this wine tourism and the attraction, once you get off the worst traffic route, is the beautiful landscape. So you’re getting sort of like the Tuscany situation. Is there any way of capturing that economic value to compensate the farmers, who are only getting their crop value primarily?

MD: Rebating the farmers. Rebating for many more values that Sibella has—

SK: Draw on the people to stay for the aesthetics, the beautiful fields, the extraordinary landscape.

RW: Particularly in a place like California, where you’ve got a long, long history of big agriculture. Just in terms of market realities, how do you deal with the fact that to really make it, with all the vicissitudes of ag, there are those who will tell you that, especially here, you need to be a factory farm and be huge? How do you reconcile that with this more idyllic farm?

MD: There are a couple of realities. One is that we were talking about the Farm Bill. The Farm Bill has been structured for the last many decades to support what you’re talking about, the growth of farming operations. And there’s been considerably less—magnitudes less—investment in the maintenance of mid-size or smaller farms because this split—urban/rural—made it real easy. It’s a binary system. Big operations in the rural zones are easier to manage. So as that concept changes and there’s more of a sense of integration between the two worlds, there will be a lot more room for diversity of farms, for one thing.

PD: So what would a Farm Bill do concretely? What would you want it to do?

MD: Well, there are lots of things that are emerging now. For instance, the concept of creating monies to build off the idea of appellations (growing region labels), so that there would be a lot more commodities besides wine grapes that could be included in these appellations. There could be other value-added things like cheeses. So that communities of small farmers could maximize the value of their crops by having some sort of a governmental structure as a way to start funding. Coming from the state or from the feds, this would allow them to build these structures, like they have done in Europe.

That creates a network or a framework for social networks, business entrepreneurs, to work together to maximize the value of their crop, to build other things off of that: festivals, tourism, related things. So that’s one example of things. It’s already happening, actually. Whether the Farm Bill supports this or not, eventually it will emerge. But the Farm Bill is a mechanism for speeding those things up.

SK: There are some real group-force things that can be done. But I don’t know that it will ever happen because I don’t think the lobbyists will let it happen. Still, we should start charging for the environmental problems that the large farms make. It’s sort of like setting up a carbon market: if you’re going to use this, you’ve got to pay this. And maybe it goes to the small farmers.

HF: So you start favoring environmentally sustainable or environmentally benign practices rather than some of these other ones. And I’m sure there are smart people who know about that. I’m not a farmer and I don’t know about the Farm Bill and I don’t know farming at all. But it just seems to me that with one big idea like that, you could completely invert the whole system.

PD: Different incentives?

SK: It’s going to start with the highest functioning networks, in places like Ventura or in the city of Davis that now has a new green belt initiative in which they’re giving small farmers incentive to locate there. There’s also a potential collaboration between Global Metropolitan Studies and the Agriculture Metropolitan Edge and SACOG, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. That’s already got a blueprint in place that they’re starting to implement.

RW: But I want to build off this a little bit because I think there’s a discrepancy between the big farms and the little farms in the way you were talking about it that doesn’t have to be there either.

MD: This state is a big farming state. It always has been. As your [Wartzman’s] book and others have talked about. But the other interesting thing is that those big farms could be thinking about the smaller farms as their diplomats, as the face of agriculture. And they could be doing a lot more to invest in the health of those small farms as the intermediaries between these urban people and the big industry. And they’ve not thought about it that way. They’ve been thinking, actually, about the opposite. They say, “These guys are a hassle for us” or “They’re unrelated to us.” But it could be seen in a lot larger way if the industry, the large players, began to realize the value of these smaller farms for them.

SK: You could gain compliance in communities by producing what’s called a farm-based code. For example, in the middle of a city you would have a certain regimen about how street trees are planted that’s going to be quite different than the way you do sidewalks. Maybe in a semi-rural area you do not have any sidewalks at all. I think the same thing could be applied to agriculture. In the middle of the city where you have community gardens, it may be the most efficient way to produce and distribute broccoli.

PD: Realistically, then, with mountains to climb, with entrenched interests and mindsets to persuade to change, what are we looking at 20 to 30 years out—if all goes reasonably well?

SK: I’ll give you an example.  Last year I worked on a project in Santa Rosa. This is a project to develop a transit village. My experience in working on that and the range of stakeholders was that there was a real interest in increasing a certain kind of urbanity within Santa Rosa. It didn’t want to style itself as a kind of bedroom community with limited cultural offerings. It really wanted more heterogeneity and more cultural life. A transit stop is a big part of that, connecting to bigger cities to the south. And as you see a city recognizing and wanting to develop its own urbanity, part of that effort is putting more value on preserving spaces around it. If a city sort of empties out where you’ve got nothing in the heart of the city and the action is in the suburbs …

So that’s one of the things that I can see is that these separate Central Valley towns say, “We want more of an urban core.” They’re eventually going to be connected by transit, so that’s the picture I believe, that transit becomes a major mode of transportation throughout the Central Valley, that these cities develop their own identities and their own re-evaluation of the regional farmlands.

MD: There’ll be a lot more integration. Sonoma County, particularly Santa Rosa, treats its water, and that water is pushed back out to the farming communities. Actually, some of the farmers are paid to use it. It irrigates fodder crops, which are used by the dairymen. So there’s a loop there. And then it’s also used by the wineries. Gallo of Sonoma is one of the big users of recycled water for its vineyards, just north between Petaluma and Santa Rosa.

So one thing that we will begin to see more and more is these loops of resource routes between city and urban being closed. Every home in Sonoma County has a big thing to put their garden waste in. It’s collected, it’s composted, and then it’s made available at very low prices to the farms in the community. Then, there are farmers’ markets all over Sonoma County. You’re going to see densities or you’re going to see cities, urban centers, having more and more concentration or links—live links—to the countryside around resources and food.

PD: It sounds like there are pieces of this being done everywhere. But in terms of putting it all together in one place so that it’s not one loop here and one loop here, it’s fully integrated?

MD:That’s where we’re headed. I also think the context of global warming is going to force rapid embracing of what we’re talking about. I’m just reading the governor’s report on global warming. And I’ve spent the last four days in conversations with academics and scientists all around the country talking about global warming and the food system’s impact on global warming.

The food system is going to be the place, the best place, the largest leverage point for dealing with global warming because so much energy goes into it. Twenty percent of the whole nation’s fossil fuel use is in the production of food. Then you have the amount of carbon sequestration that’s lost because of the way we’re farming. There are huge impacts if you focus on the food system, on lowering carbon emissions or greenhouse gas emissions generally. And you see what’s going on in Congress right now around all these bills. The focus is going to be on the food system really soon around that. So that’s going to create a lot of money, focus, energy, intention on rejiggering the system.

PD: Do you, in the broadest sense, see incentives for developers to start to think this way?

SK: By now, green building is no longer a luxury. It is paying for itself and more, and very quickly it’s going to be actually unaffordable to do anything but. And the next big boom in building is apparently going to be in retrofit of buildings. Because if green buildings are in demand, what about all the buildings that aren’t? So then suddenly you have to retrofit. As Michael said with the Farm Bill, they’re kick-starting things in the right direction. This is really a common-sense, economical way to go. 

It is amazing. Part of me is just naturally skeptical, knowing the insurance interests that want to see things go the way they are because they’re profiting off the current system. But things do change. When I look at even things like in L.A., the adaptive reuse that’s going on there in all kinds of buildings. Ten years ago, nobody was thinking that, and now suddenly, the coolest, hippest developers are the ones that figure out how to take one of these old wrecks of places and do something with them. And it’s actually now a market premium, part of the cool factor.

PD: How about a different kind of retrofit? How does some place like Riverside County regain its lost agriculture?

MD: Riverside and Inland Empire is interesting for its pace of growth. I hope you’re going to see a lot more integration of agriculture into the urban core.

In the late ’70s and early ’80s, my grandparents moved from the Oakland hills down to Arizona to a retirement community down there outside Phoenix—Sun City. One of the first things I noticed there were all these farm workers picking the oranges that had been left from the orange orchards that used to be on that property. It used to be an orange farm. They were still harvesting, on an annual basis, the oranges from that property. And I found a guy who was in charge of the crews. He had gotten the lease with Sun City management to continue to harvest.

I can imagine a time when that is happening on a much larger scale around cities. I mean, in San Francisco, for instance, there’s a big hospital—Laguna Honda—that is developing a farm and gardens for two purposes—food for the system within the hospital and also a planned environment for the people that are in the hospital.

From the May June 2007 New Food and Farming issue of California.

Share this article