By Todd R. Hansen
The Nut Tree started as a fruit stand and became an international destination that helped put Vacaville and Solano County on the map – the tourist-spending map.
Without some flexibility built into the agriculture industry, that progress may have never happened. Still, there has long been a noisy debate in Solano County about what defines agricultural tourism, and how to set the boundaries.
“We already have pushback from people who live out there,” Lisa Howard, part of a winemaking family in Suisun Valley, told the Board of Supervisors at its Feb. 1 meeting.
The reference is to often longtime residents who bought their homes to live in the country setting, and are now watching concert and special event facilities, tourist rental homes and what they see as business and commercial interests coming into their rural residential neighborhoods. And with that influx of “ag-tourism” comes more noise, more traffic and less of the lifestyle they covet.
Ironically, it is now some of those ag-tourism interests that are concerned that the door is being opened too wide.
Howard and other members of the agriculture community want to make sure the county defines what ag-tourism is not – such as billiards, carnivals and amusement and water parks and general entertainment that does not promote ag producers like the concerts and other events do at the wineries of Suisun Valley.
The Solano County Farm Bureau and other agricultural interests also want to make sure the proposed language for the amended zoning ordinance is precise enough so it cannot be interpreted in the future differently than how it is interpreted now because of the well-worn paths of the industry.
Sean Favero, president of the Farm Bureau, said he believes the proposed changes are significant enough to warrant a full environmental review.
“The concerns and feedback we are getting is we are making more than technical changes,” Favero told the board.
Those issues and others are why the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday will not vote on the text changes for agriculture zones, and instead deal only with the changes in the text related to the highway-commercial zones.
The zoning issues were separated in part because there are things “we are looking at,” Supervisor Jim Spering said at the last meeting about the highway-commercial corridors.
Spering, in a phone interview Friday, said there is not a specific project being touted, but rather the county wants to identify the areas in the unincorporated area that could be utilized for economic development, and paired with housing options that could serve that area’s workforce.
He said there are some larger intersections that would be ideal to have collaborated county-city projects, and noted business parks that are underutilized as well.
A public hearing on the ag zones will be scheduled down the road after the county and agricultural interests can come to an understanding on the text changes.
But the discussion that has led up to this point is far broader and reflects the changes in the agricultural sector, from how traditional farming practices are changing to the varied looks of agriculture tourism to regulations that can force changes – wanted or not.
Supervisor John Vasquez points to two uniquely different examples of that.
The first is the revolution of greenhouse farming with operations such as Gotham Greens, which produces lettuce in greenhouses on 2 acres, what traditional field farming produces on 50 acres – and uses far less water to do so.
There is also the prospect of reintroducing crops to Solano County that have not been grown in the region for a long time, further diversifying the agriculture industry in the county.
It is that diversity, with more than 100 commodities, that officials say has kept ag healthy in Solano.
“I think we have tremendous diversity and a lot that is dictated by the landscape,” said Agriculture Commissioner Ed King, explaining that different areas of the county allow for different crops or livestock.
While economic development outreach is not part of his mission, he noted there are more than 20,000 acres of almonds in the county, but very little is processed in Solano.
“Almost all of that leaves the county to be processed or is exported,” King said.
Being able to expand that part of the agriculture industry “would be an asset to the county,” and zoning has to be part of that.
One of the primary reasons for the text changes is to bring the county codes in line with state codes. That includes recognizing greenhouse farming as farming and therefore opening up ag zones to the practice.
The debate rises up when the issue of whether such operations need to be in agriculture zones, and possibly take up prime ag land, when they could equally operate in industrial-level or commercial zones, or even urban settings.
After all, Gotham Greens was born in Brooklyn, New York, and is self-described as a “fresh food and urban agricultural company.”
The local operation is located on 10 acres off Interstate 80 on the Solano side of the Solano-Yolo county border near the University of California, Davis. The company is looking to expand that operation, Vasquez said.
The increasing role, but always present part research and education has played in the agriculture industry – such as universities like UC Davis – is also part of the text changes. The new language equates education and research, so both uses can be included in the same zones.
The other example Vasquez has raised during the recent discussions is regulations that will soon change how farmers, and specifically orchardists, can dispose of their prunings and other waste. Burning, as it did in the California rice industry 30 years ago, will not be allowed by 2025.
Vasquez said the county must look at zoning uses to accommodate biomass and related industries into traditional agricultural areas.
“We are doing a really good job of telling you what you can’t do instead of what you can do,” Vasquez said. He said he wants zoning language that is more affirmative.
Vasquez is working to locate a biomass company in Solano, a firm he said had walked away from the county once before, so time is of the essence.
“They do a lot of grinding already . . . and ships a lot of material out to Asia through the Port of Stockton and Alameda,” Vasquez said.
He said almonds are the county’s biggest crop, “so I assume we are going to have a long stream for decades to come.”
Vasquez also noted there are opportunities to partner with energy firms, such as MCE, to capture methane gas, something bio-digesters are already doing, adding there is one company that also is looking at Solano.
Cattleman Jeff Dittmer had other concerns with the proposed language changes. He did not think the wording was precise enough and was concerned that in the proposal, the barn in which he stores hay for his cattle, but is grown at another of his farming sites, could somehow be considered an agriculture processing facility.
“There seems to be a misunderstanding that farms are on contiguous parcels,” Dittmer said.
He is less concerned that current county officials will view it that way, but what about in the future when others are interpreting what the codes say. There were other similar examples offered up during the recent supervisors’ meeting.
“It needs some tweaking before it is ready for prime time,” Dittmer said of the code.
Allowing workforce housing in agricultural zones is another part of the proposal, something Vasquez argues is very much needed, and he is not referring to the old-style migrant and labor camps that have nearly become obsolete.
Still hanging over the whole of the topic is agriculture tourism.
Restaurants, cafes, bakeries and even retail stores are proposed uses for the agri-tourism areas of the county.
The line is thinly drawn, disallowing special events that do not promote agriculture in some way, but allowing what is separately defined as marketing events – including weddings, as an example – when those events promote agricultural interests such as wineries.
In the end, Vasquez said the purpose was to give agriculture interests more flexibility to work within the changing environment of farming and related industries. But there are agricultural interests that do not want those uses to go too far afield.
And what Suisun Valley wants can be very different than what Pleasants Valley wants.