By Melissae Fellet
Part 1 (see part 2)
Nestled in a forested valley in Pescadero and surrounded by 20,000 acres of open space and parkland, Ned Conwell’s farm looks more like a park than agricultural land.
“We don’t have many agricultural neighbors,” Conwell says. “We’re certified organic, so we don’t haven any drift issues or contamination issues. It’s a very, very clean place to grow food, which is pretty cool.”
Much of the land along the coast of the San Francisco Peninsula is protected as state parks and open spaces. Often this land is conserved by private nonprofit organizations called land trusts.
It’s common to think of these land trusts as preserving natural resources like habitats, pristine rivers and endangered species. But many groups also conserve land for another purpose: agriculture. And in doing so, these organizations are creating new ways for humans to interact with nature.
“The food that we eat is a natural resource,” says Paul Ringold, vice president for stewardship at Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST). “It’s something that comes from the land.”
POST, a land trust based in Palo Alto, has protected more than 70,000 acres of land along the San Francisco Peninsula and Santa Cruz Mountains since 1977.
“We think that keeping local farms in business is part and parcel of a smart conservation ethic,” Ringgold says. “For that reason, we’ve always had agriculture as part of our mission and now are looking to really bolster that and to make it a real active part of our mission.”
Peninsula Open Space Trust currently leases land to seven farmers, including Conwell, and four ranchers. The organization also holds conservation rights to other agricultural land that prevents the fields from being covered with condos or other development.
Looking back at the history of Silicon Valley, we can see how agricultural land ended up in the hands of these conservation organizations. Before it earned the nickname Silicon Valley, the rich agricultural region was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight. Orchards there were paved over to support the growing population, and conservation organizations rushed to purchase remaining undeveloped land along the coast. Some of those parcels were wilderness, others were historic grazing lands or farming lands.
Fast forward to the local and organic food movement today, says Conwell. There’s a resurgence of farming as a viable lifestyle, and a recognition that local food systems can feed adjacent urban populations, he adds.
Conservation organizations are welcoming farmers onto their land. Some state parks, like Wilder Ranch in Santa Cruz, have leased land to farmers for more than a decade. And Conwell says that increasingly land trusts and other state organizations are doing the same.
They are beginning to recognize that their conservation goals and maybe even their recreation goals are compatible with, and possibly enhance, their agricultural goals, he says.
And the land trusts that are doing this well are able to engage the public in a whole new way, says Jessy Beckett, who serves on the board of Sacred Community Land Trust, a new land trust in Silicon Valley. If you think of a park as a fenced off area, she says, people only experience wilderness based on what they see from a hiking trail.
“But when you have agriculture, you have people who are intimately working with that landscape everyday,” Beckett says. “I think that’s a much bigger teaching moment, when you can have people go out and taste part of what that land is, or have a dinner that overlooks a field.”