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Sonoma County Agriculture: Our Economy, Identity and Future

Columnist: Shirlee Zane
July, 2017 Issue

Shirlee Zane
All articles by columnist


Agriculture and the landscapes are consistently cited among the top reasons people are drawn to Sonoma County. These are the same reasons I built my life here in Sonoma County. I married into a Healdsburg-area grape growing family and the rest, as they say, is history. I consider the county’s agricultural heritage to be a big part of my own identity.

Sonoma County agriculture has long been recognized as one of our leading business sectors, boasting a total production value of $756 million based on recent data. The drought lowered the value by 14 percent compared to its 2014 high of nearly $900 million. With the record rainfall this year, I’m optimistic that we might see a rebound.

Production is attributed primarily to winegrapes, milk, poultry, cattle, nursery products and vegetables but there’s more to the story. 

Economic value

Agriculture’s history in Sonoma County is also an economic history. Dairy, poultry, eggs, sheep, and cattle remain foundational farming and ranching alongside of grapes for wine. The 2015 Crop Report from the Agricultural Commissioner suggests that winegrapes and milk provide more than $565 million of agricultural value to Sonoma County’s economy, representing slightly more than 2 percent of the total. The total value of agriculture production in 2015 was slightly below $757 million, or just under 3 percent of the County’s overall economy.

The value of Sonoma County agriculture is more significant than this one number would indicate. Because a farmer’s products are generally used in other products or services, there’s value added to Sonoma County agriculture by wineries, restaurants, bakeries, grocery stores, and many other types of businesses. This economic impact defines the true economic reach of local agriculture.

Sonoma County converts the $757 million in ag value into $1.175 billion in economic impact, including $512 million in wages and salaries, and more than 9,670 jobs based on 2015 data. Sonoma County is the 14th largest ag county in the state in terms of farmer and rancher revenues, according to the 2015 Bureau of Economic Analysis. For the record, this number is 75 percent larger than Napa County. Sonoma County’s agricultural influence is a testament to its history and future.

New ventures

Sonoma County’s working landscapes, which include rangelands, forests, agricultural lands, wetlands and grasslands, present one of the best areas for investment to address climate change. The complete potential of these landscapes can be overlooked because it can be difficult to quantify their biophysical and economic values.

Complementary values from agriculture include neighbors who benefit from open viewscapes, clean water and air, and carbon sequestration, among others. Without considering the multiple layers of benefits provided by agriculture we tend to underestimate the complete value derived from these working landscapes and the economic benefits they return to local communities.

Methods to recognize and measure the multiple benefits from working landscape’s goods and services are needed; the economic value of these landscapes and related ecosystem services must be considered in land use decisions and infrastructure planning as we prepare for the future.

More and more, visitors to Sonoma County are interested in getting their hands dirty. These are activity-motivated tourists such as cyclists who come because of its reputation for bountiful agriculture and local beauty. In response, the Sonoma County Tourism Board has stated the need to provide additional opportunities for visitors to more fully experience the county, which would likely result in longer stays and a stronger appreciation for working landscapes.

A new idea from the UC Cooperative extension—building capacity through agri-tourism itineraries—partners with established tourism groups to create enhanced opportunities for local ag operators. Itineraries pair visitors with local farmers and ranchers providing hands-on activities such as milking cows, making bread, food-wine pairings, hiking and picnicking and more.

These experiences create “itinerary trails” that are promoted through the Tourism Board and made available to tourism professionals. In addition to wineries, visitors have options to tour farms, gardens, dairies, and ranches, perhaps ending their day at a restaurant that serves local foodstuffs such as vegetables, fruits, dairy and meat. Additional offerings could include activities such as sheep-shearing, spinning and weaving. The possibilities are endless once the format is set.

The future of agriculture

We all have a stake in preserving Sonoma County’s agricultural character, so farmers and ranchers are prepared for the inevitable challenges inherent in the business.

In California, there are fewer people choosing agriculture as career, and with the average age of producers nearing 60, the future of local agriculture is in jeopardy. Now is the time to support our agricultural businesses, ensuring that our cultural heritage remains a sustainable industry.


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