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Life on the Farm

Columnist: Mike Martini
October, 2014 Issue

Mike Martini
All articles by columnist

All successful farmers know the delicate dance one must do with the environment to succeed and pass the land on to their families.

As I write this, we’re in the midst of summertime in Sonoma County: warm days, cool nights and no bugs! I’d add no humidity but the last couple days got a little muggy. Not New Orleans muggy, but enough to remind me why I came here. School is out, traffic is lighter and, while we plan vacations, we realize we’re living in a world-class resort.
Summer brings back memories of youth. School is out for a couple of months and you try to break the record for consecutive days without shoes. Then abruptly it ends and you must cram a summer reading list into the last night. I never did master that one.
It wasn’t always that way. Summer vacation is partially the result of a concession by policy wonks intent on mandatory primary education. A break was needed so the kids could help out on the farm.
As it turned out, the lesson learned was that farming is hard. The agrarian economy transitioned to an industrial one. People left the farm in droves for urban areas and manufacturing jobs. Not easy work, but certainly more predictable than farming.
Farming is subject to so many things outside of your control. The word “agriculture” comes from Latin for “God, you screwed me again.” When your harvest is good, so is your neighbor’s, and prices are driven down by supply. Prices rise when harvest is light but you have little to sell. You can work hard and smart, yet still be devastated by weather.
Fortunately, Sonoma County is blessed with a vibrant agricultural economy supported by dedicated individuals. They’re committed to the land and what it provides to the community. They welcome the hard work and uncertainty for the pride that comes as a result of their efforts.
Agriculture pumps billions into the local economy. The recent Sonoma County Crop Report points out that “our wine industry farms just 6 percent of the county’s land mass but generates $14 billion in economic value for the county.” While wine grapes constitute the largest sector, there also is considerable contribution from dairy, poultry, vegetables and nursery. Everyone living in Sonoma County knows someone working in “ag.” All of the support businesses benefit and the draw of internationally recognized products brings in millions in tourism dollars.
The majority of agricultural activity in the county is all in the family. According to Sonoma County Winegrowers, approximately 86 percent of vineyards are family. Even the largest operations, like Gallo and Kendall-Jackson, are still essentially family run. But the majority of vineyards are small businesses, with an average size of 40 acres.
The really good news is that the kids are staying home. Successful 4-H and Future Farmers of America programs are at many of the local schools. The prominent names like Sangiacomo, Benziger, Dutton and Ledbetter have second-generation leadership, with the third waiting in the wings. For some, like Hopkins River Ranch, the second generation is expanding out from wine grapes to organic vegetables.
If the word “agriculture” comes from Latin, then the word “farming” comes from Greek, meaning sustainability. All successful farmers know the delicate dance one must do with the environment to succeed and pass the land on to their families. It’s no different in Sonoma County, where every grower is committed to leaving the land better than he or she found it. They’re focused on preserving and protecting their land for future generations. The Sonoma County Grape Growers are leaders in the California Sustainable Winegrowing program.
As you read this, we’re in the middle of harvest. It’s opening day for the ag community. Everyone is in first place, filled with excitement to see what the season will bring and ever-optimistic that this year will be great. There will be great days, there will be bad ones. Equipment will break and nerves will fray. At the end, we’ll all come together to raise a toast to what the earth has given us. We’ll break bread and sip wine talking about what next year may bring.




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