By Johnny Magdaleno
SAN MARTIN, California - With a swipe of his harvesting knife, Sam Thorpe frees a handful of spinach from its roots in the soil.
"In the winter it's so sweet it's like candy," he says, examining the small yield in his palm.
For the past four years, Thorpe and his family have built a reputation among Silicon Valley restaurateurs and farmers markets for the rich, organic produce they grow as Spade & Plow.
But as the business grows, the land itself is shrinking. A few months ago the owner reduced Spade & Plow's plot from 33 acres to just 16.
The same owner also just sold another farmland parcel to developers, leading Thorpe and his family to think hard before planting any long-term crops.
"Even though the property we're farming on doesn't face immediate threat of development, we're still feeling the (pressure)," said Thorpe.
To help farmers like him, Santa Clara County — home of tech haven Silicon Valley — is purchasing local farmland at market rates to ensure its future in agriculture, a process known as the agricultural easement.
The new initiative, so far involving just a handful of landowners, is part of a larger county-wide agricultural preservation program partially funded by greenhouse gas taxes from the state.
Similar easements have helped preserve more than 5 million acres nationwide. Sacramento County, home to California's capital, has included agricultural easements in its general plan since at least the early 1990s.
Thorpe and his family have wanted to purchase farmland in Silicon Valley since they started in 2015.
"We're really looking for something long term, and we wouldn't be able to afford something in the area without an agricultural easement," he explained.
County officials say it could take up to $500 million to preserve 12,000 acres of farmland in one of the country's priciest real estate markets.
"We're talking about Silicon Valley," noted Keali'i Bright, a deputy director at the California Department of Conservation, addressing the area's vast wealth.
"Development pressures are extremely high, and anybody could develop their farm or ranch pretty quickly," he said of the area best known as home to major tech companies like Apple and Facebook.
Santa Clara Valley agriculture still supports 8,100 jobs, adding $830 million annually to the region's economy. But in 30 years, the county has lost more than 21,100 farmland acres to non-agricultural uses like buildings and housing.
Jenny Li, whose family has farmed here for 40 years, has struggled to find land that is both high-quality and affordable.
Once the lease on her family's 20-acre farm ends in February, the future is uncertain.
"Is he (the landowner) going to increase the rent? Or is he deciding to just sell it?" Li wondered. "If that is the case, we don't know if the business will continue."
PROTECT FARMLAND, PREVENT SPRAWL
The Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation program — the state initiative helping fund Santa Clara County's effort — has provided grant money to protect 90,700 acres of fertile land since starting in 2014.
Potential benefits of the program extend beyond land preservation, including cutting greenhouse gas emissions.
"You protect farmland and that prevents sprawl, and the prevention of sprawl takes more cars off the road or at least has them driving less," said Michael Meehan, a Santa Clara County planner.
By purchasing the rights to farmland and designating it for agricultural use, its development potential drops, along with its value. Meehan likens it to constructing an apartment building and designating it for affordable housing.
Officials expect the benefits to reach all farmers, not just those who participate, by virtue of deregulation of agricultural employee housing and incentives for carbon neutral farming, plus other eco-conscious services.
$20 MILLION A YEAR
David Cortese, a member of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors, said start-up funds are in place, but with about $20 million needed each year the future is uncertain.
One model they may look at is taking a few cents from each dollar of property tax, the county's main revenue source, to fund a trust - a move which voters would need to approve.
"You literally take $20 million right off the top of property tax," Cortese explained.
Tom Daniels, a land management professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said Santa Clara County is on the right path.
Its efforts are in line with what Suffolk County in New York did to preserve nearly 20,000 farm acres, he added: partner with local governments and non-governmental organizations like land trusts, which can collect private donations.
Despite the steep tab to preserve Santa Clara County land, "you also have an awful lot of wealth there," Daniels said.
Federal officials are also keen on the program.
"There's only so many conservation dollars to go around and really if we can focus that in specific areas to kind of build these ag reserves, you're better off in the long run," said Dean Kwasny, a U.S. Department of Agriculture easement specialist.
"The last thing we want to see is that we purchase 250 acres in (a county and) it ends up being developed all around it."
FINDING THE RIGHT PRICE
Chris Borello, who with his family owns a cherry grove in Morgan Hill and other properties, is both hopeful and skeptical about the program, for which he is applying.
He does not think the market rate is the appropriate price.
"If the county as a whole says 'agricultural land is important to us and we want to keep farmers here and we want to buy their development rights,' then they need to pony up and pay an amount that motivates people," said Borello.
The county should factor in what he could make selling to a developer, he added.
"This is really a business that I enjoy doing, but I need to be profitable," said Borello, whose family recently sold 120 acres of farmland to housing developers.
Cortese said the county is willing to negotiate with landowners.
If funds come through and negotiations succeed, the promise of Silicon Valley that first attracted Avery Ruzicka, head baker at Manresa Bread and a James Beard award finalist, could be preserved.
Ruzicka is launching a series of dining events at her locations in the county to showcase the produce of Spade & Plow and other local organic farmers, "to say, 'look at this, this is incredible.'"
"Look at this beautiful bounty," Ruzicka enthused, adding, "This is not necessarily what you'd find in the rest of the country."
Funding for this story was provided by the Solutions Journalism Network.