Jeremy Bagott | Silicon Valley disrupts Watsonville fungi farmer


By JEREMY BAGOTT

After changing the way we buy books, music and movie tickets, the Silicon Valley is now disrupting some of the most fertile irrigated farmland in the nation.

As red tape and NIMBYism crimp the housing supply in the Silicon Valley, techies push into farm country in southern Santa Clara County, where the assault on ag has been ferocious. Over the past three decades, the county has lost an estimated 21,200 acres of prime farmland to development.

One cherry farmer says his harvest is now being ruined by reflected heat; a Watsonville-based mushroom man is doing battle with the climate and with a publicity-seeking district attorney based in San Jose. Meanwhile, a large family-owned vegetable grower just announced it has harvested its last.

As recently as the mid-20th century, the county was a food-production powerhouse, with dozens of canneries and packing houses. Farmers grew carrots, tomatoes, apricots, prunes, walnuts, almonds, cherries and pears for the world.

Now, decades of microchip production have left the north with 23 federal Superfund cleanup sites. Equally toxic are the sky-high home prices that force workers to wander into the remaining farming areas in the south looking for housing. Now, county supervisors will fork out $20 million to start a farm preservation program to buy future development rights on farmland, lest the remaining farmers get any funny ideas.

Uesugi Farms, which grew more than 20 types of fresh produce, employed 250 seasonal workers and a permanent staff of 50, announced it had harvested its last head of Napa cabbage in January.

“Heirloomed” is a word being used in some corners of ag. Stone-fruit farmer Andy Mariani’s 60-acre orchard is getting heirloomed. Newcomers want his orchard there. It’s part of the expectation of moneyed captains of tech who imagine themselves living out a sumptuous operetta in the countryside, far from life in Sunnyvale and Mountain View (but within commuting distance). One interloper driving by in a Porsche suggested to Mariani that his orchard be used for education and outreach.

The development of buildings nearby is causing problems.

“The heat radiating from them has caused winters to be too mild to produce adequate crops. In fact, we’ve had only one good cherry crop in the last five years,” Mariani said.

To be fair, ag’s problem isn’t just techies. The state’s generous minimum wage progression, mandated overtime on the farm patch and a carbon cap-and-trade scheme have pushed up costs on farmers, while globalized markets keep prices low. Here, farmers are price-takers, not price-makers.

Then there’s the aforementioned mushroom farming, the least sexy of any type of farming. The newcomers don’t like it.

Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen, perhaps tired of hearing how his office’s 196 deputy D.A.s prosecute the county’s Latinos and African-Americans at a far higher rate than whites, is now salivating to mount the head of a buttery-jowled “corporate polluter” on his wall. Never mind that the corporate polluter is a mushroom farmer.

Monterey Mushrooms’ Bruce Knobeloch contends, “catastrophic winter storms” caused the runoff the D.A.’s office claims was purposely pumped into a creek. Knobeloch said he was working with the county when he was blindsided by a $67 million lawsuit from the D.A.’s environmental unit. This is a common theme.

Farms get pounded by unprecedented climate events and then get pounded by politicians seeking to burnish their image as eco-crusaders. The latter sometimes kowtow to wealthy newcomers who build estates in farming areas and use such events as a pretext to push out messy ag operations. Mushroom farming, which uses chicken guano and soiled hay from mucked-out horse stalls, is, if nothing else, messy.

The suit stems from an “atmospheric river” of winter storms in late 2016 and early 2017, which caused Coyote Creek to overflow and flood areas within Santa Clara County.

Meanwhile, at froufrou bistros and trattorias in San Jose, assistant planners and workers at the county auditor-controller’s office bite into glistening portobello mushroom burgers without the slightest thought about the risks and mess of farming the fungal fruiting body.

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Jeremy Bagott is a real estate appraiser and author of “Guaconomics: Dipping a Chip into America’s Besieged Party Bowl.” His opinions are his own and not necessarily those of the Register-Pajaronian.

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