Urban-edge farms give new life to Santa Clara

From AgAlert, California Farm Bureau Federation

November 26, 2014, by Bob Johnson

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Sibella Kraus Coyote Valley Chile Peppers

Sibella Kraus, president of Sustainable Agriculture Education and project director of Revitalizing Specialty Crop Agriculture in the Coyote Valley, and Bill Fujimoto, market consultant and treasurer of SAGE, visit a Coyote Valley pepper field. Photo/Bob Johnson

In the shadow of Google and Apple, there may yet be room for a revival of agriculture in one part of Santa Clara County.

A diverse coalition is involved in an effort to bring fruit and vegetable production back to the Coyote Valley area between San Jose and Morgan Hill, including the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau and the county agricultural commissioner, the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, the local Resource Conservation Service, and numerous groups committed to preserving open space in Silicon Valley.

“The vision many people have for the Coyote Valley is that it would be revived as a food belt for San Jose and Morgan Hill,” said Sibella Kraus, president of Sustainable Agriculture Education, or SAGE. “We see urbanedge agriculture as critical for the cities.”

The project, called Sustaining Agriculture and Conservation in the Coyote Valley, is being managed by SAGE, a non-profit that specializes in bringing together agricultural, governmental and environmental groups to develop and sustain urban-edge agriculture.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture is helping finance this attempt to promote expanded specialty crop farming on the edges of urban development in Santa Clara County.

“We are trying to increase specialty crop acreage in the Coyote Valley, increase opportunities for existing specialty crop growers and increase sales to local markets,” Kraus said.

She discussed the effort with the farmers and others who came to the UC Cooperative Extension pepper variety trial on a Uesugi Farms field just outside Morgan Hill in the Coyote Valley.

The peach and apricot orchards that once supplied local canneries in Santa Clara County, called the “Valley of the Heart’s Delight,” are largely gone but the county still produces crops worth more than a quarter billion dollars annually.

“There are 75 varieties of peppers grown in Santa Clara County, and we are fourth in the nation in bell pepper production,” said Santa Clara County Agricultural Commissioner Joseph Deviney. “People in San Jose don’t know what’s going on down here.”

The apricot and cherry orchards that once flourished have been reduced to barely over a thousand acres, but there is still significant production of other specialty crops, including mushrooms.

Coyote Valley chile peppers

Photo of peppers that are ready to be harvested. Photo/Bob Johnson

“Santa Clara County is No. 2 in mushrooms in the state, and No. 3 in bell peppers,” Deviney said. “I am trying to remind people how much agriculture is still going on in Santa Clara County. I worked in Contra Costa County for 24 years, and I jumped at the opportunity to come to a place with four times as much agriculture.”

Even experienced farmers in the area can be taken aback by the size of the local harvest.

“It surprised me at first when Joe (Deviney) told me we were fourth in the nation in bell peppers, but it makes sense,” said Pete Aiello, general manager of Uesugi Farms. “The climate here is perfect; it gets warm in the day, but cools at night.”

The Aiello family has farmed in the Coyote Valley area for 35 years. Shortly after graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, his father began working with local pioneer pepper grower George Uesugi.

“We see a bright future in pepper production. Demand has done nothing but increase for 35 years,” Aiello said.

The goals of Sustaining Agriculture and Conservation in the Coyote Valley include increasing agritourism and marketing specialty crops grown in the area to nearby city residents.

SAGE treasurer and board member Bill Fujimoto is a marketing consultant for farm products throughout the greater Bay Area.

“The people I talk to, mostly specialty restaurants and a few higher-end markets, are interested in fresh and grown well,” Fujimoto said.

Sustaining Agriculture and Conservation in the Coyote Valley faces its most severe challenge in finding ground for specialty crops that isn’t already taken.

“There is more demand for land than there is supply,” Kraus put it succinctly.

Less than a decade ago, planners eyed the 7,400-acre stretch of land between San Jose and Morgan Hill for future development, but current plans call for open space and agriculture. This shift in official thinking about Coyote Valley makes it feasible to pursue converting fallow and hay acreage to specialty crop production.

Uesugi Farms is able to lease the 37-acre field used for the most recent pepper trials at rates far lower than are common in the nearby Salinas and Pajaro valleys because strong planning restrictions make development impossible, at least for now.

Coyote Valley pepper fields

Pepper fields like this one propel Santa Clara County into its position as one of the nation’s top counties in pepper production. Photo/Bob Johnson

But Uesugi general manager Aiello said he wonders what would happen to Coyote Valley agricultural rents if state and local governments decide they can no longer afford to continue Williamson Act contracts, which give landowners reduced property taxes in exchange for keeping their land in agriculture.

Water might be available for Coyote Valley specialty crops, because the Santa Clara Valley Water District is building a recycling facility in San Jose capable of treating 8 million gallons of water a day to the point that it is fit for reuse.

“The water district is producing more high quality reusable water than it has use for,” Kraus said.

Wastewater plants in nearby Watsonville and Marina are already responding to shortages by releasing highly treated water for use in Pajaro and Salinas Valley fields, and a similar program seems feasible in the Coyote Valley, she said.


(Bob Johnson is a reporter in Santa Cruz. He may be contacted at bjohn11135@aol.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.

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