Terra Firma Farm is technically located in Winters, which is a town in Yolo County. But most of the land we farm as well as our packing facilities reside in Solano County, just south of Putah Creek from Winters proper. We started out farming exclusively in Yolo County, but over the years we have moved about 80% of our production over the county line. We like it here.
Solano County is actually part of the Bay Area, since it includes the bay-front cities of Vallejo and Benicia, but it reaches to within a dozen miles of Sacramento and is also home to Fairfield, Vacaville and Dixon as well as a number of smaller towns. It is a sprawling and geographically diverse place that includes 100 miles of Delta frontage, a large section of the Coast Range and a big slice of high quality farmland. It has its own local water supply, Lake Berryessa, that provides water for both its cities and its farms. Millions of people drive through it every day on I-80 without stopping, headed someplace else. Most know little or nothing about our county.
That status changed this week with a series of stories on the front page of the New York Times and many other region and national media outlets. Not about Solano’s population or geography, but about a group of secretive real estate investors from Silicon Valley called “Flannery and Associates” who have been buying up farmland in a lightly populated corner of the county with plans to build an entirely new city here. Never mind that the investors have never spoken to a single state, county or local elected or appointed official about their plans. The first anyone heard about them locally was when they started suing landowners for supposedly conspiring to fix prices on the land they were offering to purchase. Not a great way to introduce yourself to your new neighbors.
First things first: the area in question is essentially nowhere near Terra Firma — or anywhere else, really. It’s about 30 miles south of us along Hwy 12 in a part of the county where windswept rolling hills are covered with wind-generators and planted with dry-farmed grain or grazed by livestock. The lower-value nature of those crops means the land has even lower value than irrigated cropland, which almost certainly grabbed the attention of the investors who were able to buy up tens of thousands of acres on the cheap. But anywhere in Solano County — or most other rural counties — where large blocks of land remain in agriculture, they are intentionally zoned for farming, which keeps their value lower than land closer to urban areas. We farm land less than a mile south of downtown Winters whose value is a tiny fraction of that of land in town.
Farmland preservation through restrictive zoning is supported by a broad and deep coalition of interests bookended by farmers and environmentalists who often disagree on other issues. Most if not all areas of California that still support agriculture are zoned at least “A-20”, which means only one house can be built on a twenty acre parcel. Many areas have even more restrictive zoning. People who live and work in these areas are completely familiar with this concept and understand that any less restrictive zoning will end up converting an area to “Ex-urban” sprawl that is not conducive to providing abundant housing nor to efficient agriculture.
Urbanites, on the other hand, may drive through places like rural Winters or Hwy 12 in Solano County and think “Wow, there is so much ‘unused’ space here, someone should build houses!” If they look up land prices in the area, they are usually astonished at ‘how inexpensive’ it is. I know this because I have driven around Winters with friends from the city who have vocalized these exact sentiments. And I have had to explain to them why land costs so much less in rural areas than in the city.
Occasionally, someone from an urban area does actually buy a piece of farmland in this area for the purpose of building a house. More and more often, this happens over the internet, which means the buyer is responsible for their own due diligence. Sometimes they do it, sometimes not. But often enough, the new landowner finds themselves going through a difficult and expensive learning curve. Their property may not have electricity. It may not have water. It may not have a septic system. Each of these must be permitted, installed and paid for before any building can begin on the property. And then, they find out that they can’t build a house, or they can only build one house when they wanted to build two or three. Yolo County, which has similar laws as Solano protecting farmland from development, recently forced a new property owner in Winters to tear down one of the two houses they had built without permits.
Flannery and Associates, a group of extremely wealthy tech industry investors, fit this paradigm, but on a massive scale. Despite the size of their investment, they did no due diligence. If they had, they might have gotten some advice about how one goes about creating a brand new city in California. That there is a defined process for doing so. That there are state laws governing the process, and agencies called Local Agency Formation Commissions (LAFCOs) that oversee it. It is an expensive and time-consuming process that can take decades. The more common and commonsense approach is to expand existing cities through annexation of adjacent unincorporated land using existing local planning agencies and ordinances. Even then, the process is slow, complicated and highly regulated.
But Flannery & Associates did not discuss their project with anyone. Their entire scheme was predicated on fleecing unknowing rural landowners by keeping their intentions secret and bullying anyone who didn’t sell. They now claim they want to create an exciting new city and provide much-needed housing, but their primary goal was clearly making an enormous profit. If they had followed the traditional path and gone through the long, expensive and time-consuming process of getting their plans approved, they would have had to pay far more for the land they were buying.
In the short-term, Flannery likely has made a terrible investment that is unlikely to yield them anything close to the fabulous profits that they projected to their investors. But once farmland is sold for more than it is worth, it is rarely used for agriculture again. The absentee owners will sit on their investment in the hope that one day it will recoup their cost, rather than selling it at a loss or renting it for what they would consider “a pittence”. Most often this happens on a smaller scale with individual properties. But in this case it may end up gutting a once-economically sustainable — if not hugely profitable — farming region.
In our modern world, farming is rarely the most profitable use of land. But our society has a vested interest in guaranteeing that growing food does not become entirely uncompetitive economically. Solano County deserves recognition for its “locally-grown”, sustainable approach to providing housing for hundreds of thousands of people while simultaneously protecting farmland for generations. That should be the story on the front page of the New York Times.