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What Napa Farmers Want

September 2013
by Jim Gordon
The Napa County Farm Bureau celebrated its 100th anniversary in August with a wine reception and dinner outdoors at the Robert Mondavi Winery, including remarks by Warren Winiarski, founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, U.S. Rep. Mike Thompson and other dignitaries, and entertainment by a country-rock band flown in from Nashville, Tenn. It was a beautiful evening with civilized touches that contrasted sharply with what the first Farm Bureau gatherings must have looked like in 1913.

One extraordinary aspect of the celebration was that the Farm Bureau recognized 70 member families who have been working Napa County land for 100 years or more.

A large majority of these families now grow grapes on their land, but when they first arrived their farming was much more diverse, with an emphasis on cattle, grains, walnuts, prunes and other crops. They founded the Napa County Farm Bureau as a local political and educational force to help farming be profitable and economically sustainable.

But what do Napa County farmers want from the Farm Bureau today? The group published a fascinating 36-page booklet including historical photos for the anniversary, and it contains some answers. The Farm Bureau’s Centennial Committee interviewed dozens of the centennial family members, asking them what farming was like in the old days and what help their families need today to continue to thrive in farming.

For a group of farmers whose main crop, wine grapes, is among the most valuable per acre in the United States (Napa Cabernet Sauvignon averages $5,100 per ton), they are not complacent about their successes. Many of them voiced apprehension about being misunderstood by the greater population, and some expressed anger about government intervention in their farming.

It sounds like the Napa County Farm Bureau has firm marching orders from its oldest members. Here is a sampling of what they said:

“Small operators are becoming an endangered species, and we need to do something to assure their survival. My focus is the lack of succession planning and the lack of family wanting to farm. When the parents get old they just sell to the big guy…Pretty soon there will be no more little guys, just big guys. And the big guys some day will want to optimize their return on investments and will quickly abandon the soft farming practices that we all enjoy today.”
Stewart family, came from Marin County, Calif., to Napa in 1904

“Never let Prop. 13 (the state law that limited property taxes) be repealed.…Communities who have 35% or more agricultural land use and/or employ a reasonable amount of the population in farm/ag should have, at minimum, one elective course in agriculture offered at the high school level.”
Barberis family, came from Liguria, Italy, to St. Helena, Calif., around 1898

“I will continue to promote farming and the preservation of farmland as a national security priority. When a nation can’t feed itself, its people are at risk.”
Battuello family, came from Piemonte, Italy, to St. Helena in 1906

“Reversion to the principles of dry farming. Ag that relies on a lot of water is not going to be sustainable too much longer, as more and more urban expansion will be looking for more and more sources of water. It’s inevitable.”
Frediani family, came from Italy to Napa County via San Francisco, Calif., after the 1906 earthquake

“We feel farming’s biggest hurdle is its consumer perception and understanding. There is inherent fear in the unknown. Information and education has been an agricultural focus, but its importance may be underrated.”
Gordon family, came from Ohio to New Mexico to Napa in 1851

“Lower property taxes; keep the Ag Preserve (land protected from housing/commercial development with large minimum lot sizes, etc.); get rid of estate taxes. Not so many restrictions or permits; give farmers a break.”
Buhman family, came from Prussia to San Francisco to Napa in 1872

“Farm Bureau must continue to lead the fight to keep our lands from being paved. We must renew the message of our Agricultural Preserve. Too many newcomers just want to cash in on ag—they don’t want to work in their own fields, caring for their own lands. They don’t understand why we cannot over-commercialize our lands. We must draw hard lines or we will lose it all.”
Tofanelli, Dal Porto and DiGiulio families, came from Lucca, Italy, to Napa County in the early 1900s

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