EXAMINER                                                 Issue # 93 October 31, 2000

Monitoring Corporate Agribusiness From a Public Interest Perspective

A.V. Krebs


Rolling through Northern California’s picturesque Sonoma Valley on Highway U.S. 101 the occasional visitor, with memories of vast vineyards, family farms and small rural communities, cannot help but be troubled witnessing the ever relentless suburban crawl and commercial development projects that continue to encroach upon what was once one of the state’s idyllic small farm landscapes.

Yet driving through this wine-famous valley with the San Francisco Bay Area only a few miles behind and California’s towering redwoods only a few miles ahead one is initially heartened, a week now before the November 7 elections, seeing numerous signs which dot the countryside proclaiming “Save Our Farms” and “Save Our Parks.”

Yet, while one might think that these signs are urging local residents to support a Rural Heritage Initiative, Measure I on next Tuesday’s ballot in fact what is taking place in this valley is a scenario being frequently played out throughout the nation where prime farmland is being either paved over or being sold to housing and industrial park developers.

For the aforementioned Sonoma Valley signs are in fact urging voters to reject Measure I, claiming it masquerades as farmland protection while the measure’s backers point out that opposition to the measure is being headed by the powerful Sonoma County Farm Bureau and building business interests in an effort to retain the right to sell agricultural land for subdivisions and office parks.

The Rural Heritage Initiative would freeze the county’s general plan for 30 years, requiring that any amendments that affect agricultural and rural      resource lands --- including changes in housing density --- be put before the voters. It needs a majority vote to pass.

Alexander Valley farmer Paula Hawkes, points to state figures showing a loss of nearly 2,000 agricultural acres in Sonoma County from 1996 to 1998. Farmland, she told the San Francisco Chronicle’s Pamela J. Podger, is eyed for expansion by Silicon Valley firms and telecom companies in nearby Petaluma and elsewhere in southern Sonoma County which are likely to keep creeping north. She said the measure promotes community-centered growth and leaves rural acreage dedicated to farming.

“The main point of (the initiative) is that large ag parcels need to be out of contention'' for development, Hawkes said. “Growth pressures have really accelerated in the last few years. This . . . won't put a crimp in anyone's farm operations.”

The initiative would affect four rural and agricultural zoning categories that include about 700,000 acres, or two-thirds of the county. Comparable  measures elsewhere in California in the past decade have had mixed results. Two measures ---  in nearby Napa County and in Southern California’s Ventura County --- passed, but four others were defeated. In the coming election, voters in San Luis Obsipo County also will consider a similar measure.

Opponents say they chiefly object to the fact that the measure was drafted without farmers' voices, unlike the 1990 initiative in Napa, which included the Farm Bureau's views. They said the measure was created by a flawed process and resulted in a flawed  product. Critics say it would hurt farm families, require too many costly elections and threaten several proposed parks.

In addition, the county’s parks advisory committee has passed a resolution against the measure, saying new ballparks, soccer fields and regional parks could be jeopardized.

Victor Davis Hanson, a former California raisin grape grower, observes in his 1996 book Fields Without Dreams :

“The final verdict on the future of the American farm lies no longer with the farmer, much less with the abstract thinker or even the politician, but rather with the American people themselves --- and they have now passed judgment. They no longer care where or how they get their food, as long as it is firm, fresh and cheap. They have no interest in preventing the urbanization of their farmland as long as parks, Little League fields and an occasional bike lane are left amid the concrete, stucco and asphalt.

“They have no need of someone who they are not, who reminds them of their past and not their future. Their romanticism for the farmer is just that, an artificial and quite transient appreciation of his rough-cut visage against the horizon, the stuff of a wine commercial, cigarette ad or impromptu rock concert. Instinctively, most farmers know this. It's the real reason they are mad."

Initiative supporter John Blayney points out to Podger that Sonoma County is entering a period of unprecedented growth. One indication of that is a May article in Forbes magazine that ranked the Santa Rosa area as No. 3 in “Best Places” list of dynamic economic areas. He said the voters --- and not future supervisors --- are the best watchdogs. He said the initiative offers unincorporated areas similar to the urban-growth boundaries that exist in six of Sonoma County's nine largest cities.

Other initiative backers note that the situation with rural residential lands, a mix of two to five-acre farms, residences and small business, would be better fixed in the next update of the county's general plan. The update would address the land-use designations not covered by Measure I.

“Rural residential isn't where the large, economically viable farms remain in Sonoma County,” Hawkes points out. “Don't vote down RHI because it doesn't include everything. You wouldn't reject a high school bond because it doesn't cover the elementary schools. If the elementary schools need fixing, you address that later.”

Volker Eisele, the father of the Napa County measure, which affects 90% of the land there, assured Podger that the elections held as a result of the initiative's passage is money well spent. He said he trusts the voters to discern between significant and insignificant projects. In the six elections held since Napa County's measure was passed, voters approved half and defeated half of the items.

“The initiative does raise awareness in the population about the importance of the land as an irreplaceable resource. We need to think harder before we convert ag land to other sources,” he added. “We all know there is graft in the political process. But I think it is more difficult to bribe all the county voters than three supervisors.”

                                                                        *  *  *

A long-time friend and colleague of THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER’S editor\publisher, Charles Richard  has been actively involved in this  “the mother of all environmental battles in Sonoma County.” Charles and his wife Nancy founded Bellerose Vineyard , a small family owned and operated vineyard and winery located in Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County. Active in the Dry Creek Valley Farm Bureau for several years, he served for sixteen years on the board of the Dry Creek Valley Association. Now retired, he and his family live in Windsor, California. His commentary on the Rural Heritage Initiative, Measure I appears below.


The Rural Heritage Initiative, Measure I on the November ballot, offers the citizens of Sonoma County a critical opportunity to preserve what is left of our “rural heritage” --- lands outside current city limits which are vulnerable to rezoning and inclusion into cities --- the rolling hills, forests and farmland collectively referred to as “countryside.”

While Urban Growth Boundaries have precluded cities from expanding beyond voter approved limits, lands outside city boundaries do not have that kind of protection.

Lands in the incorporated area are under the jurisdiction of the County General Plan which can be amended four times a year by a three-to-two vote by the Board of Supervisors. The Rural Heritage Initiative will insure that current or future supervisors do not yield to the financial contribution pressures of special interest groups.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau

The most visible and vocal leader of the opposition to the Rural Heritage Initiative is the Sonoma County Farm Bureau which would have us believe that the Farm Bureau is the voice of farmers and represents the best interests of agriculture. Established in 1919, the American Farm Bureau, of which the Sonoma County Farm Bureau is a branch member, declared its purpose during its first convention with the words:

“This federation must not degenerate into an educational or social institution. It must be made the most powerful business institution in the country.” (The Farm Bureau Movement, O.M. Kile)

Unlike the Grange, whose purpose was “the advancement of agriculture,” the Farm Bureau’s express aim was “managing the affairs of agriculture in a broad business manner” (op.cit., Kile). In fact, the Farm Bureau’s involvement in business has become so extensive that it now has billions of dollars in assets and rivals some major “for profit” corporations.

Unfortunately, the “broad business” approach to agriculture degenerated into the “get big or get out” maxim of former Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz. Championed by the American Farm Bureau Federation, it has resulted in the eradication of millions of small family farms while promoting the best interests of the largest farm operations.

The agribusinesses or corporate approach to farming relies heavily upon chemical fertilizers, poisons, etc.and the American Farm Bureau Federation has resisted legislation restricting their use, just as it lobbies against most environmental regulation.

A recent “60 Minutes” television segment focused on Farm Bureau abuses in Iowa. At present there are over 200 organizations petitioning for a Congressional investigation of the Farm Bureau. It is not surprising that the Farm Bureau was not asked to participate in the drafting of Measure I, a ballot initiative which is necessary, in part, because of certain Farm Bureau policies.

The issue that best defines the Farm Bureau in Sonoma County, as elsewhere is “property rights.” Certainly, the U.S. Constitution guarantees certain rights pertaining to the ownership of property, but the extreme application of those rights, especially with regard to land use, often results in a “public-be-damned” attitude. As William Leach points out in Country of Exiles:

“ . . . the transformation of place into property has done much to destroy a sense of place . . .Place has a layered quality for those who feel it. For most, it has taken the form of the country, of the provincial or regional areas of the country . . .”

Of course, this is what the Rural Heritage Initiative\Measure I is all about. If the Farm Bureau were sincere about “saving farms,” it would support Measure I; but, as the record shows, it is more committed to preserving “development rights” than to preserving agriculture.

Sonoma County Alliance

The major opposition to the Rural Heritage Initiative, however, comes from the Sonoma County Alliance, a business coalition  which fuels the county growth machine.

The “Membership Directory, Sonoma County Alliance 2000” states that the first priority of its mission is “to protect private property rights.” Of the 217 firms listed in the “Business Category” of membership, at least 109 (50%) are directly or indirectly involved with the building industry. The membership directory could easily be given the subtitle, "Who’s Who in Sonoma County’s Building Development-Real Estate Industry." It is also worth noting that the Sonoma County Farm Bureau is a member of the Alliance.

The motto of the Sonoma County Alliance, “A Healthy Environment Depends Upon a Health Economy,” which is an inversion of one of the basic tenets of the environmental movement, “a sound economy depends upon a healthy environment,” apparently is considered to be a clever rejoinder to the “environmentalists” who keep getting in the way of the county’s growth industry.

In 1952, Charles Erwin Wilson, the Chairman of General Motors told the Senate Armed Forces Committee, “ . . . what is good for General Motors is good for the country.” Today, in Sonoma County, we have another big business organization asserting, in effect, that what is good for the Sonoma County Alliance is good for Sonoma County.

As in Washington, “money talks” in Sonoma County politics. The campaign financial disclosure forms of Supervisors Tim Smith and Paul Kelly in the most recent elections, for example, show campaign expenditures of $212,000 and $170,000 respectively.

Most of the large donations of $500 and $1000, not surprisingly, came from the growth industry members of the Sonoma County Alliance. In Sonoma County, the big money and major political power come from the growth industry, and the Sonoma County Alliance is the most effective power broker for that industry.

Santa Rosa Press Democrat

The other major player in Sonoma County politics is the county’s only daily newspaper. The Press Democrat (published in Santa Rosa), once a locally owned paper was bought by the New York Times in 1985.

Always the champion of Sonoma County’s growth and development, the former editor, Arthur J. Volkerts was up-front about where he and the paper stood on land use issues. In a “thundering editorial,” --- “Restore private property rights” --- published on February 5, 1980, Volkerts takes issue with the “taking mood” of the Planning Commission over “open space,” and concludes the editorial with this familiar political theme:

“THE PEOPLE OF SONOMA COUNTY have a rare opportunity this year to put the county back on the side of private property rights. Three members of the Board of Supervisors  will be elected this year, and we suggest voters in the First, Third and Fifth supervisorial districts question candidates closely about their views on the taking of private property through zoning to satisfy the desires of county planners.”

While I seldom agreed with Mr. Volkerts on land use issues, I at least respected him for being unequivocal in his editorials. I can’t say the same for the “new breed” of editors at the Press Democrat.

A case in point is the “Editorial Notebook,” written by assistant editor Paul Gullixson in the October 14, 2000 edition of the Press Democrat. “RHI and Silicon Valley hysteria” presents us with a kind of refresher course in high school civics:

“Proponents claim having a vote would put land-use decisions back in the hands of the public, that these decisions `are simply too important to leave to politicians.’

“But this argument ignores one important point: control is already in the hands of the public.

“We have a representative form of government. Within this structure, numerous opportunities already exist for the public to prevent supervisors from approving unwanted development on farm lands.

“First, the people elect the members of the Board of Supervisors.

“Second, residents have the right to speak out at general plan updates, to ensure tough zoning regulations are in place, and to stand up at public hearings if and when unwanted projects are proposed.”

While I am grateful that Mr. Gullixson still remembers the fundamentals of how our democratic republic is suppose to work, the sad harsh truth is that control is no longer “in the hands of the public” because the political process in Sonoma County is manipulated by the big money contributions coming from the growth industry and its allies.

The pro-growth bias of the Press Democrat is evident in its editorials and in its reporting of land use, environmental and political issues. Unfortunately, there is no other daily newspaper in our region to provide a balance of editorial opinion and news content. If the Sonoma County Alliance can be called the power broker for the county’s growth industry, the Press Democrat is its cheerleader.

United Winegrowers For Sonoma County

The key to understanding the opposition to the RHI coming from several winegrowers’ organizations is to recognize that they are primarily trade organizations  whose main concern is the business of growing grapes and selling wine. “The vision thing” --- whether or not hillsides should be cleared for another vineyard, or whether a new winery application is suitable for its proposed location, etc. are environmental issues of primary concern to organizations like the Dry Creek Valley Association whose motto is “to promote and to protect agriculture in Dry Creek Valley.”

But certain winegrower organizations, such as the United Winegrowers For Sonoma County have a number of influential members who not only grow grapes and make wine, but in the words of Dr. Martin Griffin, author of Saving the Marin-Sonoma Coast:

“ . . .support the largest urbanizing activities, viz., gravel mining, along the Russian River which results in the extraction of four million tons of gravel per year used for construction, i.e., conversion to asphalt and concrete which is then used to pave over former orchards and vineyards along the U.S. Highway 101 corridor.”

The United Winegrowers For Sonoma County’s opposition to the RHI has its roots in the start of the Russian Rover “gravel wars” in the late 1980’s when United Winegrowers For Sonoma County member Rodney Strong Vineyards sold 600 acres of prime vineyards to Syar Industries which later converted part of this acreage into a gravel pit.

Other sales of vineyards to gravel miners soon followed, and by 1990, approximately 1000 acres along the middle reach of the Russian River were being mined for gravel. How the sale to gravel miners of prime vineyards with Class 1 soils which were designated as an Agricultural And Ground Water Recharge Zone was allowed to happen is documented in Chapter 16 ---- “Betrayal By the Supervisors” ---- of Dr. Griffin’s  aforementioned book. and is a “must read” for anyone trying to understand the politics of Sonoma County’s land use conflicts.

The Rural Heritage Initiative petition drive was completed in record time with a record number of signatures. Now, voters must not be misled by the Farm Bureau’s campaign of disinformation.

Voting “Yes” on Measure I is a vote for the right of the people to preserve our farmland and our rural heritage. One vote at a time, we can gather the strength to overcome the growth industry’s callous disregard for our irreplaceable rural lands.



“Also, Aventis, which manufacturers the Starlink corn seed,  recently agreed to buy the entire crop at a 25-cent premium, and is selling much of it to feedlots and ethanol producers. While Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) is currently the nation’s leading corn processor with elevators scattered all over the nation and the world, boasting that numerous food products which consumers buy every day contain its ingredients, it has also become the nation’s largest ethanol producers during which it has received generous and long-standing federal subsidies."

The inference here was that perhaps ADM would be about ready to reap a bonanza in cheap corn relative to its use in ethanol.

But ever knowledgeable colleague Alan Guebert notes in his "Farm and Food File" nationally syndicated column for the week beginning Sunday, Oct. 29, 2000 in commenting on the “StarLink controversy is out of control”:

“ . . . A spokesperson for the Corn Refiners Association confirms that ethanol makers who use the wet milling process will not buy StarLink corn for two reasons. First, wet millers cannot guarantee that two products made through the wet milling of ethanol, starch and dextrose, won't get into the food chain. As such, they will not use StarLink.

“Also, a major byproduct of wet mill ethanol production is corn gluten. The
majority of corn gluten dumped out of a wet miller's back door is exported
as animal feed, principally to the European Union. Since the EU (and all
U.S. corn importers) have not approved StarLink for any use--either feed or
food--exporting gluten would be a violation of foreign laws.

“Dry millers, on the other hand, can use StarLink. But since about 60% of
U.S. ethanol is made through wet milling, the majority of the ethanol-producing market is off limits to StarLink growers. . . .  “


While THE AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER is a subscription free e-mail newsletter
it still welcomes contributions. However, such contributions in recent months
have been few and far between. Thus, plans to purchase new computer
equipment in an effort to improve  the production and distribution of THE
AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER  have been unfortunately postponed due to said
lack of such  contributions. Nevertheless, it is hoped that readers still value THE
AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER to such an extent that they will willingly  and
generously financially support its continued circulation as it enters its third year.
Checks should be made out to A.V. Krebs and  sent to P.O. Box 2201, Everett,
Washington 98203-0201


The Corporate Agribusiness Research Project (CARP) web site now contains a
streamlined search engine which will not only allow viewers to  find needed
information by  simply using key words, but they will be able to also access
Issues #1 through  #77 of THE  AGRIBUSINESS EXAMINER.

The CARP web site, which is now posted on the World Wide Web, features:

THE AGBIZ TILLER, the progeny of the one-time printed newsletter, now
becomes an  on-line news feature of the Project. Its initial essay concerns one
Hillary Rodham  Clinton,  the Democratic Party candidate for a U.S. Senate seat
in New York State.

available  through THE AGBIZ TILLER you'll learn some of the messy details
behind her cattle  futures "miracle." You will also find in this section the archives
for past editions of  the THE  AGBIZ TILLER.

In "Between the Furrows" there is a wide range of pages designed to inform
and  educate  readers on the inner workings of corporate agribusiness. In
addition to CARP's  "Mission  Statement," "Overview" and the Project director's
"Publication Background," the  viewer will  find a helpful "Fact Sheet" on
agriculture and corporate agribusiness; a "Fact  Miners"  page  which is an effort  to assist the reader in the necessary art of researching  corporations; a  page of  "Quoteable Quotes" periaing to agribusiness and corporate  power; a  "Links"  page  which  allow the reader to survey various useful public interest,
government and  corporate  web sites; a "Feedback" page for reader input, and
a page  where readers can  order  directly the editor's The Corporate Reapers:
The Book of  Agribusiness.

The CARP web site was designed and  produced by ElectricArrow of Seattle,

Simply by clicking on either of the addresses below all the aforementioned
features and  information are yours to enjoy, study, absorb and sow.