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GATES MIGHT MEND THE FENCES
Friday, September 3, 1999
Coursey/ Press Democrat
The phrase jumped, out of Sunday s Page 1 story about the rush
to develop vineyards In Sonoma County before new planting rules
take effect on Oct. 1.
"We didn't do enough to protect our forests and streams
from these industrial vineyards," said Lynn Hamilton, former
Sebastopol councilwoman and west-county political activist.
What has happened? It wasn't so long ago that vineyards were
seen as pastoral landscapes, bucolic vistas, welcome alternatives
to the march of subdivisions through the valleys and up the
hills of Sonoma County.
Now, seemingly overnight, the rows of vines that define "Wine
Country" are described as "industrial grape-growing
areas" by a resident of Freestone in ihat same Page 1 article.
And the antipathy is spreading.
"Ten years ago, having vineyards around your property was
considered beneficial," says Chris Benziger of Benziger
Family Winery in Glen Ellen. "But that tune has changed,
definitely." Part of it can be blamed on the wine industry's
phenomenal success. A segment of Americans always will resent
big business and the wealthy people who control it, and in Sonoma
County the wine business and its leaders are the most visible
examples of money and power.
Part of it can be blamed on the sheer ubiquity of vineyards.
Almost 50,000 acres of Sonoma County are planted in grapes,
with a couple thousand more being cleared each year. When grapes
go in, grassland, wildlife and often trees disappear.
And part of it is the industry's own public-relations missteps,
from high-profile tree-cutting and planting on hillsides to
this week's ugly incident in Sebastopol, where a dying man was
asked to leave his home while the new vineyard next door was
fumigated with methyl bromide.
"Agriculture needs to wake up to the fact that we are no
longer in the saddle," says Ruth Waltenspiel, who with
her husband, Ron, grows grapes and dried fruits at their Timber
Crest Farms in Dry Creek Valley. "This county is changing."
But it hasn't yet changed completely. While relations are strained,
there isn't an entrenched "us vs. them" split between
city folks and farm folks in Sonoma County. And there doesn't
have to be.
Still, some fence-mending may be in order. And perhaps the best
way for the ag industry to mend fences is to open up some of
After pesticides and tree-clearing, the biggest beef the county's
environmental community has with agriculture is the industry's
opposition to trails. Led by Peter Pfendler and other Sonoma
Mountain landowners opposed to public use of Lafferty Ranch,
and represented by the Farm Bureau on citizens committees, the
industry has delayed and watered down the county's long-running
plans for trails and other outdoor recreation.
But farmers are by no means unanimous in saying "trails
and agriculture don't mix." In fact, some believe that
allowing the public on their land is the best way to soften
the hard feelings forming in the community.
"We have to stop viewing 'the public' as evil hubcap stealers,"
says Waltenspiel, who grants permission to these who ask to
hike and ride on her property. ''They are our customers."
Allowing those customers access to the land on which her products
grow generates good will for her business, she says.
"Our experience has been positive."
Benziger, whose vineyards abut trails at Jack London State Park,
"Instead of bunkering down, I believe our industry should
be opening up the gates and inviting neighbors to see what we're
doing," he says.
As the suburbs and the vineyards creep closer together, It becomes
more importnat than ever for farmers to understand that hikers
aren't looking to tear out their crops, and for suburbanites
to understand that agriculture still is what keeps Sonoma County
from becoming Santa Clara County.
Call Coursey at 707-521-5223 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
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