Thirty miles east of San Francisco, four farm businesses are growing food for market amidst the hills of Sunol. Though the rows of tomatoes, strawberries, kale, and other crops are typical of the region the land use arrangement at the site, known as the Sunol AgPark, is anything but typical. That’s because the park is on public land owned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) directly adjacent to the Sunol Water Temple. In 2006, the PUC began an innovative land stewardship partnership and lease with the non-profit organization Sustainable Agriculture and Education (SAGE), who, in turn, subleases the 18 acres to local farmers.
In other words, for-profit farmers are cultivating publicly owned land managed by a nonprofit. It’s an arrangement that works for the PUC, SAGE and the farmers. From the PUC’s perspective, farming is compatible with this site, as it is with many others they own between San Francisco and Hetch Hetchy. By permitting agriculture next to the Water Temple, they reduce their maintenance costs and are able to provide a community benefit, not only to the farmers and their customers, but also to the thousands of visitors and schoolchildren that the PUC and SAGE bring to the site each year for educational tours. For the farmers, the AgPark provides protected land with existing agricultural infrastructure, proximity to urban markets and technical assistance — at rates comparable to farmland with similar amenities available on the private market. And for SAGE, the AgPark increases awareness of the value of local food systems and the importance of preserving agricultural land around cities while covering a portion of its own operating costs.
The AgPark began with a nine-year lease, and it is a model that, if successful, has the potential to be replicated throughout the Bay Area and beyond. The Public Utilities Commission alone owns 84,000 acres outside the city of San Francisco. Other water agencies, utilities and public land stewards in the Bay Area also control thousands of acres of land. Much of the PUC’s land is managed to preserve water quality or otherwise support the function of the water, sewer and power systems they operate. But, recognizing that much of the land could have a secondary use beyond its primary utility function, such as organic farms in a protected watershed area, the PUC adopted a new framework for considering secondary land uses in March.
The Sunol AgPark is a pilot project that, in addition to its educational mission, is helping explore the viability of agriculture as a secondary use on publicly-= owned land. The potential for expanding the model is tantalizing. Time will tell whether it continues to work for the public utilities, nonprofit land managers and the farmers.