SAN MATEO COUNTY – The value of agricultural production in San Mateo County dropped by nearly 6% in 2022 from 2021, according to the latest crop report. Drought remained a major factor in the decline for growers and ranchers, according to the report.
But B.J. Burns, a farmer in San Mateo County, says there is a solution he’s hoping will take hold that should plant the seeds for agriculture to have a promising future in the county: a centralized market and distribution site for farmers.
“You’d have a permanent place to sell your stuff,” he said. “The growers would all come together, have a co-op there, and they could distribute it from there into the Bay Area. There are 7-8 million people in the Bay Area. I think if we had just a percentage – 20% of that – I think we’d do well.”
His family and farm have deep roots in San Mateo County, dating back to the 1880’s.
“I hope that when I’m gone, that my grandkids run this ranch someday,” he said.
Burns fears if steps aren’t taken to prop up the industry, that won’t happen. He says the drought is one factor, but there are others at play, too.
“It’s not surprising that it went down – it’s been going down every year. I think if we don’t turn this thing around and do something, we’re going to lose agriculture in this county – probably in the next 10-15 years,” he said.
Centralized markets and distribution centers do exist in other parts of the state, according to County Supervisor Ray Mueller.
“If you go down into Santa Cruz County and Monterey County, what you’ll see is they have actually built distribution centers where you go bring your goods into one place, get it onto a pallet, and ship it,” Mueller said. “We don’t have that in San Mateo County, and that really puts our famers at a disadvantage because it means each one of them needs to go ahead and ship their own product to the market. It raises the cost of their product and makes it uncompetitive.”
Mueller says planning work to bring the idea to life is underway.
“We’re starting to look at different locations for that distribution center,” he said. “But the real thing we need to do is put dollars behind it to bring it across the finish line. Finding that location — paying for that location so you can actually create that foot-hold to start the process is going to be the next step.”
Much of the county’s farmland is within his district. However, he says the benefits of propping up the industry will stretch beyond San Mateo County.
“It’s just a healthier ecosystem for the whole Bay Area not to lose it.”
With a central market, Burns says farmers would save money on shipping, have a new way to increase revenue, and in turn, they could take better care of farm workers.
“They’re a part of it. Without them, there’s not us. Without us, there’s not them,” he said.
The seeds for change are being planted, but to Burns, they won’t grow without collective cooperation.
“What is our alternative if we don’t develop this market?” he said.