San Diego Business Journal Theme Includes Benefits of Local Agriculture

San Diego County farmers, facing poor soils, increasing urbanization and the highest water prices in the nation, have long been under siege.

But now they have a plan for survival , one that calls for increased agricultural tourism and creative marketing.

After about a year of work, a committee composed of local growers, the San Diego County Farm Bureau and the University of California Cooperative Extension Farm and Home Advisor's Office have released "Harvesting New Opportunities," a 38-page strategic plan designed to bring local farms into the 21st century.

The plan should help local farms stay in business, said Eric Larson, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

"That's a real concern here in San Diego County. We want to make sure we can save all the farms we can," he said.

The role of local agriculture has traditionally been underemphasized, said Diane Wallace, farm adviser with the Cooperative Extension office and one of the consultants on the plan.

San Diego County has the largest number of small farms in the entire nation, and is the 10th largest in the country in terms of the value of agricultural products sold.

The strategic plan relies on four concepts. The first is a public relations program.

"The bottom line for that is farmers will benefit if the general public and elected officials have a clear understanding of agriculture and its challenges," Larson said.

"So when we need those people to make decisions that might affect agriculture, they'll understand what agriculture's all about."

- Promote Local

Ag Tourism

The second proposal is agriculture-related tourism. Some of the millions of visitors to San Diego and Orange counties could be invited to the agriculture community through farm tours, "you-pick" operations, bed-and-breakfast inns and other programs, Larson said.

Possible tourism destinations include the Flower Fields in Carlsbad, The Insectory in Chula Vista, Hollandia Dairy in San Marcos, and various wineries in San Diego County, Wallace said.

The third concept, described as "value added," would encourage farmers to market related products as well, which would go a long way to increasing the value of their farms, she said.

For example, apple growers in Julian might also market apple butter, apple sauce, and apple pies made on the premises, Wallace said.

The fourth proposal is branding, similar to California's "It's the Cheese" advertising campaign, but which would create a brand identifying all agricultural products originated in this county. Wallace suggested "Grown in Sunny San Diego" as a possible slogan.

- Creating An Identity

For Local Products

This would create an identity for local products, which would help boost sales locally.

"We have about 25 farmer's markets in San Diego County now, where consumers say they want to buy something fresh and local," Wallace said.

Larson agreed, adding a San Diego label would help push sales elsewhere.

"If someone in Des Moines had a choice between an avocado grown in South America and an avocado grown in San Diego County, we think they might choose the avocado grown in San Diego County," he said.

There are several reasons, he added. The domestic avocado would probably be fresher, since it was shipped a shorter distance. Also, it would be free of certain pesticides that are illegal in the United States but used elsewhere. Plus, the very name "San Diego" has a certain ambiance to it, which might entice people into buying, Larson said.

Several of these concepts go together. For example, once ag tourism gets off the ground, that would in turn help the push to brand San Diego products, as they would stand out more at the supermarket once people have seen local farms in operation, Larson said.

The next step for the strategic plan is to present it to the agricultural community, Wallace said.

"It's their plan. If, in fact, they want to pick all of it, or part of it, there's things they can do to start investing in and promoting this kind of a strategy," she said.