Thursday, April 17, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Farmbudsman to help locals navigate system

The red tape isn’t disappearing completely for the farmers of Solano and Yolo counties, but they’re hopeful it will become a whole lot more transparent with the help of Yolo County farmbudsman Michelle Stephens.

Stephens is tasked with supporting farmers in the navigation of complex regulatory processes in Yolo and Solano counties in the role of farmbudsman. Finding your way through the bureaucratic system is one of the biggest challenges facing the economic viability of the region’s growers, according to The Yolo County Ag and Food Alliance.

The tribulations of those in the agriculture industry are ingrained in Stephens,  a fifth-generation cattle rancher in Calaveras County. Spurred on by an interest in learning more about economic development — specifically in rural areas — she earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Davis and a master’s from University of Texas.

“This position is ideal for me because it combines the business planning stuff that I worked on in school,” she said, “and my personal passion to work in agriculture and to help small- and medium-sized farmers and ranchers find success.”

In January, the Board of Supervisors of Yolo and Solano counties reached an agreement to collectively spend $54,000 annually through the counties’ respective Economic Development Departments and fund the hiring of a farmbudsman through fiscal year 2015-16.

The decision was celebrated by the Yolo County Ag and Food Alliance, which began advocating for the creation of a farmbudsman position after participants in the 2010 Yolo County Regional Food Forum highlighted a need for it.

The operating agreement between the counties, in association with the Solano Community College Small Business Development Center, includes expected goals for the new farmbudsman, which comes with a three-year contract and a $50 hourly wage.

They anticipate a 20 percent increase in approvals of agriculture-related projects by 2015; 500 added ag-related jobs; and five more processing facilities total between the counties, which can range from a large canary to a small diary operation.

“There’s a little bit of pressure because those aren’t the easiest of goals to achieve, but it’s good,” Stephens said. “I don’t want to be frittering away my time and wasting money. It’s good to have goals because it’s something to aim for.”

“As far as my own personal goals. I really want to — and this is going to sound all ‘touchy-feely’ in comparison to those concrete number-driven goals — be a value to the community. I want everyone to see me as a benefit, the farmers as well as my supervisors.”

Since filling the position in April, Stephens has been developing a strategy for reaching these ends. It begins with having the region’s farmers realize that this resource now exists, so she can assist in facilitating growth and otherwise help as needed.

“A lot of the farmers may feel comfortable talking with the departments themselves,” she said. “But if they feel the need, I’m there to be a liaison. There’s no guarantee it’s going to make the process any simpler, but hopefully it takes some of the confusion out of it.”

Ultimately though, it’s up to the farmers and ranchers of the region to pull the trigger on establishing new processors and hiring new employees. Her input comes free of charge, but does not carry the weight of any enforcement.

“One of the challenges is that I can only do so much,” she said. “I can’t make the regulations go away. I don’t have the authority to do that at all. I can, however, open up the discussion to find other routes to get from point A to point B.”

Another issue facing Stephens in accomplishing her goals is that not everyone is aware of the resource. That’s hoped to be remedied during a “Meet the Farmbudsman” open house from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Turkovich Winery, located at 30471 Buckeye Rd. in Winters.

This is Stephens first formal introduction to the local agriculture community.  She’ll also be discussing ways in which she can assist farmers with projects, though having a project in mind is not required for attendance.

All of Yolo County’s farmers and ranchers are invited to the event. Space is limited, so she’s asking potential guests to RSVP to michellelinstephens@gmail.com or 530-863-9073.

“I’m doing this to reach beyond the usual groups,” she said. “The Yolo County Ag and Food Alliance and the Yolo County Farm Bureau have a set group they interact with, so I’m hoping to get some farmers or ranchers that may not be as plugged into that network.”

— Reach Brett Johnson at bjohnson@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett

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