New to Sonoma County Agriculture?
Welcome to the Sonoma agricultural community! This community puts fresh, local food on our tables while providing wildlife a habitat, watershed land, and preserving our area’s cultural heritage. You may be new to farming and ranching, so we’d like to give you some background on ranching and farming in Sonoma County and introduce you to the amazing network of organizations that will help your farm or ranch thrive.
Sonoma County Agriculture is diverse -- producing everything from fresh eggs, fruits and vegetables, to wool, meats and a wide variety of milk products. With an abundance of level farmland and available irrigation water, our county is well known for grape and wine production. Grapes, together with fruit and nut crops generated 67% of the crop value in 2014. However, we also grow livestock, poultry, vegetables, field crops, and nursery products. To learn more, view a Crop Report.
The characteristics of your land and available water are the primary factors that determine what you can produce. You may be interested in starting a diversified farm, or you may choose to partner with a local farmer or rancher to keep your land in productive agricultural use.
On this page, you will find:
- Should I Lease Out or Start by Own Ag Business?
- How to Find Land Tenants
- Starting a Farming or Ranching Business
- Why Farm?
- Why Have Grazing?
- What about Value Added Products?
- Additional Resources for Ag Business
Starting a Farming or Ranching Business
Deciding to become a farmer or rancher is a life-changing choice. Occasionally new agricultural landowners start their own agricultural businesses, but this should only be done if the landowner is fully aware of the challenges and costs associated with raising livestock, growing crops, and processing and marketing associated products. Without a background in farming, animal husbandry, or business and land management, new farmers and ranchers can be overwhelmed by the constant responsibilities and workload entailed.
A business plan will help you or your tenant succeed with an agricultural business. Help with business planning and more is available from:
- SCORE the nation's largest, network of free, expert business mentors.
- SBDC of Napa-Sonoma provides business owners and managers with information, training and expert individual consulting.
- California FarmLink (farm business plan page) helps to link independent farmers and ranchers to the land and financing they need for a sustainable future.
- Kitchen Table Advisors provides farmers with access to the tools, knowledge and resources they need on their path to becoming resilient and viable businesses.
- Additional Ag Business Resources
Should I Lease to a Local Farmer or Rancher or Start My Own Business?
If you own a ranch or farm but are not a livestock rancher or farmer, there are still many reasons for having an agricultural operation on your land. If you own a ranch, leasing all or part of your ranch to a local rancher may be the best way to receive the benefits of livestock grazing, be a good neighbor, and contribute to the local agricultural community and economy. Likewise, if you own land that is suitable for farming and has adequate water, there are always local farmers looking for more land to farm.
- Lease length - generally, farmers and ranchers, prefer longer leases since they ensure operational stability. Longer leases, which should be a minimum of five years, also encourage tenants to invest time and/or money (arrangements should be specified in the lease) in infrastructure repairs or improvements, as any investment can be amortized over time.
- Clear information about both parties’ responsibilities, such as fencing and other infrastructure maintenance.
- Water allocation – the tenants’ access to on-site water should be clearly spelled out, especially in cases where multiple competing uses occur on one property.
- We recommend working with FarmLink North Coast if you are considering leasing. They can help create a lease for your situation and can also help you find land to lease or help you find a farmer/rancher to lease your property.
- Additional resources:
Agriculture Ombudsman is available to help with regulatory questions you may have.
Farming 101 monthly workshop where experienced farmers, ranchers and business specialists cover a broad range of practical skills that aspiring/beginning/new farmers and ranchers need to know. Second Thursday evening of every month at Petaluma Seed Bank.
Natural Resources Conservation Service NRCS, a USDA program, helps America’s farmers, ranchers and forest landowners conserve the nation’s soil, water, air and other natural resources. All programs are voluntary and offer science-based solutions that benefit both the landowner and the environment.
Resource Conservation Districts (RCDs) are the state's only grassroots conservation delivery system that identifies local conservation problems and guides solutions on a voluntary basis. RCD's in Sonoma County:
- Gold Ridge Resource Conservation District includes West Sonoma County and is bordered by Marin County to the south, the Russian River to the north, the Pacific coastline to the west, and the Laguna de Santa Rosa to the east.
- Sonoma Resource Conservation District includes the Russian River, Petaluma River, Sonoma Creek, Stemple Creek, and Gualala River Watersheds.
Additional resources for farming and ranching operations.
Finding Land Tenants
Special Status Species
Knowing what plants and wildlife live on your property, and if any of them are Special-status Species requiring special management or protection, is a good place to start. Knowing the advantages and disadvantages of raising different animal species is also crucial to your goal setting and planning, as different species have differing effects on land, differing management needs and differing life cycles.
If you own good farmland with adequate water, starting or continuing a farm will contribute fresh local food to our local food system, and help preserve the rural lifestyle of Sonoma County. In the past, this whole area was a patchwork of small, diversified farms, most of which produced everything from vegetables and eggs to meat and hay to feed the farming families and their community, while providing themselves with an income. Today, this type of small, diversified farm has become popular again, with farmers markets offering a diverse array of local food.
- Choose an area of interest
- View the soil map for that area
- Create soil reports
Visiting our Specialty Crops and Olives and Viticulture pages will provide you with a wealth of information about the variety crops that are grown in Sonoma County. People aren't the only living things that like farm fresh produce, so check out the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program to address any issues you have in that area.
Marketing locally grown produce has increased in popularity, resulting in higher returns for farmers. Currently, there are 23 farmers markets in Sonoma County; numerous local distributors, several supportive grocery stores that buy locally, and restaurants and local chefs. Visit Produce Farm Marketing to learn more.
Why Have Grazing?
If you have acquired a livestock ranch, you may wonder if you should continue grazing. What would happen if you stopped? Could it be improved? How can you get these questions answered and who can help you with these decisions?
Reasons to continue grazing include:
- Preserving and Enhancing Natural Resources
- Manage and Reduce Fire Fuels
- Manage Weeds
- Support Local Agriculture
Visit Grazing Management Fact Sheet to learn more.
What about Value Added Products?
One way to diversify your agricultural enterprise is to create value add products:
- Rather than selling your cattle at auction, you could sell the meat
- Have excess produce? You could make products at a commercial kitchen or use a co-packer or you could set up processing at your farm (i.e. cheese making)
- Got chickens? You could pack and sell eggs
- Growing herbs? You could make some skincare products.