Larry Lawrence stands on the main patio at Viaggio Winery, picking through a ring of keys to open a locked wooden door. It leads to the room where he and his wife, Terri Lawrence, had hoped to open a little sandwich counter to serve visitors to Viaggio, a dramatic estate on the Mokelumne River.
But Larry Lawrence says he’s given up on the idea; the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation, he says, is blocking any further moves.
The Viaggio conflict reflects an ongoing struggle facing the bureau and some of its members. The 100-year-old organization is powerful, with the connections and clout to influence government at the local and state levels.
But the Lawrences and some other members of the bureau say their interests as expanding businesses aren’t being served by the bureau’s commitment to preserving farmland. It’s a battle of wills with no clear winner, and some members are choosing to leave.
“I didn’t renew my membership this year, and I’ve been a member for a long time,” said Dave Pechan, owner of Miramont Vineyard in Linden. “As a small operator we have no clout to be treated fairly in this industry.”
In the beginning
When it got its start, the farm bureau had very little to do with politics. It began as an effort to bring university knowledge into the hands of farmers.
The University of California started up their cooperative extensions in 1914, with agents who are up-to-date on research and new farming techniques. But to send agents out to the counties, they needed a new organization. So the San Joaquin Farm Bureau and the other bureaus in the state were born.
That educational effort continues today with programs like AgVenture, a farming-themed field day at the Lodi Grape Festival Grounds, and Ag in the Classroom. But the real focus is advocacy on behalf of its members, said Bruce Blodgett, executive director.
Every agriculture-related business in the county is represented within the membership. From winegrape growers to dairy families to almond, cherry and walnut farmers, every industry has a voice in the group, said Blodgett.
The bureau emphasizes that inclusiveness so that they can address the issues that affect every industry. Water rights, air quality, labor resources and rural crimes are all issues the bureau lobbies hard about on the county, state and federal level. There are hundreds of members in the county, and 65 people from all of the different ag-related industries serve on the board of directors.
For example, it was the San Joaquin group that introduced legislation on rural crimes and metal theft that changed the way metal recyclers accept material and has discouraged copper theft from tractor engines and water pumps.
“We have real problems with anything that limits ag production,” said Blodgett. They have tackled problems from the greenbelt between Lodi and Stockton to estate taxes and invasive pests.
As for winery expansion, a heated issue in the county, the bureau says 99 percent of winery owners are doing it right.
It all hinges on the Williamson Act. Vineyards and wineries housed on land included in the act get a steep tax break, to discourage farmers from selling their land to developers and encourage keeping farmland active.
But that comes with rules. The owners can’t sell or make money off of anything not promoting their agricultural products.
Want to have a wedding? Better serve the house wine. Having weekend events? They have to promote the crop or wine.
Last year, folks from the bureau, the Lodi Winegrape Commission, local wineries and more met to draft the Winery Ordinance. It’s something all the interested parties can agree in regards to winery activities, and has been handed off to the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors for inclusion in the General Plan.
“We never opposed anyone opening a winery on their property. We need expansion of our wineries,” Blodgett said. “Our biggest success is in relation to enforcing the Williamson Act.”
The winery conflict
But not all wineries want to expand by increasing production or adding a new varietal. Some wineries want something different to make their business stand out. For Viaggio, it was an ag store to sell fresh produce and snacks in an existing building.
The elaborate estate along the Mokelumne River is a site for weddings, parties, wine club events and other gatherings. There are acres of grapes, walnuts and other produce.
In the tasting room, among wine glass accessories and souvenirs with the Viaggio label are a few bottles of olive oil.
“We can sell olive oil with the Viaggio label because it’s promoting the wine brand. But we can’t sell any other processed items out here,” Larry Lawrence said.
His wife Terri loves to grow flowers and vegetables. There are so many that she has to give them away or they’ll rot.
“We thought, why don’t we put them in an ag store? Then we can sell a few other things, too,” he said — like that olive oil, and walnuts.
The Lawrences could fill the area with produce and cheeses, and make soups, sandwiches and pies to be served through a kitchen window. Patrons would take their orders to tables in the store, or step outside to eat on the patio.
The San Joaquin County Planning Commission approved the proposal unanimously. But the farm bureau objected to it, saying the store does not align with the agricultural nature of Williamson Act land, which the estate sits on.
The Lawrences said, fine. Remove their land from the Williamson Act.
“I don’t understand the objection to selling sandwiches in the country. It’s very personal. It’s our livelihood,” said Terri Lawrence. “(The Bureau) is asking people to drive home with wine in their stomachs and no food.”
The tax incentive in the Williamson Act is intended to keep farmers from selling their land to developers. The Viaggio owners have no plans to sell the land or destroy the estate. But they are considering removing their Williamson Act designation so they can do what they want on their property.
“Our place is gorgeous. People come here and picnic. We could be the poster child for (the field to farm movement). They’re going against their own wishes,” said Larry Lawrence, who recalled a trend in recent year to promote agri-tourism and the connection between food on a plate and the field it came from.
“They need to do things that benefit the members who pay dues, instead of using the dues to fight members,” said Terri Lawrence. “They’re more worried about the land than the farmers.”
The Bureau’s response? Viaggio gets their tax break from being a winery and producing agricultural goods. Their sandwich counter plan doesn’t expand that.
“There was nothing in their application about wine production,” said Blodgett.
That argument was enough to sway the Board of Supervisors.
Don Parsons, a political consultant, wasn’t surprised by that.
Parsons has run more than 200 political campaigns in San Joaquin County with Strategic Research, a campaign consulting firm based in Stockton. In his experience, it is nearly impossible to wage a successful campaign in the county without reaching out to the ag industry.
“The farm bureau is probably one of the most consequential organizations in the county, given that ag is such an important part of our county’s economy,” he said. “There are very few decisions that go on in which the interests of agriculture aren’t considered.”
Parsons said the bureau and its members are instrumental in protecting the rights of property owners, despite the inevitable conflicts that arise between farming and land development.
“Find me another industry in the county that represents one in every four jobs. It’s only natural that people would want to take their opinion into consideration,” he said.
A ‘political enemy’
Dave Pechan, owner of Miramont Vineyards, a small winery in Linden, said the bureau is the biggest “political enemy” of small farmers. He cites as an example his own effort to promote agri-tourism through his winery.
“We make a living here,” he said.
The 62-year-old farmer has the deed from his grandfather’s Minnesota farm framed on the wall.
Four employees have been making wine in Linden for 16 years. They supply small wineries who ship the final product to China. There’s no tasting room.
To promote his wine and bring in a little more money, Pechan got the idea to set up a row of picturesque model mobile homes and rent them out to tourists from China or elsewhere who want to get a taste of California ag life.
He drew up plans, took them to the county Planning Commission and got the green light to go ahead and apply for the use permit.
“They said it was wonderful. They didn’t tell me what I’d have to do,” he said.
Pechan counted off the list on his fingers. Widening the driveway, adding concrete parking with lights, and building a drainage pond were a few of the items suggested by the bureau and required by the county.
The studies alone would have taken a year, he said. In the end, Pechan said he would have been left with a place he didn’t want to live in.
“The idea was to create a rural experience for people who live in cities. All that would have been lost. We pulled the plug,” he said.
Despite their push to promote local farms, Pechan said the farm bureau is not supporting ideas that would bring more people out to the fields.
“We shouldn’t block access to those who want to farm. The farm bureau leading this winery ordinance instead of supporting small farmers leave me feeling sick,” he said.
Pechan is now concerned for the next generation having to struggle through roadblocks to get a farm going.
“Who knows if there aren’t young people wanting to get in today who would go on to be the next Robert Mondavi?” he said. “The bureau is disconnected from the struggle of those who don’t have that leg up to get started.”
One of the biggest challenges is generational, said Parsons. Trying to keep young people interested in an industry typified by older men in overalls isn’t easy.
“They’re struggling with how to do that, trying to find a way to keep farming viable in the county so the younger generation will want to continue to farm,” said Parsons.
Keeping as much land in farming use as possible is a main route to that end, and the bureau is committed.
Bureau leadership is slow to jump into the fray in a given dispute, said Parsons, but once they arrive, they are heavily invested in the outcome.
Judy Isola lives on Bender Road, right between Viaggio Winery and St. Jorge Winery on East Taddei Road, and is grateful to the farm bureau for their help in guiding the Isolas through an appeal on a winery expansion. When St. Jorge wanted to grow in 2012, the Isolas filed suit and an appeal against the planning commission, saying county code hadn’t been followed during a previous expansion.
“They were helpful,” Isola said. “I really think a winery is to make and sell wine. I don’t see how the rest is part of the wine.”
Lodi and surrounding areas are represented on the Board of Supervisors by Ken Vogel, a retired farmer from Linden. Vogel sees the farm bureau as an important voice for his constituents.
“I’m very supportive of farming, and I know there are those that see it as a problem,” he said. “I don’t always support the farm bureau’s decisions, but I do probably a lot of the time.”
Conflicts between those who agree with his votes and those who don’t simply come with the territory, Vogel said. He did not receive campaign donations from the bureau in his last run for supervisor, but he is an active member.
Blodgett sees the bureau’s close ties with Vogel as natural.
“We have to have a relationship with the policymakers so they understand our positions,” he said.
Growers like Pechan and the Lawrences aren’t holding their breath on their projects. As farmers and winemakers, there is always something else to work on.
Back at Viaggio, there are events and weddings to plan, and wine to make. And for now, people will need to bring their own sandwiches.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at firstname.lastname@example.org.