I am firmly connected to both of Brentwood’s economic segments. I grew up on a farm, spent my entire life as a part of the agriculture-side of the local community, and am heavily involved with Brentwood Harvest Time. But I am also a venture capitalist and directly concerned with issues of urban and suburban growth. Therefore, I’m not pushing any personal agenda when I tell people that one of the critical factors in managing responsible growth is the need to hang on to our agricultural heritage. The city will thrive only if we are able to extend Brentwood’s agricultural past into the future by preserving the farms, ranches, orchards, and vineyards that set us apart as a place worth visiting.
What we must focus on is continuing to invest in feasible and sustainable agriculture, providing value added and sustainable farm-to-table products, and creating agriculture-related venues for learning and entertainment. In other words, the goal that will help all segments of our society is to promote Brentwood as an important agritourism destination.
Let’s be real about our prospects! Without an emphasis on agriculture, in a few decades Brentwood will simply be one undifferentiated city among a group of neighboring cities. We will preserve our destiny intact by becoming an Ag Tourist destination and adding our own spin to the success of other ag regions such as Livermore, Lodi and, of course, Napa Valley. Successfully implementing that vision throughout East County will require more wineries, tasting rooms, and ag-based retail businesses. In my own case, for example, Brentwood will never be a destination if I’m the only olive oil guy.
Brentwood already has some projects and programs that bring people to us. Harvest Time in Brentwood, for example, is an association of farmers and other businesses associated with the Brentwood agricultural industry that promotes agritourism by distributing 70,000 copies of their annual educational farm-trail map with descriptions and directions to the association’s 50+ U-Pick stands. More than 180,000 visitors, some from as far away as the Philippines and Cambodia, make annual pilgrimages to our orchards.
Another example of budding agritourism is our local First Generation Farmers (FGF) program that is offering “Green Acres” type farm experiences to people from around the world, training and teaching them to create fresh farm-to-table produce and then delivering it to retail locations around the Bay Area — starting in our own Saturday Farmers Market and taking it to locations as far away as San Francisco and Berkeley.
FGF also offers a program for visiting students from preschool through sixth grade from schools as distant as Concord, offering memorable and informative encounters with ducks, chickens, Olde English Babydoll Southdown sheep, and Nigerian Dwarf goats.
FGF volunteers commit to spending at least six weeks living and working at the FGF facility, however, they have been known to stay for a year or more. Some come to FGF to enroll in a program that teaches principles and practices for managing a vegetable farm. Others come to FGF from around the world for hands-on farm training in association with an international placement service with a goal “to promote cultural and educational experiences based on trust and non-monetary exchange, thereby helping to build a sustainable, global community,” and the tagline, “Bringing people to a more sustainable way of life.”
It should be easier for us who live in the County Agricultural Core to create other destination-worthy enterprises. Fortunately, we are seeing some thawing of city and country regulations that in the past have hindered the agriculture-based growth that we need to see. Champions like Mary Piepho and Diane Burgess are now pressing for the needed changes.
I try to practice the growth principles I believe in so strongly. David Navarrette and I were pioneers with the local olive oil industry. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we learned that olive trees would thrive in the area’s sandy dry hillsides that were so poor for most other crops. The soil and climate matched the famous olive-growing areas in Europe and the Middle East.
In 1999 we planted 700 trees in our first go-around. The initial crop, harvested four years later, yielded 26 gallons of oil. The trees grew larger and more fruitful year-by-year. We bought a commercial press, started a co-op, and assisted other landowners in planting olive trees. Last year my wife Maria sold more than 100 tons of olive oil in our store. Residents who visit our store bring in visitors from other states. Some of them go online and continue purchasing products after they get back home.
We began the business just as the international market for quality olive oil was starting to explode. The growth continues, so I am planting 7,000 new trees near the Balfour/Deer Valley intersection.
Our success in the business is based on consumers discovering the quality oil that we sell. We serve the community by making available a premium product because, for example, we hand-pick and press our fruit in a single day, which results in a superior quality product. People are learning to regard Brentwood as a destination for quality olive oil.
Another reason for our success is that we got into the business at the very time that people begin to pay closer attention to what they put in their bodies.
Because of my connections to agriculture, some people imagine that I’m anti-growth. The fact is, I’m only against irresponsible growth.
They want to know what they are eating, how it is made, and packaged. They taste the difference between our products and those made by larger operators who profit from volume by harvesting and packaging in bulk and by machine.
We are moving towards the future we hope for. Farmers are creating infrastructure by planting vineyards and orchards in fields that have lain fallow and unproductive for centuries. Hillsides along Deer Valley Road, Vasco, and other rural routes that were barren of vegetation are now covered with groves of beautiful trees and vineyards.
We have to take advantage of the momentum that is beginning to build. The city recently made a generous grant to Harvest Time Brentwood and the Contra Costa Winegrowers Association. Money from the grant is funding a study to investigate the feasibility of creating our own appellation, which would serve as a legal name denoting particular wines as grown in our region — similar to Chianti, which denotes wines from a region in Italy, and Champagne designating sparkling wine made from grapes grown in a region in France.
A well-known appellation referencing our local wines would serve to “put Brentwood on the map” more effectively than any other change we could make. Such precise branding would add perceived value to our products, increase prices, earn vintners more income for each ton of grapes, and motivate them to increase production. In this way, the appellation would create economic energy through the entire vines-in-fields to products-on-shelves cycle, which would energize innumerable other projects and businesses that will contribute to the area’s growth.
Because of my connections to agriculture, some people imagine that I’m anti-growth. The fact is, I’m only against irresponsible growth. We should expect each development to correlate with the current look, feel, and behavior of the local environment.
The Brentwood City Council and Planning Commission deserve kudos for the decades of planning and insistence on balanced growth. After decades of watching the changes taking place in our society, I am impressed with how well we have avoided some of the pitfalls that have sidetracked appropriate growth in other communities. Brentwood must continue to take advantage of the land lying within its sphere of influence by extending city limits to include development, while ensuring that the development proceeds in a manner that will promote the ag-centered culture we wish to preserve and to expand.
People need to understand that development should focus first-of-all on lifestyle rather than maximizing profits. Our Trilogy at the Vineyards project is a shining example of the type of appropriate and contextualized development we should promote. Blackhawk-Nunn worked with Shea Homes to turn barren ground into grapes and olives, making it an agriculturally based and sustainable community, and thus pushing forward our vision of a community that embraces both farmers and homeowners.
Some residents are in an uproar about the Nunn East Balfour Road development proposal. The fact is, the land is not open space nor has it ever been. The only question is, who do we want to develop it? If Brentwood doesn’t extend city limits to cover it, Antioch’s planning commission will eventually do so.
I don’t have an opinion about the details. However, I do know the Nunns have done more for Brentwood than any other family, with a long history of quality developments including Apple Hill and Summerset. Just as they did with Trilogy, Nunn is planning to convert 300 acres of land to sustainable agriculture including olive groves and vineyards. Otherwise, the land will be mostly useless.
The small amount of dryland farming that will be displaced is incidental. I know because I’m farming that land. When it doesn’t rain, we lose money; when it does rain, we make a dime for every dollar that farmers earn from equivalent amounts of land in the irrigated and fertile core. Nunn’s proposal also adds city services, including a new fire station. Fortunately, by the time the area is built-out, there will be sufficient tax-paying residents to cover the costs of staffing and maintaining the station.
For the past several decades we’ve been dealing with the horrible commute as residents crowd each other twice every day on Hwy 4 and Vasco Road. An obvious solution to the problem would be to develop local industries to the point that people in Brentwood could finally work where they live. We could perhaps even reverse the commute with people driving from Livermore and Concord to nice paying jobs in Brentwood.
A way to expedite such an industrial and economic revolution would be to create a business park. I remember when San Ramon, which was a small town at the time, started Bishop Ranch. Three decades later, more than 30,000 people are employed at Bishop Ranch, working at Chevron, Bank of the West, PG&E, Ford Motor Company, SAP, General Electric, and JPMorgan Chase.
Brentwood and Antioch should work together in creating such a business park. I’m trying to correct the common error that separates the destiny of our two cities and promotes self-defeating and bickering undercurrents. I’ve discovered that Antioch City Council members and other civic leaders have minds open to whatever possibilities the future might have in store for them. I love the progress Antioch is making, particularly in developing the Rivertown area. I believe in their vision, to the point that I invested in the new upscale Smith’s Landing and Seafood Grill, which has become a revitalizing force for downtown improvement.
Brentwood and Antioch should work together to identify a site where large corporations could be planted in a Bishop Ranch-type location zone. The time is right. The two cities are easy destinations for e-Bart, the bypass, and the finally completed Hwy 4 expansion. Hopefully the proposed Vasco corridor will be in place before too many more years pass.
The prospect of a business park is appealing from the employers’ perspective. The thousands of people who spend several hours a day commuting to and from their jobs would be “low hanging fruit” for companies seeking to hire experienced professionals, most of whom would obviously be willing to reduce their commute from hours to minutes, even if they had to take a lower initial salary.
The economic energies provided by those companies would help fuel our agritourism vision. We could hand down to generations who follow us a Brentwood that is as healthy an environment for raising children and for connecting with nature as the place that earlier generations handed down to us.
My father would be pleased!
Photos by Ron Essex