Brett Melone grew up on his parents’ fruit farm, learning all about what has kept farmers up at night for generations: pests, prices and precipitation. Later, as the director of a training program for aspiring farmers, he learned all about what keeps farmers up at night in the 21st Century: permits, process and policies.
Now at the Resource Conservation District as San Mateo County’s first agricultural ombudsman, Melone can’t do much about the former but he can ease concerns about the latter. His job is to act as a go-between farmers and the County to improve communication and to promote farming by helping to navigate regulations and rules.
“My goal is to help farming remain viable in our county by breaking down some of these regulatory barriers,” Melone said. “Agriculture may be small relative to other industries in San Mateo County. But it’s a historic industry, an important industry. There are a lot of people in San Mateo County who make their living in agriculture, and in some ways are struggling to do so.”
San Mateo County’s agricultural industry in 2012 produced about $140 million in a variety of commodities. Many of these crops make their way to local farmers markets throughout the Peninsula and to international markets around the world.
“By promoting local agricultural, we’re helping to provide local, healthy food to our local markets and restaurants,” said Don Horsley, a member of the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors. Horsley represents District 3, which encompasses the majority of farming in the county, and worked to identify funding and gather support to create the new ombudsman position.
At the recent agricultural workshop, sponsored by Supervisor Horsley, local farmers asked for help in negotiating the complex permitting landscape. Farmers want to stay focused on the innovation needed to keep farms profitable in a fast-changing marketplace, not permitting processes .The permitting process can be particularly difficult for those who rarely interact with County Government.
At the same time, regulations help protect the environment and workers to ensure farming activities are done safely and in accordance with local, State, and federal codes. Melone will help farmers navigate a very complex permitting process.
The ombudsman services are free of charge, and in the first few weeks at his new job he has already worked with ranchers, organic growers and a greenhouse operator – “a real cross section of the ag community,” he said.
One of the knottier challenges to the job is the fact that farm operations, especially those near the coast, are often regulated by multiple agencies. “There is no one-stop shop to deal with all your permit needs,” Melone said. “While my focus is on the county’s regulations, I do what I can to help point people in the right direction.”
Information in this article was provided by the San Mateo County Newsroom.