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The Story of the Suisun Valley Fund

Written for Suisun Valley Vintners and Grape Growers, by Jack Batson

The Suisun Valley grew up with the infant state of California. It provided meat and grain to the miners of the 19th Century gold and silver rushes. Later, with the advent of the Transcontinental Railroad which ran through its eastern edge, and especially with the invention of refrigeration, it provided early ripened fruit to a colder Midwest and East. The valley was laced with rail lines and packing sheds. The coming of the automobile brought the famed Lincoln Highway (US 40) through the valley, connecting San Francisco to New York City. Business was brisk.

In 1957 the US Department of Reclamation completed Monticello Dam, creating Lake Berryessa. The Solano Irrigation District (SID) delivered the water, and with the new supply, the Suisun Valley added a second growing season to its production.

Yet trouble was mounting. Highway 40 turned into US Interstate 80, and the population of the Bay Area began growing east. The Sacramento Valley began growing competitive crops and often used more modern methods in larger scale. Suisun Valley’s principal fruit crop, canning pears, fell from favor. Processing plants closed one by one. And the valley was a developer’s “dream come true” with 7,000 acres of flat, well watered land adjacent to a major transportation artery. Several land speculators began buying land, and the City of Fairfield annexed parts of the valley.

Still, the Solano Irrigation District fought back. In 1974 it sued the city to protect its rate base, and the two agencies signed an agreement stating that neither would provide water to the valley for urban purposes through 2006.

There were encouragements. In 1982 the valley received its own American Viticultural Area (AVA) designation, followed by its inclusion in the prestigious “North Coast”AVA along with Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Counties in the next year. But as the 20th Century neared its end, development pressures and the loss of profitability of the valley’s family farms began to come together. If farmers could not make money, development would become inevitable and the valley’s rich soils would be lost to a sea of housetops. The bankruptcy of the Tri Valley Growers coop in 2000 hit the valley’s growers hard; their accumulated retained earnings, usually earmarked for their retirement, disappeared. Ominously, the Solano Irrigation District hinted that it might not renew the 1974 agreement when it expired in 2006.

The City of Fairfield took notice. Having local agriculture nearby was seen as a city amenity. Its beauty was widely appreciated. People enjoyed driving through the valley, buying fruits and vegetables and sampling the local wines. City leadership began to think strategically. Their 1992 General Plan spoke directly of the need to protect the valley. They understood that in the long term, valley farmers had to become profitable for the valley to survive development pressure. Who would buy the valley’s produce? The rich Bay Area, only 30 minutes’ driving time away, offered great possibilities. The emergence of people highly motivated to eat “fresh and local” foods – “foodies” – was encouraging. More and more people sought the “organic” label. Interstate 80 carried almost 200,000 automobiles through the valley every day. What if even one percent – 2,000 autos – would stop and buy some fruit or wine? There were causes for optimism, but the “highest and best use” still pointed to development. The valley needed a catalyst to bring the possibilities together.

In 2000 Rick Wood, Manager of the Water Division for the city of Fairfield, entered into negotiations with SID and both parties agreed to give the valley farmers another chance. Wood’s idea was as innovative as it was historic. The “Second Amended Agreement” of 2002 extended the term of the 1974 agreement from 2006 through 2010, and created the “Suisun Valley Fund” and the “Suisun Valley Fund Advisory Committee,” to run the fund. Both parties would put $100,000 per year into the fund for eight more years and adjust the yearly amount for inflation. The $1,600,000+ would be spent to promote the marketability of valley produce and to create other mechanisms to “preserve and enhance” valley agriculture that would continue past 2010. The Committee would be composed of two members each from the Fairfield City Council and the Solano Irrigation District, and three valley landowner/growers chosen by the two agencies. The five Fairfield council members who held office and voted to approve the funding of Suisun Valley Fund were Jack Batson, Karin MacMillan, Harry Price, Marilyn Farley, and John English.

The Fund, now nearing its end, has made a significant impact. Its accomplishments include the following:

  1. Funding for the start-up and development of the Suisun Valley Grape Growers Association (now Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association).
  2. Organization of Suisun Valley retailers into a Harvest Trails group (now merged with the Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association).
  3. Funding for the start-up and development of the Suisun Valley Wine Cooperative (winery and tasting room for smaller production growers).
  4. Professional design and production of a logo and Harvest Trails map/brochure.
  5. Three weather stations for real-time data and microclimate analysis (added to Solano Irrigation District’s three stations making a total of six stations in the valley. The data is now adequate for microclimate studies like other major wine grape growing areas).
  6. Space on a new I-80 freeway sign and reader board at the Fairfield Auto Mall (i.e., the Fairfield “Jelly Belly” sign), inviting travelers to “Visit Suisun Valley.”
  7. Directional “wayfaring” signs at a dozen intersections in Suisun Valley.
  8. Funding for a “Mother Earth” public art piece at the Abernathy Road/Rockville Road entryway roundabout (with Solano County).
  9. Funding for an influential “Agricultural Vision and Economic Innovation for Suisun Valley” report by the American Farmland Trust Consulting (March 2007), as part of background studies for the Solano County General Plan Update (with Solano County), resulting in Solano County expressly supporting the continuation and facilitation of agriculture in the valley in its new General Plan.
  10. Employing the services of an “Agricultural Ambassador” for outreach to Suisun Valley growers and to staff Committee projects.
  11. Web page design and maintenance (www.SuisunValley.com).
  12. Promotional events, notably “Fun Family Farm Days,” staffed by the Agricultural Ambassador and volunteers.
  13. New relationships within the valley and new emerging leadership among the landowners, to face the future.
  14. The creation of a “Vision for the future of farming in Suisun Valley” (incorporated into Solano County’s Suisun Valley Strategic Plan, February 2010):

Suisun Valley is a unique farming region that supports profitable family farms and quality of life for all its residents. It is a destination for tourists seeking world class wine, identifiable Suisun Valley farm products and a beautiful agricultural landscape with no fallow land. The SV appellation is so famous that it creates new markets and increases demand for Suisun Valley wine and other farm products outside of the region.

This vision statement summarizes the goals of the Suisun Valley Advisory Committee. It has been endorsed by the Committee, the city of Fairfield, the Solano Irrigation District, the Suisun Valley Fruit Growers’ Association, the Suisun Valley Vintners and Growers Association, the Solano County Farm Bureau, the City of Suisun, the Solano Land Trust, and the Solano County Agriculture Advisory Committee, and now, Solano County.



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