Farmworkers call it a day as they push empty carts with nets attached designated to shake mulberries trees as part of the harvest season at Habitera Farms in Brentwood, Calif., on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
A long unused city property just outside Brentwood could soon become an agricultural innovation center partnering with a variety of nonprofits to educate students, residents and businesses about agriculture.
To that end, the Brentwood City Council voted this week to move forward with plans to draft an agreement with Harvest Time Brentwood, a nonprofit that promotes farming and its products while improving agri-tourism education. That group would take over the unused property from the city and operate the new ag center.
Under its proposal, Harvest Time would use $2,240,000 in Brentwood developer agricultural mitigation funds to build the educational barn, including animal pens, garden and greenhouses, along with indoor and outdoor event spaces.
“We are asking for a lot of money, but it’s really not,” Sean McCauley of Brentwood Harvest Time told the council. “It’s $2.24 million. The most important thing is we feel like we can pull this off with that money. We’re pretty confident we can. … Several of us have pulled a project like this off within that budget.”
McCauley also clarified that his group was asking for the surplus land to be contributed to the nonprofit.
The center’s programming and activities will support agricultural enterprise by offering classes on gardening, animal husbandry, composting and sustainable farming practices. Community events such as farmers markets, plant sales and food tastings will be hosted to promote the center’s produce and products, providing hands-on activities for the community, according to the plans.
Earlier this spring, Harvest Time asked the city’s agricultural enterprise committee for funding to launch its “U-Pick Capital” marketing campaign, including $55,000 for a part-time consultant and $26,400 for marketing activities to promote local farms for three years, at which time they believe they could be self-sustaining.
Harvest Time President Jennifer Enos said Harvest Time analyzed its social media, including Facebook videos created to drive visitors to the local farms and Instagram posts partnering with influencers to promote its members.
“For Facebook, we were up 136%, and we were up over 2,000% for Instagram,” the Harvest Time president said.
“We’re really excited about where this project is going,” she added.
McCauley meanwhile stressed the educational value of developing an ag center.
“Kids are obviously passionate about agriculture and having a location for us to help foster that would be hugely beneficial to Brentwood,” he said. “I don’t know if you guys noticed or not, but a lot of 4-H organizations are disappearing. And whatever we can do to keep these kids engaged in agriculture, I think is extremely important.”
The city’s connection to the Nail Property at 3900 Sellers Ave. dates back to 2007 when it acquired the 7.23-acre parcel using developer agricultural mitigation funds for the $1,080,000 purchase, intending to develop an Agricultural Park and History Center in partnership with the nearby East Contra Costa Historical Society Museum. Though the city paid for conceptual plans for an ag center, no agency or nonprofit stepped up over the years to raise the money to develop the park nor take responsibility for its operation and maintenance – until now.
In the meantime, the property has sat vacant except for a portion that the museum has used to store equipment and hold meetings. The city also agreed earlier this year to let another nonprofit, Delta Informal Gardeners, use a half-acre of the land, which it intends to improve, for the propagation and annual sale of plants.
The Historical Society and DIG are just two of the nonprofits Harvest Time intends to work with in its efforts to build an agricultural center at the Sellers site. Other possible collaborators include the Contra Costa Department of Agriculture, 4H, California Farm Bureau, UC Davis, Contra Costa Wine Growers Association, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, garden clubs, local schools and Farm to Table operators, according to the proposal.
“It looks amazing,” Councilwoman Jovita Mendoza said. “I’m as excited about this as I am about the (newly approved) soccer fields.”
The councilwoman asked if the group thought it would make enough money to be sustainable.
McCauley said the group has some cash funds to work with but overall thinks it can meet its goals.
“We feel that after 12 months of operating the Ag Innovation Center, we will be sustainable,” he said. “We will not have to ask for money year over year, and our main goal is to not have to come back to ask for money.”
Councilwoman Pa’Tanisha Pierson asked if Harvest Time would collaborate with other agencies or groups at the center.
“It probably will be great if the kids don’t have to milk a wooden cow and they can go milk a real cow to make the butter,” she said.
Enos said there’s plenty of space, so kids who don’t have any land can still participate in 4-H, while third-graders are already coming to see the Historical Society museum.
“We think that it’s important for our kids to always be coming to our farms, so we want to make sure that they are never going to a field trip outside of Brentwood to learn about agriculture,” Enos said.
Vice Mayor Susannah Meyer questioned if the ag mitigation funds would be replenished.
Assistant City Manager Darin Gale said they would, noting for every acre of land developed in Brentwood, $7,000 goes to the ag mitigation fund.
“This is the most exciting project that your economic development team has had to work on since I’ve been here,” Gale said. “Our single No. 1 economic driver to the region is agriculture — and then what they (Harvest Time members) do with the U-Pick and how they are extending it, it’s a year-round event. It’s obviously the No. 1 thing that I think the city can invest into, to continue to promote agriculture.”
Though Mayor Joel Bryant said he was a “huge fan” of the proposal, he wondered what would happen if the nonprofit couldn’t develop within its budget.
“We’re pretty confident that at least we can get the basic infrastructure in there,” McCauley said, noting they may have to tweak some plans like having a gravel rather than asphalt parking lot if they run low on funds.
He also indicated if needed, the group could try to raise more funds.
In the meantime, Harvest Time would lease the land while it makes improvements and a sale could potentially follow, Gale said.
The council then voted 5-0 to move forward with the project, directing staff to draft an agreement between the city and Harvest Time to use the developer ag mitigation fees for a three-year staffing and marketing program and the development of an Agricultural Innovation Center.