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Agricultural ombudsman streamlines permit process for Marin farmers and ranchers

Lisa Bush
In Marin, a part-time Agricultural Ombudsman is available to help producers work their way through permitting an on-farm or ranch project. No question, the permitting process can be onerous and confusing. Many of the permits needed, for example to build a cheese plant, are issued by different departments or divisions of county and state government. Lisa Bush is here to make it easier.

In 2003, the Marin County Board of Supervisors recognized the need for an agricultural consultant to enhance the economic development of local farms and ranches. A void existed between farmers and ranchers who needed help, and the lengthy and sometimes confusing processes they needed to negotiate at the county in order to improve and optimize their operations. Lisa was hired to fill that void.

Since then, over 40 Marin County Community Development Agency (CDA) staff have attended workshops and field tours about various aspects of agricultural production in Marin County. The staff gained a better understanding of the needs and constraints of agricultural producers. Equally important, the Agricultural Ombudsman helped farmers and ranchers understand the county permitting process and overcome permitting glitches.

CDA staff work to understand and respond to the needs of local agriculture, as producers diversify for long-term sustainability. One cheese maker commented “ both the County and Lisa were really wonderful about our project from the beginning. If the line staff didn’t know how to direct me, then supervisors like Curtis Havel or others did.”

Rick Lafranchi and his family turned to Lisa when they were building their creamery. “Lisa understands the rules and the gray areas, and she was a tremendous help in interpreting our needs to county staff and vice versa. In the end, she saved us valuable time and money.”

More than 76 agricultural producers have used the Agricultural Ombudsman’s assistance with business development and guidance through the county permitting process.

Marissa Thornton is using Lisa as she explores options with her family on their Tomales Ranch. "Lisa is very helpful and accessible. I'm thankful we have an Ombudsman to serve as a liaison between farmers and county officials, making the whole permitting process less intimidating."

Lisa has written 11 fact sheets, customized for Marin, about permitting commercial egg production, cheese plants, organic certification and many other diversification topics. They can be downloaded from the Grown in Marin website at http://growninmarin.org under Resources for Farmers.

In the nine years since the county board of supervisors begin supporting this part-time position, 76 producers and many agencies have been assisted. All but one producer was successful in permitting their project.

The program has been so successful that several neighboring counties are currently using it as a model in developing their own program. Mendocino County is adapting the Fact Sheets, and Karen Giovannini, is the new Agricultural Ombudsman in Sonoma County. She can be reached at the Sonoma County University of California Cooperative Extension office.  Yolo and Solano Counties are also modeling new positions after Marin.