While the 49ers home filed was the site of the clash between millionaire layers and billionaire owners, another smaller, but far more important struggle is unfolding right next door.

In the wake of Super Bowl L, our nation’s most populous state was in the spotlight last weekend, as the greatest spectacle in American sports was played in the new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.

For those unfamiliar, Santa Clara is about 30 miles south of San Francisco, next door to San Jose, and enough fans apparently know the way there to have persuaded the 49ers to depart the city that had been their hometown since 1950.

Why the move? Do you really have to ask?

In case there’s any confusion about the scale of the NFL’s money machine, not only did the football fans who sat through regular season games in the new stadium have to fork over five-figures just for the right to buy season tickets — and according to the team’s website there are currently some great seats in the upper deck on the 10-yard line available for a mere $450 a pop — the city of Santa Clara, a town of 120,000, is collecting a total of $220 million from Levi’s for the naming rights to the stadium.

If they put their heads together, I’m sure the mayor and the city council can figure out some nice amenities for the city’s residents when they deposit those annual checks for the next 20 years.

Meanwhile, in San Mateo County, just west of Santa Clara and stretching from the Pacific Ocean to San Francisco Bay, an entirely different battle, on a totally different playing field, at a relatively miniscule financial level versus the NFL is also underway, and the stakes happen to be way more important than which group of multi-millionaires emerged victorious in the Super Bowl.

It’s a fight over the future of California’s farmland, in a state that for all its Hollywood glitz and glamour, for all the mega-billions generated by Silicon Valley for all its magnificent redwoods, mountain ranges and national parks is by far and away the biggest and most productive agricultural state in the Union.

Just a few miles away from Sunday’s cash-drenched spectacle, the Palo Alto-based Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) unveiled an initiative to triple the amount of preserved farmland acreage and the number of preserved farms in that county’s coastal areas over the next decade.

Hanging on to what’s left

The effort is being funded by an anticipated $25 million in private donations, a figure that is just slightly larger than the annual salary of Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning. According to a news release, the Farmland Futures Initiative will target the conservation of 1,500 acres, increasing the number of protected farms from 11 to 33 and increase the amount of protected productive farmland to 2,250 acres.

Why is that important? Because since the 1980s, according to the Trust, the nine California counties in the region have lost nearly 200,000 acres of agricultural land to development. In San Mateo County alone, more than one-third of what was formerly working farmland has been taken out of production.

“Protecting local working land matters to our environment, our farmers and our community,” POST president Walter Moore said in a statement. “Farms are vital to the health of our local ecosystems, waterways and the region’s overall food system, growing the farm-fresh foods that we as a society value and cherish. Our Farmland Futures Initiative aims to protect San Mateo County’s valuable remaining farmland as farms before they are lost for good.”

In principle, a majority of otherwise clueless urban residents supports local farming, especially in foodie-friendly California. But a majority also supports freeways over two-lane highways, suburban sprawl over high-rise apartments and big box retail outlets over Main Street storefronts.

All of that requires development, which inexorably swallows up working farms in favor of housing developments, golf courses and shopping malls.

The only thing that changes that dynamic is the same thing that lures NFL teams out of their long-time home markets: Money.

Which is also a complicating factor in preserving California farmland.

Bay Area farmers not only face the usual challenges of weather events and market fluctuations, the acreage they till costs more than eight times the national average for farmland.

One positive factor is that San Mateo farms are situated between two of the country’s most prominent agricultural programs at UC-Davis and UC-Santa Cruz. Hopefully, the scientists and researchers at those institutions can help area farmers to maintain their competiveness with the help of advanced technologies.

Otherwise, what were once productive farms from which we all benefit will go the way of what the NFL likes to call its “outmoded” stadiums.


Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator