CAMPAIGNS: Sonoma farmers reign in support - Grassroots PR

Client: Sonoma County Farm Bureau (Santa Rosa, CA)

Client: Sonoma County Farm Bureau (Santa Rosa, CA)

Client: Sonoma County Farm Bureau (Santa Rosa, CA)

PR Team: Campaign Strategies

(San Diego)

Campaign: Save Our Farms

Time Frame: July - November 2000

Budget: dollars 521,000

Facing increasing development pressure from the flock of hi-tech and telecommunications companies moving to the area, Sonoma County proposed the Rural Heritage Initiative to quell public concerns about rapid growth and disappearing open space.

Measure I, as it came to be known, sought to require a public vote on rezoning of agricultural land and open space for commercial development.

It was heavily backed by environmentalists, and polls showed that nearly 60% of Sonoma County residents favored it.

But farmers opposed the proposition, saying it stripped them of their right to manage their land as they saw fit. The debate prompted the Sonoma County Farm Bureau to hire Campaign Strategies (CSI) to help it defeat the measure.


Preliminary polling showed that 45% of voters rated growth and over-development as the most important problem facing the county, and 71% said the county was growing too fast - both statistics which were seen as indicators that Measure I had a good chance of passing.

So CSI decided to first concentrate on getting the word out about the initiative's potentially negative impact. 'Although other groups had already completed analyses of the measure,' says CSI President Tom Shepard, 'our experience has been that such critiques tend to be one-dimensional and often miss issues that concern voters.'

The agency designated farmers as the spokespeople for the campaign against the measure. Builders, realtors and other development industry members, who, like the agricultural community, looked down on the measure, were discouraged from playing an active role in the campaign. The thinking was that they would be an easy target for the initiative's supporters.


In early September, while proponents of the measure were still organizing their campaign, the opposition used phone calls and mailers to present voters with a comprehensive critique of the measure. The goal was to raise serious questions about the unintended consequences of its passage. 'No on I' became the campaign slogan.

The farmers challenged a portion of the proponents' ballot argument in court. As a result, it was labeled 'false and misleading' and ordered stricken from voter information booklets distributed by the county.

The campaign maintained a high-profile grassroots effort that included placing thousands of signs at residences and farms, submitting letters to the editors of local newspapers and holding volunteer presentations at dozens of community and newspaper editorial board meetings and forums.

An aggressive direct mail, radio and television advertising effort also was used.

It featured local farmers describing the negative impacts of the measure on their operations.


A poll conducted by Santa Rosa's Press Democrat in mid-September showed support for Measure I had dropped dramatically, with 25% in favor, 25% opposed, and the remainder undecided.

During the final three weeks before the election, Measure I proponents, aided by nearly dollars 400,000 in contributions from wealthy supporters, used mail, radio, television and phone canvassing to advocate passage of the measure.

But their effort came too late. The campaign had already succeeded in making the public skeptical of Measure I's value. As a result, 57% of Sonoma County voters rejected the initiative. The campaign also clearly established the county's agricultural community as the key player in any future efforts to manage growth and preserve rural open spaces.

The battle drew attention from The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and other major publications as a bellwether of the tension between California's rapidly growing 'new economy' and preservation of its remaining rural areas.


The farm bureau and the area's wineries have since been working closely with the county government to create a comprehensive revision of its general plan to protect farmers' interests in development.

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