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California Forever Lawsuit Looms as Solano County Farmers Fight Back

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An older white man and an older white woman, stand on farmland looking at the camera.
Margaret and Ian Anderson stand on the farmland the Anderson family has owned for generations in Birds Landing, Solano County, on Dec. 5, 2023, before a town hall meeting for California Forever, a proposed new California city backed by Silicon Valley investors on farmland in eastern Solano County. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Ian and Margaret Anderson’s lives revolve around their over 100-year-old farm, E.A. Anderson and Son Ranch., in the Montezuma Hills of Solano County. They raise thousands of sheep and grow grains like wheat, safflower and canola. Recently, they started growing malting barley, which can be used to make beer.

“Grains are the most productive crops here,” said Ian Anderson. “We’ve had really good crops over the last few years.”

The Andersons own about 1,500 acres, but have always farmed on thousands of acres more that they rent from relatives, neighbors and utility agencies. Each year, a third of the land is reserved for sheep grazing, another third for crops and the final third lays fallow to let the soil rest.

An older white man seen from behind with sheep and a farmhouse in the background.
Ian Anderson walks through the farmland the Anderson family has owned for generations in Birds Landing, Solano County, on Dec. 5, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

But a few years ago, their world started to turn upside down. In 2017, Flannery Associates, a company backed by Silicon Valley billionaires, started buying thousands of acres of farmland around them to build a new city from scratch. The Andersons weren’t interested in selling their land when the company first approached them in 2019.

“It’s not just about the money,” said Ian. “It’s about who we are and what we do. We have value in growing our crops and raising our livestock. That is more meaningful than cashing in on money and then trying to start a new life somewhere else.”

Now, the Andersons and other landowners are embroiled in a bitter lawsuit with the company. Even if the case gets dismissed, the Andersons are unsure whether they can continue operating their farm as the hills change around them.

A new California dream

California Forever, the parent company of Flannery Associates, wants to “bring back the California Dream” — a dream that includes offices close to homes, with restaurants and small businesses lining the streets in between. The details of how that city will be built are still hazy.

Jan Sramek, the company’s CEO, envisions a sustainable city with plenty of bike paths and public transportation to rival Berlin or Paris. They aim to solve some of the state’s biggest problems: housing affordability, long commutes and clean energy.

An older white woman and a younger white woman to her left during a town hall, the older woman is speaking into a microphone.
Margaret Anderson and her daughter Maryn Johnson speak during a town hall meeting in Rio Vista on Dec. 5, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“People have been trying to solve these issues for 30 years,” said Sramek. “Every time someone says ‘I don’t like your project for these reasons’ we say, okay, what’s your proposal for fixing these issues? Because it’s really easy to be a critic.”

Sramek and his team have been coming face to face with some of their critics, as they have spent the past month campaigning across Solano County to get more residents on board with the planned community. Before it can be built, voters will have to approve the project when it appears on their November ballot.

But the company has faced trouble earning trust among residents who have shown up to question Sramek at a series of town hall meetings. Some are unsure how it will make its proposed plans a reality, which show, among other things, a high-speed rail line running through this remote farmland. Others are still skeptical of Flannery’s motives after it started purchasing more than 60,000 acres in secrecy in 2017.

Though the Andersons say they were uninterested in selling their land to the company, the lawsuit Flannery Associates filed in May alleged they and about 35 farmers and landowners colluded with each other to price-fix their land and not sell to the company unless it met a specific price.

Though Ian and Margaret Anderson have held onto the land they own, many of the neighbors whose land they rented have sold to Flannery. Last season, the Andersons continued to farm on 1,200 acres of that land, renting it from Flannery on a monthly basis. In February, they received an eviction notice with a 30-day notice to vacate the land. They had been growing wheat and barley there.

“I was really excited to have this over 2-ton crop of barley and wheat,” said Ian. “It’s kinda how you value your life when you’re a farmer, when you grow great crops, it makes you feel good, when the ground is suitable for growing really great crops. We fought and fought and fought to avoid losing the entire crop.”

A white middle aged man gestures as he speaks to a woman.
Jan Sramek, CEO of California Forever, answers a question from Maryn Johnson, daughter of Ian and Margaret Anderson, during a town hall meeting in Rio Vista on Dec. 5, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Eventually, they were allowed to harvest the crops, but had to pay 30% of the revenue to the company. Now, the Andersons have gone from grazing and planting on about 10,000 acres to just about 3,500.

They’re hoping the case gets dismissed, but they say the lawsuit, now seven months old, has been a financial drain. While they still have savings for retirement, they’ve reduced their farmhand staff from 10 employees to five and have started selling some of their sheep to keep their farm financially afloat.

“We’re no longer looking to invest in new equipment,” said Ian Anderson. “We’re basically trying to figure out a downsized operation — if we can still keep doing it.”

A farm that has adapted

Ian Anderson’s great-grandfather moved from Denmark to the Montezuma Hills sometime after 1865. He secured farmland for himself and, ultimately, for each of his sons as they reached adulthood. One of those sons, Ian’s grandfather, started a farming operation that morphed into E.A. Anderson & Son.

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The Andersons don’t rely on irrigation, instead practicing dryland or rain-fed farming, which requires large swaths of land to soak up the rain. As climate change has brought whiplash between heavy rainfall and intense drought, they have had to adapt their methods. Instead of plowing their fallow land, they now disk the fields, which just turns the soil over and conserves more moisture from one season to the next.

But now that most of the land is gone, the Andersons are unsure whether they can adapt enough to carry on. They had hoped their son Neil would eventually take over the family farm.

“Since he was a toddler, he wanted nothing more than to be out on the farm,” Margaret said. “When Ian came back from college and was working with his dad, he took the farm to the next level beyond what his dad did. And Neil is doing the same kind of thing. But all of a sudden, it’s very questionable.”

The need for more housing

Ian and Margaret Anderson understand the need for more housing and jobs in Solano County. They can respect where Jan Sramek’s desire for a truly dense city comes from. But to build all that in the middle of the Montezuma Hills, far away from highways, public transportation and most of the jobs people already have doesn’t make sense to them.

A farmhouse with trees behind it and windvanes on a hill in the background.
A barn stands on the EA Anderson Ranch, farmland the Anderson family has owned for generations, in Birds Landing, Solano County, on Dec. 5, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“When we see our cities in Solano County that really could use a boost to increase the quality of housing and volume of housing, versus going out into a brand new area and starting every bit of infrastructure from scratch, it can’t be anything other than what could be called sprawl.”

They are worried California Forever will turn the hills into another San José, a sprawling suburban city that used to be farmland too.

According to the American Farmland Trust, the U.S. loses 2000 acres of farmland per day. California Forever justifies building their new city in the Montezuma Hills because the farmland is not considered “prime.” But the Andersons disagree.

“For generations, we have grown crops that don’t further drain from California’s limited water supply,” said Margaret. “We can’t continue [developing] at this pace and expect our country to remain food secure.”

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