Ex-politicians new leaders on farmland group's board

The Farmland Working Group is celebrating its 10-year anniversary by adding political muscle.

Having spent a decade in mostly behind-the-scenes lobbying for farmland protection, the nonprofit group is getting new leadership with extensive experience inside the halls of government.

"I suggested we become more vocal," said Denny Jackman, a former Modesto city councilman and longtime advocate of managed growth. He became chairman of the Farmland Working Group when Turlock's Jeani Ferrari, who had led the group since its inception, stepped down.

Also boosting the group's political clout are former Oakdale City Councilman Phil Rockey, former Newman City Councilman Timothy Parker and retired Stanislaus County planning director Ron Freitas, all of whom recently joined Jackman's board of directors.

Videos and newsletter

The Farmland Working Group traces it origins to a 1995 meeting facilitated by then-Rep. Gary Condit where attendees expressed alarm at rampant growth. Four years later, the group officially organized and has been active since in trying to educate people on the evils of sprawl.

Under Ferrari's leadership, the Farmland Working Group produced videos for high school curricula and has published a newsletter three times a year. Its popular "We Are Watching" presents an easy-to-digest roundup of land-use issues confronting policy-makers throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley.

Jackman's activism spans four decades. He helped establish the nation's first curbside recycling program in Modesto in the early 1970s and served a term at Modesto City Hall, ending in 2005.

His most impressive success may have come in February 2008, when voters throughout Stanislaus County embraced his initiative giving voters more control over housing developments in rural areas.

Taking the helm of the Farmland Working Group, which Jackman has helped lead for years as a board director, "is just a continuum of activity," he said.

Examples of smart-growth leadership by Rockey and Parker are well-documented. Freitas might be a more curious choice, however, having led the county's development department during a period of unprecedented growth.

Jackman said he invited Freitas aboard because the new Farmland Working Group needs his insight and expertise. Planning isn't inherently evil, Jackman said, but can be an instrument for thoughtful, sustainable growth.

"I don't kill the messenger," Jackman said of Freitas.

Believes in the mission

Freitas said he isn't trying to "atone for sins" of sprawl, as have other planners who later reformed into slow-growth activists. "I believe in what they're doing," he said of the Farmland Working Group.

"Having been born and raised here, with all of my family involved in agriculture, I'm really the only one who wasn't and (farming) is still in my blood. I'd like to see it continue."

The Farmland Working Group lately has pushed farmland mitigation policies requiring developers to permanently preserve some farmland for every acre they build on.

"That's not anti-development; that's just trying to protect our future," Freitas said.

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Bee staff writer Garth Stapley can be reached at or 578-2390.