A recent study warns against the vanishing ag industry in Santa Barbara County, and provides suggestions for keeping crops viable
BY JOHN MCREYNOLDS
Santa Maria, in 50 years, could be as paved as Oxnard.
The rest of Santa Barbara County could be a hilly scrubland prone to San Diego-style wildfires.
That's the chilling prediction by American Farmland Trust (AFT), a national expert in farmland preservation.
Impossible, you say. Agriculture in Santa Barbara County is a $2 billion industry. It's vaulted the county to the top 1 percent in the nation for ag revenue. Who would pave it?
Yet in 2002, more than half of county farms lost money. So writes Julia Freedgood of AFT in a 145-page report submitted to the county late last year.
"The total number of farms in Santa Barbara County declined 18 percent in just five years, from 1997 to 2002," she points out.
Record-setting revenues don't seem to square with dire predictions, but look at the numbers: A whopping 90 percent of sales came from just 14 percent of the farms. Strawberries, for example, generate 23 percent of county ag revenue on just 1 percent of harvested land.
At the same time, cattle ranching, which covers 81 percent of ag land, is on life support.
Vibrant industries tend to attract young people, but in Santa Barbara County, farm operators are becoming gray senior citizens while few members of the more youthful population are taking their places. In 2002, almost a third of operators were older than 65, while only 15 percent were younger than 44.
"Forces are in play for a significant transfer of land in the next decade," Freedgood warns.
While grazing land languishes, more than 2,800 acres of prime farmland around Santa Maria has turned to concrete and asphalt over 30 years. Since April 2000, Santa Maria's population increased another 16.7 percent, and bulldozers continue to rip.
"While opportunities remain for agriculture to thrive in Santa Barbara County, this is dependent on farm-friendly land use policies," Freedgood says, wagging a finger at decision-makers. "Santa Barbara County is at a crossroads."
So who is this woman? She's no pinstriped corporate flack paid to pad ag's bottom line. She brings credentials in some ways as green as Al Gore. Just Google "saving farmland." Hers is the first organization to appear.
American Farmland Trust began in 1980. As its director of technical assistance and land protection, Freedgood is an expert on maintaining agriculture in the face of urban advances. She oversees 100,000 acres of open land conservation easements. As a national leader in farmland protection, she led teams developing strategies to protect farmland in Solano and San Diego counties and up and down the East Coast. She has conducted more than 40 "Cost of Community Services" studies and authored Saving American Farmland: What Works.
In the local report, Freedgood and her staff underscore the environmental benefits at risk as agricultural ground is lost. Nearly half of Santa Barbara County's total land area is held by private owners engaged in agriculture.
"Well managed agricultural lands provide biodiversity, habitat for endangered species, carbon sequestration, improved soil and water quality, and fire suppression," Freedgood said.
But for those services, and for the relaxed rural lifestyle they anchor, their proprietors receive no payment.
AFT's work, given the bound-for-the-dustbin title of "SB County Agricultural Resources Environmental/Economic Assessment (AREA) Study" was commissioned in 2006 by the county after bitter wrangling between farmers and county agencies over oak tree protection. The county agreed to fund the study and use it in revising its rules.
Fields of houses
Whatever the county's approach to handling agriculture, Freedgood argues that the subtle driving force that threatens the industry is urbanization.
As subdivisions take more space, they create higher land costs for farmers who compete for the remaining land. More than 25,000 more acres of county farmland are already slated for future development, Freedgood found. While farmland prices rise, they still don't go as high as commercial and residential real estate, which sells at prices 10 times higher.
Rising land prices rule out expansion for farmers and starve out infrastructure like auction yards and supply stores. And they worsen a host of other challenges. The cost of labor is up 30 percent in 10 years as housing costs rise ever higher, causing labor to turn over more rapidly. Expansion of strawberry acreage pits vegetable growers against berrymen for available workers, raising costs further.
New residents from urban areas buy homes in the area because they love the rural "feel" of Santa Maria, Lompoc, and other county towns, but are rarely aware of the rising costs borne by agriculture. Sometimes they even create more expenses due to vandalism or trespassing.
It's ironic for a county that once lived entirely on ranching, but the outlook is most dreary in the cattle industry. Ranching has the biggest footprint (81 percent, some 600,000 acres) of county ag land, yet between 1997 and 2002, fully 40 percent of cattle operations in the county left the business.
While costs--especially fuel and hay to feed stock in dry years-- rocket upward, ranchers' beef prices haven't kept pace. In fact, they've fallen through the floor. Since 1981, beef prices, adjusted for inflation, are down 25 percent. More than 18,000 acres are no longer grazed, according to Freedgood's study. The county's two feedlots are gone, as is the old Buellton auction yard. Remaining ranchers truck their cattle to Templeton, or even Idaho.
A few large-scale producers may be able to hold their ground, Freedgood writes, but the rest "will need to seek alternative revenue sources to survive.
"As the profitability of this sector decreases, the likelihood of rangeland conversion increases," she continues. "Unless the county moves quickly this is likely to have significant impacts on environmental quality and pose considerable land use challenges."
Some grazing land could be converted to vineyards or even strawberries, but the potential looms for massive stretches turning to urban uses or ranchettes, what the AFT calls "The Subtle Sprawl."
Recommendations for growers
Despite the paving on the horizon, the concrete is not yet poured. Farmers and ranchers still have time. Freedgood included new strategies for the county and for growers in her report.
To growers, she recommends intensified production (vegetable farmers are already placing each plant closer to the next) and higher-value specialty crops. Growers might also do more direct marketing.
"Farm-to-chef, farm-to-school, direct to retail: specialty stores or large supermarket chains--Whole Foods is promoting this now and even Wal-Mart is investigating purchasing more product directly from farmers," she wrote in an e-mail to the Sun.
Ranchers need to continue to convert grazing lands to high value crops like wine grapes, she says, and they should look at alternative revenue streams, like wind energy farms and tourism.
They might raise horses instead of cattle.
"Many places experiencing the kinds of pressures Santa Barbara County is facing have expanded their equine industries," Freedgood suggested in her e-mail. "Most states consider horse breeding commercial agriculture. Horses can be used for recreation and sport--racing, show jumping, polo, etc.--as well as raising breeding stock for sale."
Another possibility is to capitalize on the lucrative market for "grass-fed" or "natural" meat.
"In a project we did in the Rocky Mountain states, we found that there are mobile abattoirs, which work particularly well for niche markets and people selling meat directly to consumers," she noted.
A truly visionary approach might be to pay ranchers directly for the environmental services--the carbon sequestration, the fire protection, the endangered habitats--that they provide.
"State or federal legislation would be good, but there are local level pilot projects in carbon trading, water quality, etc. sprouting up around the country, and no reason that a county like Santa Barbara could not create a program of their own," she wrote.
A few examples
Tentative steps were already in motion along a few of the lines Freedgood suggested.
The vegetable-growing Rice family plans to put up a 70,000-square-foot cooler and packing building southeast of Santa Maria, enabling the firm to package specialty products and respond to new food safety regulations. According to spokesman Andy Rice, it will take 27 acres out of production--but will ensure that 5,000 acres remain profitable.
"We're doing it to preserve agriculture," Rice said.
"Ecotourism" could capitalize on the 11 million people in Los Angeles County who yearn to breathe fresh air. A bed-and-breakfast at a cattle ranch with horses to ride and stock to feed could be a dream for an urbanite.
"I've had people come out to throw hay to the cattle," said Los Olivos rancher Willy Chamberlin.
Chamberlin has staged bicycle races, weddings, and parties on his ranch.
"If I can make money by using my land for these alternative uses, that brings me enough money that I can stay in the cattle business," he said.
Energy-generating wind turbines also generate royalties to the landowner. They're a natural for cattle ranches in windy areas. Rancher Leroy Scolari and five neighbors southwest of Lompoc have signed contracts with Acciona, a Spanish alternative energy firm, to put up 70 turbines. Scolari visited wind farms in Tehachapi and liked what he saw.
"Cattle can graze right up to them," he said. "There's almost no impact to the agriculture operation."
Recommendations to the county
Freedgood calls on the county to innovate as well.
"Santa Barbara County agriculture's future depends, at least in part, on how well the county manages the rural-urban interface," she said.
Yet the biggest obstacle to turning marginal grazing land into high-value wine grape vineyards is the county's regulatory framework, she said: "It appears the county has begun to employ an urban planning process to agriculture, treating agricultural improvements as new developments, regardless of scale."
The county should streamline time-consuming permit procedures by multiple agencies as Monterey County and San Diego County have done, she explains. And the county and other agencies have indeed begun talks on this, according to Santa Barbara County Ag Commissioner Bill Gillette.
To protect ag land from development, the county might establish a program of conservation easements that lock in farming rights in perpetuity. Freedgood cites examples of Brentwood and Davis, which have required housing developers to set aside farmland in "No Net Loss" programs. To date, according to Gillette, conservation easements negotiated here have not involved the county.
The county could also offer flexibility for wine tasting rooms or greenhouses or Rice's vegetable facility. It ought to "help agriculture flourish instead of restricting it or trying to preserve it simply as open space," Freedgood continued. Rice's cooler will be a prime test. Current regulations allow buildings of only 20,000 square feet.
"Farmers across California complain about the Endangered Species Act, but they don't complain about local grading ordinances," as they do in Santa Barbara County, Freedgood added in an interview with the Sun.
"There is considerable misunderstanding and miscommunication between the county planning staff and the agricultural community," she wrote.
According to Gillette, the county has no reaction to that assertion.
At least some farmers are only moderately pleased with Freedgood's report. They think it wasn't tough enough on the county.
"The study did a good job proving the vulnerability of ag, especially the largest segment of ag, being rangeland, but it did not go far enough," e-mailed Andy Caldwell of COLAB (Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business), which brought a lawsuit in opposition to an oak tree ordinance, which led to the study. "The study fell short in juxtaposing the negative impact on ag that has been wrought through overzealous enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, along with other local regulatory efforts, including the oak tree ordinance."
The county is taking a wait-and-see attitude with no hearings or formal response to the study.
"It's a document that provides a lot of information," Ag Commissioner Gillette said. "How much and what types of projects remain to be seen."
To all parties, Freedgood calls for a halt both to business as usual and to fire-breathing rhetoric. In her interview with the Sun, she urged a new recognition of common interests.
"If people can stop stirring up trouble and work to solve these problems, there's a lot of common ground between the environmentalists and the farm community."
If they don't stop stirring, she seems to imply, they can burn and pave instead.
INFOBOX: Land one for yourself
The study is available on line at www.countyofsb.org/agcomm/advisory/SB_AREA%20Study_Final_12_12_07-2.pdf.
Contact freelancer John McReynolds through the executive editor at email@example.com.
Comment on this Article
| Submit your Story Idea
| View Archives