Sunday, May 20 , 2018, 7:54 am | A Few Clouds 53º


Peter Adam: Santa Barbara County Agriculture Deserves More Than ‘Half a Loaf’ from Local Elite

Agriculture in northern Santa Barbara County, or the Colonies as I refer to us, had a bad day at the Oct. 13 Board of Supervisors meeting. Along the usual 3-2 lines, I lost my bid to legalize 4,500 acres of existing berry hoops and to preserve the ability of farmers to innovate and evolve to stay economically viable.

Supervisor Peter Adam
Supervisor Peter Adam

Berry hoops covered with a plastic membrane are tools that have been developed to enable the production of high-value crops such as raspberries, blackberries and blueberries. Hoops protect the fragile flowers from being lost to rain or wind.

No hoops means no berries, plain and simple.

Other benefits include saving water, using less pesticides and fertilizer, and creating a better working environment for workers. Hoops represent an investment of around $15,000 per acre, and they generate unsecured property tax for the county that could be spent on such things as road maintenance or mental health services.

These essential production tools have evolved without any complaints from the public whatsoever. Ridiculously, because they are more than 12 feet tall and stay in the field for more than six months, the county treats them as “permanent buildings” instead of the temporary crop protection tools that they are.

Rather than simply hoping that nobody would notice that 4,500 existing acres of this tool require permits and are essentially illegal, I tried to fix the problem. My fix did not pass.

The problem is not the current hoops. The problem is that agriculture evolves. Farmers work their whole lives to improve the processes, yields and quality.

Most businesses can simply change what they do to increase efficiency. But for agriculture, my colleagues on the Board of Supervisors want to force people to ask permission to make these changes — permission that is infamously expensive, time consuming and uncertain.

My South Coast colleagues (including First District Supervisor Salud Carbajal who is running to represent the Colonies in Congress) fail to understand — or do not care — that practices used in crop production are developed slowly and with great expense.

My colleagues think that the growers build the “buildings” and then plant crops under them, but the reverse is true. The crops are planted, and only then are the hoops installed.

Berry hoops do not have foundations or footings. They have none of the hallmarks of permanent structures. Berry hoops should be exempt from these regulations.

In fact, an exemption DOES exist for the exact same technique if the hoops are covered in shade cloth. This exemption is most often used in the First District, in the Carpinteria area that Carbajal represents.

A critical component of the discussion was the current 12-foot height limit. I argued that we should not limit the creativity and innovation that are required to keep local agriculture on the cutting edge of industry evolution.

We should give them the flexibility to experiment and not have to ask for permission before trying a new technique. Growers should not have to choose between running afoul of our antiquated county code and developing new technologies that produce more with less.

The best way to keep agriculture viable is to keep it profitable. For all of the lip service our South Coast colleagues give to “protecting agricultural viability,” the only thing I can see (as a farmer who grows more than 4,000 acres of open field vegetables, and has no hoops or berries) is that they want to “preserve” us as a diorama, a kind of agricultural snow-globe that they can look at when they drive by.

They do not want to see the crops change. They want the same viewshed preserved, as in formaldehyde, unchanging and available to them whenever they wish.

Well folks, that isn’t how it works. If agriculture isn’t allowed the freedom to evolve, it will perish.

None of the crops that are the staples today in the Santa Maria Valley, and in fact in the county, were much thought of 75 years ago. My grandfather used half of the ranch for feed for the horses, which was the diesel fuel of its day. I can’t imagine having to convince my colleagues to let me use a tractor so we could grow food on the other half of the ranch.

During our lunch break, Mr. Carbajal told me I need to learn to “take half a loaf.” He meant that I should have suggested a height limit that would cover existing “structures” only. Instead, I suggested a height limit that would allow agriculture to evolve.

What Mr. Carbajal didn’t understand was that this was a test. Would he genuinely support agriculture? Would he give the North County an analogous exemption to that available to his constituents on the South Coast?

As our congressman, would he protect true agricultural viability or would he simply support “snow-globe” farms so he and his South Coast elite friends can drive by and enjoy the view? I think he showed us where he stands.

Peter Adam represents the Fourth District on the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors. The opinions expressed are his own.

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