Farm Land In Santa Barbara County
In the Goleta Valley, where carrots once could grow as big as a man, the fate of some of the last, best farmland hangs in the balance.
The county wants to rezone nearly 100 acres of agricultural land between the cities of Santa Barbara and Goleta for residential use, a move that could ultimately replace orchards, strawberry fields and a Christmas tree farm with hundreds of homes.
And while environmentalists and some policymakers try to find ways to preserve these islands, the landowners themselves appear resigned to seeing the urban tide wash over their acreage.
"It's sort of a tragedy," said Lisa Plowman, a deputy director of county Planning and Development "The land is perfect for agriculture and it's perfect for housing. We're looking at very difficult choices about how we're going to accommodate growth. We're going to start running out of land."
Under state housing mandates, the county must find a way to squeeze 1,180 more homes into the unincorporated South Coast or sacrifice millions of dollars in funding for affordable units.
Here, in one of the most expensive real estate markets in the country, only the well off can afford to buy market rate homes. Studies show that the middle class is draining away, commuting in on a congested highway while the poor are squeezed into crowded apartments, sharing the rent.
The farmland now under review a potential site for housing encompasses 51 acres at Hollister Avenue and San Marcos Road, where Lane Farms, the McCloskey Ranch and San Marcos Growers have operated for years; 26 acres on North Patterson Avenue, the site of the languishing Noel Christmas Tree Farm; and 17 acres on Calle Real, once a productive lettuce farm and now a vacant lot that the county Housing Authority hopes to buy from the Metropolitan Transit District.
"It's a sin to pave over that land" said Chris Thompson, a field manager for John Givens Organically Grown, one of the largest farming operations in the urban Goleta Valley. "You've got a climate where you can grow five crops of lettuce on a field in a year! When you put people on there, all they produce is trash and pollution and waste that has to go into the treatment plant"
Beginning May 1, the county will hold a series of community workshops to help determine whether and how the farmland in the Hollister agricultural block could be rezoned for residential use and developed. If rezoning is approved by the county Board of Supervisors later this year, officials say, the future projects could include affordable housing, libraries and community centers - even a small neighborhood farm.
"If urban agriculture converts, it should have a high public value," Ms. Plowman said.
According to the American Farmland Trust, a nonprofit group, the United States annually loses 1.2 million acres of agricultural land to development-an area about the size of Delaware. That's two acres of farmland lost per minute.
The bedroom communities of the Goleta Valley have swallowed up 1,000 acres of farmland during the past 30 years, county reports show. The farmland now under review represents 10 percent of the last 920 acres of land zoned for agricultural use south of Cathedral Oaks Rd.
For the loyal customers of the Lane Farms fruit and vegetable stand on Hollister, the loss of this land to housing tracts is alarming.
"Would 'heartbroken' be too strong a word?" asked Barbara Greenleaf, a Goleta Valley resident and a leader of the Coalition for Sensible Planning, a homeowners group.
"We don't look at agricultural land as developments-in-waiting," Ms. Greenleaf said. "It's such a neat community amenity to see these lands under cultivation. We desperately need the breathing space. The ability to have locally grown organic produce is so spectacular, it's something all Santa Barbarans should work to preserve."
The GOOD LAND
Santa Barbara County has a long history of rejecting development on prime farmland. In its most recent general plan for the Goleta Valley, completed in 1993 after about 40 hearings and workshops, the 51-acre Hollister block was named as one of the community's top three priorities for long-term agriculture.
The other two were the 287-acre Bishop Ranch on Cathedral Oaks, now in the city of Goleta; and a 610-acre block of row crops, lemon orchards and greenhouses on South Patterson Avenue.
The Goleta Valley plan states that land zoned for agriculture "shall be preserved" unless it can no longer be farmed or there is an "overriding public need" for some other use.
The south-facing valley is blessed with deep, fertile soil, gentle topography and a climate most farmers could only dream about. Once so bounteous it was called "The Good Land," it's still one of the premier places in the world to grow things.
A few die-hard farmers in the urban area of the valley, mostly tenants on the land, are harvesting a cornucopia of semitropical and temperate-zone crops, including strawberries, peaches, avocados, cherimoyas, lemons, eggplant, lettuce, chard, corn, apples, pears, peppers, persimmons, watermelons, almonds, chestnuts, cabbage, green beans, pumpkins and dandelion greens. In the nurseries, orchids, tulips, roses, daffodils and exotic palm trees flourish.
These crops produced a total of $30 million in gross revenues in 2002, according to the county agricultural commissioner. Urban agriculture in the valley employs 1,000 people.
Yet there is scarcely a landowner left who is not looking for a way to get out of farming.
"The land itself is certainly worth more for development than it is for agriculture," said Brett Hodges, who owns 33 acres on the Hollister farmland between the Turnpike and Magnolia shopping centers. If he and his siblings could sell their land, Mr. Hodges said, they would relocate their successful wholesale nursery, San Marcos Growers.
Meanwhile, the Hodges family has signed a partnership with Michael Towbes, one of the South Coast's leading developers, for any future housing project on the property.
"We do love it the way it is, but we favor a rezone," Mr. Hodges said. "It might be in the community's best interest to use that property for work force housing."
It means that John Lane, a fourth-generation farmer who is leasing 10 acres from Mr. Hodges, might have to move again. Mr. Lane has leased 20 properties in the Goleta Valley during the past 30 years, picking up and leaving every time one was sold.
At one time, Mr. Lane was working on 200 acres. Now he farms on 44 acres - four that he owns at Hollister and Walnut Lane, and 40 that he leases from four different landlords, including Mr. Hodges. Mr. Lane will be the last in his family to farm. His two daughters are teachers.
"I'll just farm as long as I can," Mr. Lane said. "I'll move around as best I can, or I'll pick up some land in outlying areas. We've held steady for a while, but I can see it coming.
"I have never been on a piece of ground that's been saved yet"
'PEBBLE IN A LAKE'
Twenty-five years ago, in the heady early days of organic agriculture in California, the Goleta Valley was a hotbed of self-taught farmers out to change the world. They soon began shipping truckloads of fruit and vegetables to San Francisco, Seattle, Texas and Maryland. They were among the first in the country to produce the popular gourmet salad mix, washed, bagged and ready to eat
"In the wintertime, we used to feed everybody in California who wanted organic produce," said Steve Sprinkel, who now runs a three-acre farm and a restaurant in Ojai. "It's quite an important piece of California history. We proved that you could be sustainable and economically viable on small acreage.
"What happened in Goleta was like dropping a pebble in a lake. The ripples that went out from that experience ended up touching lots and lots of lives.”
A community farm on Hollister was an incubator of sorts, providing small plots to young zealots. But many of those pioneers have since left the valley, having lost their leases or their enthusiasm.
Peter Risley, who farmed for more than 15 years on Hollister and ran the stand there, is now in Morro Bay doing tractor work and wishing he could farm again.
"I grew some excellent strawberries on Hollister, I don't know if you've heard," he said. "But that's history, because it's going to be chomped up and destroyed. That valley is shot"
Randy Wade, who founded the first farmers market on the South Coast in 1979, has scaled back to an old peach orchard in Mission Canyon. He derives most of his income from handyman and construction work.
"I've gotten discouraged with farming as I've grown older," Mr. Wade said. "I'm happy I changed careers, to be honest with you."
Tom Shepherd, who invented his own version of Shepherd's Salad, a mix of organic baby lettuce, spinach, arugula and endive, has retreated to 10 acres in Carpinteria.
Steve Musick, the last person to farm the MTD property on Calle Real, recalled producing a ton of salad mix per acre every spring, summer and fall in the early 1990s. He would spin it in a converted washing machine.
"We did a sweet mix of 12 to 18 different lettuces," Mr. Musick said, "it was the cat's meow! We would sell 300 to 500 pounds per week"
Two trailblazers still working in the Goleta Valley are Mr. Thompson and his boss, Mr. Givens, who started farming on less than two acres in 1979, clearing tree stumps and piles of junk on South Patterson.
Mr. Givens is now leasing 130 acres on six properties within the urban limits of the Goleta Valley. But every year, he said, he loses about five acres to one of his landlords. Mr. Givens recently leased 20 acres at El Capitan Ranch, but the soil is marginal and there's not much water.
Mr. Givens said he needs 250 acres to compete with the corporate organic farms elsewhere in the state. Now he is looking for property to buy near Buellton, where he can relocate his entire operation. For one thing, he said, that's where most of his workers live.
"I'd rather be in the Goleta Valley," Mr. Givens said. "But we're getting smalled out I just keep getting pinched for land all the time. It's ongoing, and is not going to stop. I'd like to be in one place."
'TIME TO MOVE ON'
Owning the land is no guarantee of success, either. Larry Cavaletto, the owner of the Noel Christmas Tree Farm, has watched his cut-and-sell business plummet from a peak of 4,500 trees per year in the late 1980s to only 135 last year.
Mr. Cavaletto was not available for an interview this month. But his lawyer, Jeff Nelson, said the family had lost ground over the years to roadside stands and big stores such as Home Depot. The Cavaletto farm lost all of its Monterey pines to disease in the 1990s. And not many people want to cut their own trees anymore, Mr. Nelson said.
"There's no way Mr. Cavaletto can compete with noble firs being brought in from Oregon to local stands and retailers," Mr. Nelson said. "It's time to move on."
The 26-acre Christmas tree farm is on Patterson just south of Cathedral Oaks and is surrounded by housing tracts, Mr. Cavaletto is proposing to build 134 homes and include a three-acre park. It's his 12th proposal in four years of talks with the county and the neighbors.
On Calle Real, the county Housing Authority is negotiating with MTD for an option to buy the 17 acres where Mr. Musick used to farm. The Housing Authority's plan for the property includes 300 "starter" homes for the middle class, at prices well under market, and 102 apartments for low-income families.
"Agriculture? Why here?" asked Fred Lamont, executive director. "Maybe it made sense 100 years ago, but not now."
That's the view of Leslie Beckman, whose ancestors were among the first to settle on prime farmland along what is now Hollister Avenue. Now the family's avocado orchards have been lost to root rot, and Ms. Beckman is leasing a portion of their 11-acre property to John Lane. Ms. Beckman and her two sisters live outside the county. They all favor rezoning for housing.
"The land is sitting there, doing nothing." Ms. Beckman said, "It's just not economically feasible to farm."
A housing tract sits in the middle of the Hollister agricultural block, the 52-unit Sungate project, built in the late 1980s. It's right next to the seven-acre McCloskey Ranch, where two sisters, Kim Miller and Marnie Lelande, own an avocado orchard and an orchid nursery.
Except for the tract homes, it's a world apart from the busy traffic on Hollister two blocks away.
Ms. Miller and Ms. Lelande own larger orchards in Carpinteria and Camarillo. They might some day like to sell the family's Hollister property, they said, to help their children buy some homes.
Ms. Lelande takes a dim view of the neighborhood opposition.
"All of these people live on dead orchards," she said. "They think we should be there for the benefit of their view. If they want to say what to do with the land, they should buy it"
The sisters sell their avocados and orchids at eight farmers markets, traveling as far as Santa Clarita. But will their children choose the ranching life? They're not sure.
"We love doing what we do," Ms. Miller said. "I'm a farmer, and I don't want to ever have to sell anything here. But we're being squeezed out. If they rezone all this, we're jumping on the bandwagon. I'm not going to be left in a tiny agricultural preserve in downtown Goleta."
ONE FARM SAVED
In Ventura County, the American Farmland Trust is working with farmers, community groups and local governments to place an initiative on the November ballot for a one eighth-cent increase in the sales tax, to be used for farmland and open space preservation.
The Ventura effort is modeled after the Sonoma County Agricultural Preservation and Open Space district, approved by the voters in 1990 and based on a quarter-cent increase in the sales tax. Sonoma County has collected $80 million to date.
As of 2002, $45 million of it had been spent to protect 27,000 acres, primarily through the purchase of development rights.
Only one farm in the Goleta Valley is guaranteed to stay in agriculture forever the historic 12-acre Fairview Gardens near the corner of Cathedral Oaks and Fairview Avenue. In 1997, the community purchased the land for $800,000 in state and local funds, about half the market value, from Cornelia Chapman of Hope Ranch.
Today, Fairview Gardens, an organic farm, is operated by the nonprofit Center for Urban Agriculture. Executive director Michael Ableman, who has written two books about the farm, gets invitations to speak everywhere in the country except, he said, in his own back yard.
"I'm saddened that we haven't had more of an impact," Mr. Ableman said. "We never thought of' Fairview Gardens as an island, standing on its own. I thought we were providing the model that others would follow."
But even Mr. Ableman has sought greener pastures. Unable to afford land in the Goleta Valley, he's bought a farm on an island off the coast of British Columbia. He spends part of every year there now.
Environmentalists are urging Santa Barbara County to refrain from rezoning any more prime agricultural land for housing. There must he a way to spread the new homes throughout the community and spare the best farmland, they say.
"We don't want to give away the farm, literally," said Dave Fortson, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Action Network. "We want to he certain we've exhausted all other options to provide housing this community needs."
Linda Krop, chief counsel for the Environmental Defense Center, said, "The County should send a clear message that the zoning is not going to change."
At the very least, said Michael Feeney, executive director of the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County. Landowners who sell farmland for housing should pay fees to help save farms somewhere else.
"They get a huge windfall," Mr. Feeney said. "If history tells us anything, we don't have very many years left before the decision will be made to develop those remaining agricultural lands and we won’t have anything to fight for anymore."
The farmers themselves say it may be too late, and they're not sure the public cares. They've seen how people won't tolerate holes in their organic lettuce, ladybugs in their salad or clods of dirt on their spinach. They've all fielded complaints about dust manure and roosters.
John Lane and his wife, Ruth, can remember how it used to be, years ago, when whole families would drive out to the produce stand on Hollister and stand in line for sweet corn. They even had to take a number.
Today, Mr. Lane said, even some of his regular customers are often too busy to stop by.
"They all want me to stay there and all that" he said, “but they shop at Costco."
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