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Since the last big storm hit Santa Barbara County and flooded parts of Orcutt and Guadalupe, I have heard many comments saying that it is the farmers’ fault. It always surprises me when farmers are the first to get blamed. Are they such an easy target that people do not put any critical thinking into other possible contributing factors? What about urbanization? Poor planning and construction? Overgrown weeds, trees and shrubs in retention basins, drainage systems and riverbeds? Do we think so little of farmers that we are willing to believe city planners, contractors, maintenance workers, regulatory agencies, road developers and others are absolutely perfect in their work that they could not have possibly contributed to the situation?

Personally, I do not believe it is one reason more than any other. I think all are contributing factors.

Not to mention, this storm system was an act of God. A one in 25-year event, they say. Although I have also heard several farmers say they have never seen a storm like this in their lifetime.

Bottom line is that we, collectively as a community, were not prepared for this type of storm system. Besides, farmers were victims, too. The most recent estimate is at $35 million worth of damage to Santa Barbara County agriculture, and we are not done calculating.

My guess is that the next assumption from most people will be “farmers can afford recovery” or “insurance will cover losses.” While those statements are true, to some extent, they are also made in an effort to rationalize catastrophic impact. They are not constructive or empathetic remarks. They are minimizers. It is the equivalent of telling a friend who has been hurt “it could have been worse.”

We offer our condolences to victims whose homes have been flooded, but tell farmers, “Too bad, so sad.” Not only is this extremely unkind but narrow-minded. People are failing to realize that they will be affected by it, too.

We complain about the price of eggs, and that store shelves are emptier than normal. Perhaps, the Cardi B’s complaints about the price of lettuce being $7 will jog your memory?

From the damage I have seen in the Santa Maria Valley, most crops that came into contact with flood waters will have to be destroyed, and flooded ground cannot be replanted for a minimum of 30 to 60 days. These practices are required for prevention of pathogenic growth and the safety of our food supply.

From what I hear, Monterey County had it worse. Thousands of acres of farmland were under water.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of months when all these crops should have been sent to market. If we think it’s bad now, it has the potential to get worse.

As farmers, we will take some responsibility for flooding events. We do have a lot of ground under plastic that contributes to storm water run-off. But what you may not know is that we also have to adhere to strict state and federal regulations around the preservation of natural habitat and riparian areas that also contribute to storm water run-off.

It is partially those regulations that prohibit farmers from being able to adequately clean ditches and drainage canals to prevent flood damage to their fields and surrounding areas.

There is always more to the story than what meets the eye. We have become so quick to make judgments based on what we perceive rather than what is true.

Our entire legal system is predicated on innocence until proven guilty. Jurors must listen to all sides of the story and be presented with facts before they make a determination. Perhaps our opinions should be formed the same way.

*Also published in Noozhawk.

It has been said that the third generation takeover of a business is usually when it fails or sells. It should be no surprise when I say that the state of California has generally been unkind to businesses, especially ag businesses. Increasingly complex and overreaching regulations are forcing many family farms to shut down or sell out, not to mention, the complications that can arise when multiple generations and many members of the family are working for the business.

Most farms in our area are family-owned and operated, many within their 4th, 5th, or 6th generation of operation. What an incredible feat to keep a business successful for that many years with the uncertainty of farming! Agriculture is a very expensive, turbulent, and oftentimes stressful industry. Whether you start the business or inherit it, there’s a lot on the line.

As I reflect on this past election, I cannot help but think about what is ahead for our local farms. Farmers today are producing more food on less land, using less chemicals and less water, and leaving behind a smaller carbon footprint. Yet, the perception is that we are not doing enough to care for our land and  environmental resources. Upcoming regulation on electrification, water, wages, labor, and pesticides, among many others, will surely continue to squeeze the life out of California farming businesses. 

I fear what that may look like for our community.

Most local farmers I know, cannot imagine doing anything else. When you get them talking about an element of work they are passionate about, they light up. However, when they are talking about an element of work they are frustrated about, their demeanor completely changes. The sound of defeat is evident in their voice. It is as if they already know they are fighting a losing battle. They are warriors on the frontline of our domestic food supply, dodging and taking regulatory bullets, where some will survive, and some will not.

For the businesses that die, there is the potential for their farm ground to be leased or purchased by another local farmer. The more likely consequence however, is that if the farm ground is not converted for housing or commercial development, it will be leased or purchased by a non-local company. The reality of that outcome is that no one cares about the Santa Maria Valley more than Santa Marians. An investment group is not going to care about supporting the local football team, like the farmer who played on that high school football team. A CEO headquartered out of state isn’t going to fundraise millions of dollars to build a wing expanding our community hospital, like the farmer who wants to ensure his family and his employees receive the best possible healthcare.

Local farmers donate to the Food Bank, YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, Rape Crisis Center, Dignity Health, sports teams, 4-H and FFA, Young Farmers and Ranchers, CASA, American Cancer Society, and many other organizations that benefit our community. The more it costs them to do business, the less money that gets invested back into non-profit programs. The harder it becomes for those nonprofits to fundraise, the harder it is to serve those who need services the most.

Agriculture is the number one economic driver in our county. It is truly the backbone of our local economic success. As with the human body, a significant injury to the spine can potentially leave you paralyzed. Likewise, a significant injury to agriculture can paralyze an entire community.  Look what happened to farming in the Central Valley due to the San Francisco Bay Delta Smelt. Was it truly the Smelt's fault? No. People with good intentions tried to save a non-native fish, and the unintended consequences can still be felt throughout the region today. If you think something like this couldn’t happen locally, you might want to learn about steelhead trout in the Santa Maria River and the latest controls placed on the release of water from Twitchell Dam. While I encourage everyone to fight for the causes they believe in, I also encourage you to consider the potential impact your cause may have on our local farms, the industry, and agriculture as we know it today. 

*Also published in Noozhawk.

The Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner recently released its 2021 Crop Report and reported a 5.1% increase in revenue from 2020. While this is good news for our local industry and community, it only paints part of the picture.

The most important thing to understand is that revenue does not equal profit.

The Crop Report reports gross values and does not represent net profit or loss experienced by individual growers or the industry as a whole. For example, what the crop report does not take into account is:

  • The minimum wage increase that adds to labor costs
  • Inflation and supply chain shortages that have greatly increased farm expenses
  • Rising cost of health care and other insurances provided for employee health and safety
  • Increase in theft, crime, and vandalism which adds to labor and farm costs
  • Not all crops are created equally (e.g., strawberries had a great year, but avocados did not)

What farmers sell their produce for is subject to supply and demand. Farmers enter into contracts well before the crop is planted and sell it for a price based on projected demand.

For example, a farmer may enter into a contract for the following season to sell his or her strawberries for $1.88 per clamshell knowing it costs roughly $1.85 per clamshell to grow, harvest, and transport to a cooling facility. The Crop Report bases its numbers on the $1.88. However, for some farmers, the expenses could have surpassed the projected $1.85 costing them $1.87 or $1.89 per clamshell - numbers that are not reflected in the Crop Report.

It is also important to remember that whatever price your local grocery store is selling the strawberry clamshell for, it does not change the price of what a farmer receives. Whether you pay $2.99 or $3.50 or $4.99, the farmer still only receives $1.88 - a price set and agreed upon long before the product hits grocery store shelves.

Santa Maria Valley is undoubtedly a beautiful place that deserves to be enjoyed and explored by the entire community and beyond. The Santa Maria River Levee Trail expansion would offer stunning views and provide a recreational connection between the cities of Santa Maria and Guadalupe; however, the unintended consequences of this expansion will come at a cost to our farmers, farmworkers, and local community. If we step back and take a more holistic approach to analyzing this trail development, then it becomes clear that we must oppose the levee trail expansion.

It is important to first recognize that agricultural land is located both to the north and the south of the levee trail. This means that farmers and farmworkers must consider any impact their operations may have on pedestrians, cyclists, pets, and other users of the trail when complying with local, state, and federal pesticide, safety, and food safety regulations.

To prioritize public health and safety, farmers voluntarily enter into agreements with organizations, such as the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement and must comply with laws and regulations required by the California Department of Food and Agriculture, the United States Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration. These food safety laws and guidelines are put into place to protect the public’s health, which must be adhered to by farmers.

The levee trail expansion will inherently result in trail usage by pedestrians, pets, and other members of the general public, which increases the likelihood and risk that neighboring farmland would be negatively impacted with potential trespassing, theft, and fecal contaminants. In the case of feces left from pets, under current food safety guidelines, all employees and inspectors are required to report fecal matter found on or near agricultural crops. This triggers safety protocols that involve removing the fecal matter, destroying any potentially affected produce or crops, and buffering the area so people do not enter. This buffer zone and destruction of crops can exponentially grow by something as simple as a tractor running over fecal matter in the road or a person tracking it in the field from their shoes. Even a rain event can prompt additional safety measures, extensive testing of a flooded area, and potential abandonment of the crop due to fecal matter washing into agricultural lands.

In the case of trespassing, the expanded levee trail would be open and exposed for the public to walk onto a farm at any time, inadvertently putting themselves at risk for injury or exposure to agricultural materials. Current spray application laws require up to a 500-foot buffer during application to avoid drift or unintended health impacts to the public. If the prime agricultural land located alongside the proposed trail is to stay in use, the trail would need to be shut down periodically to ensure this buffer zone is established. There is currently no plan in place, or funding on the part of the county, to enforce these periodic closures of the expanded levee trail and safeguard the public’s health. Even with the proper precautions in place, many farmers would choose to avoid spray applications along the levee trail due to the inherent risk and liability to themselves and their businesses. This would come at a direct loss to the farmer and the farmworkers.

If the expansion of the levee trail moves forward, alongside agricultural farmland, farm operations will be in direct conflict with existing laws and regulations. These conflicts, risks, and interruptions to their operations can foreseeably force farmers to abandon this prime farmland along the levee trail due to the high, and some say inevitable, risk of being unable to ensure the health of the crop and the safety of the product to consumers. If just 100 acres of this farmland is abandoned alongside the proposed 6.7-mile expansion, it would lead to a loss of $3 million in wages to agricultural farmworkers annually, in addition to lost tax revenue to the county and the economic impact to local businesses in the community.

There is more to consider, however, than just the impact to our farmers and farmworkers. As we look at the existing Bob Jones Trail between San Luis Obispo and Avila Beach, it has been closed due to homeless encampments throughout the recreational pathway. The proposed levee trail is also located adjacent to current homeless encampments, and its further development will likely draw increased homeless activity along the route. Before we invest money into the levee trail expansion, we should ensure that it will be safe and usable for our community.

In addition, the expansion of the levee trail is set to be part of the county’s active transportation plan, to reduce the number of cars on the road by promoting walking and biking to work or school. However, the 6.7-mile corridor of expansion of the levee trail does not afford our community commuter transportation as much as it offers recreational transportation. Improving Main Street and offering a multi-use trail along this major corridor would provide greater access to both Santa Maria and Guadalupe, for the intended purposes of transportation access to work and school.

While we oppose the expansion of the levee trail, we do not oppose the need for our community to have access to recreational space. The Santa Maria Valley has many beautiful trail locations that could be developed to accommodate the recreational needs of our burgeoning city. The Point Sal trail network has the potential to be extended to the Guadalupe Dunes, and with the county creating a regional recreation master plan, wineries and other venues that rely on tourists can expand trails that would be open to the public. These are options worth further exploration as we evaluate recreational space for our community.

Trails and development must be fully contemplated in a holistic manner, along with their impact to our community before approval and implementation. The impact to farmers and farmworkers, loss of agricultural jobs, the contamination of crops, the increase in crime, and the potential for homeless encampments are all things that must be weighed before supporting the expansion of the Santa Maria River Levee Trail. Please join us in signing the following petition to oppose the levee trail expansion and protect our farmworkers and our farmland.

2021 wasn't what anyone anticipated, wouldn't you say? I think most of us thought the pandemic would be behind us, and life would have resumed to normal. While an improvement from 2020, there was still plenty of change and restriction to keep things uncertain.

We anticipated something different for us too. When I started Facts from Farmers, I had no idea what sort of shape it would take. It was a personal passion project. Last year, we established a Board of Directors and began steps to file as a 501(c)6 non-profit association. With that, we had to evaluate where we exerted our energy under limited resources, so we stepped away from our media outlets for awhile. But that doesn't mean we haven't been active! 

You have to set a strong foundation before you can build a house, and that's what we've been doing.

  1. We started creating our media library
  2. We helped facilitate partnerships in the Santa Maria Valley among farmers and the California Farmworker Foundation
  3. We began nurturing relationships with other associations, organizations, and influentials such as Grower-Shipper of San Luis and Santa Barbara CountiesCalifornia Farm BureauSanta Barbara County Farm BureauSan Luis Obispo Farm Bureau, and SEEAG - the fantastic group behind Santa Barbara County Farm Day
  4. We also began working with the City of Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on urban encroachments concerns

As a new association, we are still finding our identity and figuring out how we can best serve our agricultural community. We appreciate your patience and continued support as we navigate establishment.