About SOAR

I am a believer in representative democracy, which is the more positive way of saying I am not a fan off California’s all-pervasive initiative system. As practiced today, this system represents and failure of our elected officials to exercise the wisdom and judgment that the voters should rightfully expect. Instead we get endless campaigns pushing narrow special interests, distorted demagoguery and finally, just plain bad policy.

A favorite local example for me is the Ventura County SOAR complex. I call it that not to make it sound ominous, but because I think it is a real mess. SOAR stands for Save Our Agricultural Resources. But it applies to a series of City ordinances governing the potential conversion of agricultural land to other uses, a county ordinance with the same objectives, and a non-profit advocacy organization of the same name. The term is also used generically to apply to active members of the organization and/or the roughly 70% of Ventura County voters who can be relied upon to vote for just about any “no-growth” ballot initiative. Since two of our 5 County Supervisors are SOAR Organization founders and Boardmembers, people frequently (if imprecisely) consider the County Government and SOAR synonymous as well.

I hope anyone who knows me or regularly reads this blog believes that I am concerned with the long term economic viability of agriculture in Ventura County. So why would I have issue with a program intended to preserve agricultural land? Frankly, because I think that it does little to advance the goal, while restricting options for agricultural landowners (not always the same thing as a farmer).

Even my most organic and liberal farming friends (Yes, we have them here in Ventura… I know conventional farmers who own Priuses!) start to sound a little libertarian when it comes to property rights. This should be understandable. After several generations of carefully stewarding an asset that typically represents nearly the entirety of their net worth, farmers don’t like to see its value diminished. For a farmer, the land is not just a job, it is a family heirloom, legacy to the children, and retirement plan. Sadly though, if a farmer opposes SOAR his concerns are pretty airily dismissed. After all, his financial motives seem clear enough.

Those of us in Agriculture bear some responsibility for this. When SOAR was being rolled out in the mid ‘90’s, we generally failed to engage in the debate. No point dignifying such hare-brained scheme. We did not engage or propose alternative means to similar ends, which are surely one that most remaining Ventura Farmers can embrace. We want to see Ag continue here. We are literally working toward that goal every day.

What to do now? Item one is engagement, and this has already begun. At our County Farm Bureau annual meeting last week, SOAR architect and County Supervisor Steve Bennett was our keynote speaker. He explained the world view of our “urban friends”. In a Q&A session that followed he heard some of the rural worldview. I think there were moments where it was quite clear that neither side had any idea what the other was saying. But both frustration and a desire for cooperation was evident on both sides of the podium.

Item two is for those of us in agriculture to really begin to get serious about the policy directions that frankly acknowledge the desires of the urban majority in this county, while being a fair and workable system for those on the land. To this point, the debate has largely focused on a false choice between SOAR or no-zoning anarchy and unlimited suburban sprawl. We need a richer palette of choices. I agree with their desire for continued agriculture, and believe that local government has a role in shaping land use. There narrow point on which we differ is that in a county with greenbelt ordinances, Williamson Act restrictions, and notoriously cumbersome planning and zoning processes, SOAR believes that an additional layer of ballot box planning review represents leadership in stewardship of the land. I feel it is bureaucratic overkill. Let’s make something better.

Having been pretty tough on the “SOAR complex” let me contradict myself and acknowledge the real passion and commitment for the continuation of agriculture that I have seen from some of the individuals within SOAR’s leadership.  Specifically, I want to thank Karen Schmidt, SOAR ‘s Executive Director, for exhaustive work that she has done in support of the Ag Futures Alliance. A typical knock on SOAR is that it is a one-dimensional means to preserve pretty viewshed for the suburbs. Karen’s efforts in developing new economic opportunities for farmers with local and regional food systems contradict this view. I have enjoyed working with her for nearly 6 years, and I hope that her systematic approach to all the whirling variables in this complex system will be a model for others, even while she and I continue to argue about the details.

On Invasive Species…

The following op-ed appeared in Sunday’s Ventura County Star under my byline, but I should point out that I was merely one of several people who worked on the language, and the positions stated are those of the Ag Futures Alliance as a whole.


The Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance has watched in dismay the recent conflict over the efforts to control the gypsy-moth outbreak in Meiners Oaks. The gypsy moth is an invasive species that was introduced into the area by human action. The damage the moth can cause is well-documented and, if unchecked, could result in permanent damage to many California native plants, particularly the oaks for which Ojai is famous. We believe the control approach taken by our county agricultural commissioner and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to be a prudent and low-risk response. Our core concern about this incident is what it says about our community and its ability to share responsibility for stewardship of the natural resources we all depend on. In our 2005 report, “A Community of Good Stewards,” we argued for the mutual responsibility the public and farmers have for preserving agriculture and the environment. We live in an interdependent world. What happens in your backyard impacts mine. In order for us all to enjoy the benefits of a healthy environment, we all must be willing to act decisively as good stewards of the land. At times, this may mean accepting the necessity for community action to deal with a pest that endangers us all. In the case of the gypsy moth, this means a measured application of a naturally occurring compound that is toxic only to a narrow range of target species. Do we know everything there is known about the risks of this material or any chemical in general use? No. Which is why we have to rely on the predominance of evidence and the principle of minimum effective use — which means simply, using the least toxic option in the lowest possible dose at the earliest possible moment to deal with the invasive pest. Looking forward, many scientists believe that climate change and increasing movement of goods and people will mean more outbreaks of invasive species. Many such species are waiting on our doorstep, including false coddling moth, citrus psyllid and light brown apple moth. We strongly recommend improving our capacity to prevent the spread of these pests and our ability to respond quickly when infestations are found. We also recognize that in situations involving highly technical information and highly charged emotions, clear and consistent communication is vital. We expect that, in due time, a sober assessment of the recent experience in Meiners Oaks will yield valuable lessons on all sides for the future. As an organization dedicated to preserving agriculture and the environment in Ventura County, we believe it is important to promptly respond to new pests that arrive unwelcome in our community. Our ecological foundation is fragile and these pests have the potential to harm both native species and the capacity of local agriculture to feed us. This is a problem we all share. As good stewards, we have an obligation to work hard to maintain the integrity of our native environment and avoid potential damage from invasive pests that human actions directly and indirectly introduce. The Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance is a collaboration of farmers, environmentalists, farmworker advocates and civic leaders working to sustain agriculture in Ventura County through consensus building and community action. For more information, visit http://www.venturacoafa.org.


So why is it OK for 25 to 45% of Ventura County lemons not to be sold as fresh fruit? The first thing to know is that demand for lemons is pretty inelastic. Simply put, consumers know how many lemons they are going to buy, and changes in price don’t tend to influence buyer behavior very significantly.

On the one hand, this is great. Even a relatively small shortfall in lemon supply tends to make for very good prices. Unfortunately the reverse is also true: small surpluses drive prices into the toilet.

 The industry’s safety valve is the market for processed lemon products: Lemon juice, lemon oil and citric acid. These lemon products have a great range of uses, but it would never make sense to grow lemons just for this market. The prices are horrible. But for fruit that would otherwise be culled, it makes perfect sense. Fruit that is damaged, scarred, deformed or off size can be sold and utilized, recapturing a few pennies for the grower from what otherwise would be waste. Processors very readily will absorb more fruit with even slight pricing adjustments.

At a certain point is became clear that surpluses of better quality fruit could be diverted to these markets as well, helping to manage inventory levels of fresh fruit.  A quick (and very simple) example:

Let’s say you have two tons of lemons: You can sell one fresh for $500/ton, and one for products at $10/ton. Obviously, it is vastly preferable to sell it all fresh. But let’s suppose that this isn’t one grower’s harvest of lemons but the whole industry. If you sell one ton each for fresh and products, you get $510. But what if you try to sell it all fresh? The price is forced down. In the exampe, lets assume that it hits $250/ton. Selling both tons fresh yields $500, not $510. But if you withold a quarter ton from the  fresh market, and sell .75 tons fresh, and 1.25 tons for product, price rises of $800 a ton. You would gross $606.25, even if the product fruit dropped by 50%.

The numbers above are approximate, and this is a market that fluctuates constantly based on weather and several points in the globe, exhange rates, energy prices, consumer confidence and many other factors. But the bottom line is this: in lemons it pays to overproduce and use the product market to modulate inventories of fresh fruit. At the February 2009 AFA discussion of economics the number was thrown out of 55% fresh. My experience is that the fresh percentage is typically closer to 70%, even though I used 50% in my example above.

A final note on the topic. Overproduction of lemons is not subsidized by the taxpayers in any way. It is simply a market based solution to meeting the demands of two very different customer bases: the consumer who wants consistently beautiful yellow fruit year round (which Ventura County is able to provide), and the processor who needs a cheap source of raw materials. The grower, while always grumbling about the crappy product prices, enjoys a relatively stable market and pricing structure for the fresh fruit that is their bread and butter. Were inventories allowed to flucuate as much as they would without the outlet for surplus fruit, a single bumper crop could drive a lemon grower to insolvency.

A New Course in the Fumigant Discussion

It has become clear to me after the last few months that those of us in the Ag industry have it wrong when it comes to fumigants. No, not with respect to their use, but in how we address concerns about them from the general public. I think it is easy to see that public concern has not abated, which tells us that our strategy has not been working. Even worse, I think we have actually amplified public concern. So let’s talk about where we have fallen short, and how we can change it.


Traditionally, the industry response to public outcry over fumigants has had two prongs. Both of these I will argue have done no good, and both have actually made matters worse for us.


The first traditional response has been to downplay the risks. We tell people  that there are many products and activities that carry more risk than fumigant use. This has not worked for the simple reason that public outcry over fumigants is an expression of anxiety. If we simply add more anxieties to the list, can we really expect concerns to abate? It has made matters worse for us by reinforcing a negative perception that farmers are ignorant of the risks associated with chemical usage, or simply don’t care. Feeding this perception has cost us dearly.


The second tactic that our industry has employed is to plead poverty. We say we must be able to use them or we will go out of business. This has not worked in part because it is a case of “crying wolf.”  Frankly we have used this argument a lot over the years, but we are still here. There isn’t a lot of perceived credibility in it anymore. It also hasn’t worked because of the anxiety issue discussed above. Will a parent place our business interests ahead of the health of their child? Of course not. We need to recognize that the poverty plea will always fall on deaf ears. We further hurt our case with this line of attack by continuing to undermine confidence in our industry. Would you trust a financially shaky, desperate industry to use a chemical wisely? Or would you fear that they would have every incentive to abuse the material and cut corners on safety?


What must we do? Firstly, we have to reject the old arguments that have failed us. Secondly, we must clearly acknowledge and accept responsibility for the risks associated with these chemicals. If we do not speak clearly and reasonably about legitimate concerns, the public will listen to those who speak loudly and unreasonably instead. We need to make the case that we understand fumigant safety better than anyone; that we do not shy away from oversight because we know that the standards we set for ourselves are so high. We need to show that we have the resources, both financial and personal, to handle the use of the materials in a responsible fashion. In short, we must earn the community’s trust, and continually reinforce that trust.


Some would ask if this isn’t just a PR gimmick. I can’t deny that public relations are a factor here, but I truly believe that what I am describing is a more accurate depiction of agriculture than the one that we have helped inflict on ourselves.  We can’t allow ourselves to be seen as cowboys on a shoestring budget using these chemicals recklessly. Only by holding ourselves to the very highest standards of caution, prudence, and professionalism will retain the right to use these materials.


It is as simple as that.

Common Ground?

A few thoughts that might provide a “strawman” for the Ventura AFA’s discussion on fumigants (Not in any particular order):

Organic and sustainable are not the same thing. While any use of chemicals, including fumigants, is not inherently unsustainable, lower usage will tend to enhance sustainability.

AFA values clarity and consistency in applicable pesticide regulations, but we recognize that current regulations, labels and science will likely change with experience and new data. Our understanding and awareness of certain impacts will evolve over time, and our best practices will co-evolve with them.

 Sustainability is based on best efforts to reduce or eliminate secondary impacts from their use, and consideration for alternative methods if practicable. Further, sustainability is not an easily identifiable end point: it is a process of continuous improvement.

Legal action may be appropriate as a means of getting redress from bad actors or pressuring regulatory agencies and policymakers, but AFA calls for safe harbor for responsible growers using approved legal practices.

AFA recognizes that all human activities carry with them certain impacts, and this includes agriculture, both conventional and organic. The challenge before us as stewards is to continually seek to minimize our impacts while still deriving the needed benefits.

Conventional agriculture is not something categorically wrong that we should seek to eliminate completely, such as violence, or racism, or disease. While seeking to reduce negative impacts, we must also recognize the positive benefits that society has received from agriculture.

The bundle of technologies and practices called the “Green Revolution”, were generally accepted as a complete package during the “Better Living through Chemistry” era of the 1950’s. That experience has shown that some of these have had differing impacts and levels of effectiveness. The task at hand is to “unbundle” these technologies and practices and keep the best, rather than reject the whole package.

Fumigants (as with many other chemicals) are potentially harmful materials that require training, professionalism, concern for others, and strict compliance with applicable guidelines to be used responsibly. AFA does not endorse careless, sloppy, or illegal usage of restricted materials.

Encourage further research and extension in the areas of alternative applications methods, materials, and cropping strategies.

In order to allow growers more choices of economically viable crops and practices, AFA should continue to promote a greater diversity of markets and distribution channels and support mechanisms such as land trusts and  conservation easements to ease economic pressures that limit farmer’s options.


Final: CDFA Listening Session

Mr. Secretary, thank you for coming to Oxnard this afternoon.


I am proud to be a 5th generation farmer in Ventura County. We grow avocados and citrus, but our family operation dates back to when dry-farmed lima beans were a staple of Ventura’s economy. We have seen many changes and many crops, but we have continued to evolve. To my mind, this is the essence of sustainable agriculture.


Regulatory Burden

Much will be said today about the need for supporting small farms. In no area is a small farm at a greater disadvantage to larger competitors than in regulatory compliance. When a single set of shoulders must bear the weight, the burden gets heavy. If it is the goal of our policies not to have small farmers choose to lay that burden down, we must examine the load. As these listening sessions give way to policy formulation, let us consider chipping away at the layers of policy that exist already. Some are problematic already, and others may become contrary to the new policies adopted to lead to our 2030 vision. I hope we will seek good policy, rather than simply more policy.


Agricultural policy has tended to favor large producers and a small range of crops for global distribution. You may hear advocates tell you that the proper role for policy is to favor the opposite end of the spectrum: very small, highly diversified farms serving local markets. I ask you to recognize that replacing one extreme with the other has seldom worked in politics, economics or any other field of human activity.


Let’s apply the concept of biodiversity to the economics of farming. Just as we now recognize that a range of species must inhabit a given habitat for a healthy environment, a variety of farms make for a healthy farm economy. With Ventura County’s diversity of crops, there is not a day in the year that something isn’t being harvested and sent to market. Our large operations are essential to maintain a healthy population of equipment dealers and service providers. Mid-size family farmers often provide much of the leadership in local co-ops and associations. Smaller farms help sustain the agricultural service economy, and often pioneer specialty crops while feeding local markets. There is room for them all. We need them all. Our vision should embrace them all.


Local Food Systems

Now to the topic of local and regional food. There is currently a great deal enthusiasm for this approach, and I happily support efforts to greatly strengthen this aspect of our food system. But as we look to create policy, we must ask: “How local should we be?”


To be sure, we could do a great deal more. Only 5 to 10 percent of food going to local consumption could yield a great reduction in the amount of energy used for transportation and a boost for local economies. What is the right amount of local food? Is it 30%? 80%?  I don’t have that answer for you, other than to suggest that there is a point beyond which we are not increasing diversity of opportunities for growers and consumers, but restricting them. The antidote to extreme globalization is not extreme localization.


To look at the broader view for a moment: There is a nutritional crisis all over our country, and California agriculture has the ability to deliver nutritional produce throughout the year. It is appropriate, both ethically and economically, that we do so. Changes in policy should recognize that agriculture is both a source of economic strength for California, and a resource for our nation.


Immigration Reform

This state was built with the labor of those seeking a better life through hard work. And for all of our faults and sins along the way, our state and our country have been the greatest generators of wealth, freedom and human happiness this world has ever seen. Today the energy to continue this growth comes not from the East, but from the South. California must lead the way to practical, workable immigration reform. The people who travel here seek work and economic opportunity, and that is what we have to offer. A well managed border is in the national interest of both the United States and Mexico. California stands to gain if we enact meaningful reform, but no state stands to suffer more if we fail.


Invasive Pests

While we need a border that can accommodate a two-way flow of goods and labor, we cannot accommodate the introduction of foreign pests. Phytosanitary controls at the border must be increased. Without these measures, there will be no alternative to costly control measures taken after the fact. As we see currently with the Light Brown Apple Moth, such measures are costly both to government and growers, and will often anger certain segments of our community. Tight controls at the border are not only good policy, they are also a good investment.



I would like to close with a thought on our purpose here today. I often hear it said that we must have a common vision of the future, and that creativity and innovation will be necessary for success.


But if innovation and creativity are the solution to the problems of our food system, then is a common vision a meaningful goal? Has genuine innovation ever emerged from within a broadly held common vision? Or has it been the fringe view (the Uncommon Vision) that has been the origin of innovation? History is filled with those creative souls who have found new ways to accomplish what was thought to be impossible. Do we innovate here today? No, we don’t, but there is a role for us to play.


A common vision transformed into policy places limitations on the possible. Our role here today is not to define how the food system of 2030 will look. Today we begin to define the possibilities, and clearly we must leave them open. We cannot expect to find the results we seek by limiting our options. We must allow room for people to experiment, to make mistakes, and even fail and we will find the answers. If we are not prepared to let innovation be our guide, then we will fail.


I am reminded that here in Ventura County, where we are lucky to have people working on innovative farm-to-school programs, institutional and policy obstacles prevent them from fully realizing the potential of these programs. Will our new policies set them free? I hope so. In our pursuit of “common vision”, let us not preclude the Uncommon Visions that will be the catalysts for true success.


 I am pleased that CDFA is recognizing these issues, and again, Mr. Secretary, I wish to thank you for your time.



Are Organic and Sustainable the Same Thing?

Often in discussions of sustainability, and the words “organic” and “sustainable” are used interchangeably. But these are two very different concepts, and confusion on this point is a factor that many people cite when expressing concerns about embracing “sustainability.” How do these differ?


First some definitions:


Organic: Only naturally occurring, or naturally synthesized, materials and compounds are used in agricultural production.


Sustainable: Those agricultural practices which we do today, must not preclude others from performing them in the same way in the future.


As we can see, these are greatly different. But to summarize the crucial difference, “organic” relates to inputs, while “sustainable” relates to outcomes. “Organic” is a relatively simple, black and white term. One either meets a verifiable set of standards, or one does not. “Sustainability” on the other hand is an extremely broad, and chaotic concept, not easily defined except in hindsight.


Are these simply semantic distinctions? Surely organic is just the first step to sustainability, isn’t it? The answer in both cases is “no.” Several examples could illustrate the difference, but since the AFA mission is to preserve agriculture in perpetuity, let us look at history’s all-time leading farm-killer: soil erosion. (The other leading farm-killer? Insufficiently protected personal property rights, although this is counterintuitive to those who would seek to save farms by diminishing these rights. But that is a topic for another day.)


The loss of productive topsoil has plagued us from the Fertile Crescent through to the American Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Agriculture cannot exist in perpetuity without addressing this issue. Much work in the field of sustainability has been done to advance “conservation tillage” and “no till” soil conservation practices, and significant successes have been made in soil retention and soil health over the past few decades. At this point we arrive at this tale’s central irony: these practices require greater utilization of herbicides than conventional tillage. And the practices that brought desertification to the Middle East and nearly to the Mid-West? These were organic, although the term was not in vogue as there were not yet chemical alternatives.


It is not my intent to claim that this proves that chemicals are good, and organic is bad. The evidence does not support the claim. But it does make the case that sustainability is a much more complex concept that organic, and that the right chemical used in the right way is consistent with sustainability. If we are to succeed in our daunting mission to preserve agriculture in perpetuity, we must be clear in our concepts and our words, and not leave unexplored options that may hold the key to success.