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.