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COUNTY REPORT Saving Our Farmland

Growing Alarm

Proposed Developments, Continued Encroachment Feed Efforts to Save Greenbelts


It has been 99 years since William John Pinkerton, an immigrant from Northern Ireland, spent a $6,000 oil field stake on 50 acres of sagebrush west of Santa Paula.

Today, Robert Pinkerton, 52, lives in the same simple farmhouse his grandfather built in 1900 and spends his days tending the trees his father planted. The city of Santa Paula presses in on two sides.

"This land is just plain not for sale," Pinkerton said as a warm May breeze rustled the leaves of 40-foot-tall avocado trees and the farmer showed off the cherry-red tractor on which he learned to plow at age 5. "This is our heritage. This is what we do. We are stewards of the land. I'm just borrowing it from the next generation."

For the first time in years, Pinkerton and other farmers are saying that the county's No. 1 industry can survive indefinitely--that the continued advance of cities across prime cropland is not inevitable, and that the persistent demand for houses and shopping centers should be directed inward or onto parcels less important to agriculture.

"There was apprehension that in 20 years or so it would be just about impossible to continue farming," said Pinkerton, a Ventura County Farm Bureau vice president. "I don't think that anymore."

The Farm Bureau, in its first major land-use policy change since 1983, endorsed last month the strengthening of so-called greenbelt agreements that declare vast stretches of the county's best farmland off-limits.

That clear, precise statement that local farmers intend to stay in business, and that their lands should not be considered holding zones for big-dollar developers, is seen as revolutionary by those who make farmland preservation their business.

"I don't know of another farm bureau that has released a set of policies as strong as the Ventura County Farm Bureau's," said Erik Vink, California field representative of the American Farmland Trust.

As important as it is, the Farm Bureau policy is but one current in the political winds that are making farmland preservation the most important local issue of 1997.

Across Ventura County, communities are considering ballot measures or city laws that would keep the suburbs from sprawling onto farmland and open space.

And an opinion poll to be released soon by a University of California farmland trust found that 75% of 400 local adults questioned strongly favor saving the citrus orchards and vegetable farms that still distinguish Ventura County from its crowded neighbors to the south and east.

"Farmland preservation is the top issue not only for this year but for years to come," said John Flynn, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. "We're right at the intersection, and if we take the wrong road we could see the whole county developed. There are several major projects that, if they all go through, we can kiss agriculture goodbye in Ventura County."

Indeed, Oxnard wants to turn 815 acres of farmland into new homes and--ironically--a theme park dedicated to agriculture. Santa Paula would include about 800 farm acres in its expansion plans.

Camarillo is mulling construction of homes and stores on cropland along the Ventura Freeway, and Moorpark has talked of annexing farms west of the city.

On Ventura County's eastern flank, a proposed 70,000-resident development in Los Angeles County would bring the forces of urbanization to the bucolic Santa Clara Valley.

Even the county government, which is leading a new push for farmland preservation, plans to build an amphitheater and golf course that encroach on one greenbelt zone and has approved construction of a driving range in another.


But stopping such incursions into farmland and open space is far from easy, despite overwhelming support for the broader goal of saving agriculture.

Slow-growth advocates want to strip farmers of their rights to develop their land while seizing authority over land use from elected officials. In turn, farmers and local officials say they are working toward a better option, gaining consensus for tough new regulations that spare cropland while respecting the rights of others.

Ventura County--whose population has swelled 5 1/2 times to 717,000 residents since 1950--lost an average of about 1,000 acres of agricultural land each year during the decade ending in 1995.

Today, only about 105,000 acres of irrigated land remains, and a study on farming's economic value last year predicted the possible loss of another 10,000 acres by 2010 as 75,000 more residents arrive. The point at which the industry collapses because support companies cannot stay in business is about 64,000 acres, the study said.

But like Pinkerton, Flynn does not think that is going to happen. He recently joined Supervisor Kathy Long in sponsoring a task force to make the case for saving agriculture--a $1.2-billion-a-year industry that employs about 18,000 workers.

Through a series of town hall meetings, the group will also gauge public support for strong new policies to protect farmland.

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