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Don't Plow Ventura County's Agricultural Heritage Under

Farmers join in effort to preserve land for the future

July 06, 1997

Ventura County Farm Bureau Executive Director Rex Laird likes the old line about a ham-and-egg breakfast: "The chicken contributes to it, but the pig makes a total commitment."

As Ventura County contemplates what role agriculture ought to play in its future, the notion that the pig had better not leave this particular decision to the chickens has brought the county's independent-minded farmers into discussions that they have long avoided: about putting limits on how, and how long, they can farm their land.

We chickens say we love Ventura County's farm heritage. Oh, we appreciate the 20,000 local jobs it provides and the $1.2 billion a year it adds to the county economy. But what most of us love are the endless swaths of glistening green, the fragrance of citrus blossoms and all the strawberry shortcake we can eat.

We also like the way having some 105,000 acres sprouting crops rather than new neighbors helps keep the population and some big-city problems under control.

At least until the breeze brings us a whiff of manure, or we get stuck behind a truckload of lemons, or wayward pesticide fumes make their way into someone's home.

In a recent survey of Ventura County residents by the University of California Hansen Trust, 75% of those asked said more needs to be done to protect farmland from development before it's too late. But barely half were willing to pay an extra 1/4-cent sales tax to raise money to buy farmers' development rights, leaving them free to work their land without constant pressure to sell out.

So the chickens flap and squawk and may or may not deliver, while the pig tries to decide how much to wager on its future.

Figuring risks and playing the odds are among a farmer's most important skills. For Ventura County farmers, the odds of finding themselves hogtied by land-use regulations jumped in 1995 when voters in the city of Ventura passed Measure I. It required ballot-box approval before agricultural land can be developed in and around the city. Fear of a similar countywide measure turned the Farm Bureau into greenbelt believers, even proposing an additional greenbelt extending from Fillmore east to the county line.

Pressure to sell isn't the only concern. Farmers know as well as anyone that much of their work isn't particularly pretty, or fragrant, or quiet, or even healthful. As more homes are built near working fields, the number of nonfarmers ideally positioned to be aggrieved by the mess grows steadily.

That is why Ventura County is considering a right-to-farm ordinance. It would require farmers to comply with environmental and safety standards, but otherwise would pretty much free them to carry on with their business. To do so, it would bargain away some rights for the rest of us.

The measure, proposed by Supervisor Judy Mikels, would require home sellers to warn buyers that nearby farm operations are protected against nuisance claims under state and county laws.

To those who move to the countryside for the idyllic rural lifestyle, says Mikels, "I say, 'Unless these farmers are doing something illegal, then you just have to put up with it, because you chose to move out here and live next to them.' "

If that requirement makes developers think twice about building homes near farmlands, she says, then great.

The Board of Supervisors is scheduled to discuss the measure further July 15.

Meanwhile, Laird and several longtime area farmers are working with a countywide group to set a policy that will keep farming alive as a cornerstone of Ventura County's economy and culture without stripping farmers of their right to make a living, or a profit.

The Times applauds this effort to consciously make the decision that Orange County and the San Fernando Valley never quite got around to making. It's not too late to preserve Ventura County's agricultural past--and future. Yet.

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