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Ventura County Perspective

Surrounded by Suburbia

Farmer/Author Michael Ableman to Negotiate a Changing World

July 12, 1998|MICHAEL ABLEMAN | Michael Ableman is director of Fairview Gardens and founder of the Center for Urban Agriculture

For two months in 1984, unrelenting noise pulsed from huge machines that arrived to remove the last agricultural holding that bordered the farm.

For years we had been huddled up next to each other, two small farms standing against the tide of development. Though Fairview had grown and flourished, our neighbor had given in years before. His lemon orchard, now falling to the big steel blade of the bulldozer, was a wild, derelict remnant. A certain beauty emerged from this neglect, as nature reclaimed the land in the years that the orchard was forgotten. Twenty-six acres were regaining their wildness. The land was full of life. Deer, raccoons, possum, hawks and coyotes passed through a bustling society of birds, small rodents and insects.

I fought the demise of that land, feeling feeble standing in the City Council chambers with a few other locals facing off against the highly paid lawyers for the developers. The story is always the same. Land is a mere commodity to be bought and sold, something to build on, pave over, mine or drill.

We protested the sacrifice of the richest topsoil on the entire West Coast. We cited the agricultural history of this valley, our perfect Mediterranean growing climate, the loss of farmland everywhere and the importance of small farms and local food for our children. Our voices were drowned out by housing statistics, traffic studies, and promises of parks and tennis courts, all supported by sophisticated maps and graphs.

The local newspaper acted as oracle, putting forth headlines on yet-to-be-approved projects as if they were a sure thing. "Progress Hangs Concrete Shroud on Goleta Farm," the paper solemnly confirmed. The neighbor who sold the land was quoted, predicting, "Farming is a dying profession." I had to wonder where his food came from.

*

We all hear stories of the greed that undermines our global environment. Until the bulldozers are idling at your back door, it is an intellectual concept. The pain for us was real. For 58 days, an army of 300-horsepower Caterpillars and dump trucks moved and buried and leveled and graded hundreds of tons of topsoil.

The bone-rattling noise started at seven each morning and didn't stop until evening. Clouds of dust floated into the farm and covered everything. We complained, and the atmosphere of war seemed only to increase. The line was drawn where the lush green of our avocado orchards met the red flags that marked the roads of new development. But the battle was about more than just noise and dust, and we were losing. With each day the farm was becoming more like an island. All around us, the once fertile agrarian valley had become a sea of tract homes and shopping centers. The sense of complete isolation was the hardest to take. With this last development, the farm would be surrounded by suburbia. We were now completely out of context.

There were more struggles to come. Contiguous pieces of land cannot be separated so easily. Nature, especially water, does not abide by surveyors' lines and man-made borders. When 26 acres are graded, paved and covered with rooftops, the watershed is concentrated into runoff, and the impact downstream can be disastrous. A cement culvert large enough to walk through appeared, sticking out into the corner of our land, ready for the next big storm. The Texas-based developer wasn't accustomed to young, upstart farmers standing in his way. When I called in county flood control to find out how he planned to deal with all that drainage being dumped on our lands, he was not happy. The issue, if unresolved, threatened to hold up the works.

After long negotiations, the developer was required to dig a drainage ditch along the bottom of our land and pay the [farm's owners] $30,000. He planned to make back some of his money by selling the valuable topsoil he dug out of the farm. I stopped him, and the topsoil became a small mountain that we still draw from for compost. The ditch, purportedly designed to withstand the "hundred-year flood," has flooded into our fields and orchards three of the last six years.

Despite the obstacles we raised, the land next door was subdued, and nature was more or less contained. Construction began and several hundred look-alike tract-home condominiums popped up on the Mars-like landscape. They were given names such as Village Terrace. Unlike any village I have ever visited, they lack any commons and any real sense of identity or place. Then, as if they had been waiting in line at the gates of this new "village," the moving vans arrived. There was a waiting list of ready buyers. With the influx of new neighbors came the beginnings of complaints--about the signs outside our produce stand, the compost and finally the crow of our roosters.

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