'Saving' Farms or Sinking Them?

The battle cry "Save the farms!" echoes louder than ever across Ventura County but the sort of help farmers need and the sort of help non-farmers are prepared to offer may be two quite different things.

Protecting cropland and orchards from development is one goal of the popular Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources ballot initiative and its county-sponsored variation, the advisory-only Measure A. Either would require a vote of the public before land zoned for farming could be rezoned for homes or stores.

Most county farmers--and all of the county's major ag organizations--oppose the measures. Thanks for caring, they say, but we have enough restrictions on our options. What we could really use is cheaper water.

Hence the significance of a poll completed last week in Camarillo. In August, city officials mailed 10,000 ballots to city water customers asking if they would be willing to continue subsidizing water for 17 area farmers who are paying a discounted rate. A "yes" vote would mean continued discounts for farmers and an increase of 30 to 90 cents per month for homeowners; a "no" vote would mean a 36% increase in the farmers' water bills.

That big a jump, says Ann Stein of Scarborough Farms, would "make us unable to compete, because other farmers don't have the same costs. It may be that we will have to farm somewhere else where water is cheaper." Other farmers made similarly gloomy predictions.

But when the ballots were counted last week, about 52% of the 3,520 ballots returned said charge 'em full price.

The results of the Camarillo water poll confirm the findings of a 1997 poll by the University of California Hansen Trust that showed three-fourths of Ventura County residents favor preserving local farms but barely half would accept a tax increase to help accomplish that goal.

Ventura County's billion-dollar a year agriculture industry is a complex puzzle dependent on everything from local ordinances to global economics. The guy you see driving a tractor is probably quite knowledgeable--and quite worried--about the financial crisis in Japan, where much of Ventura County's produce is sold.

It's great to look for ways to contain urban sprawl and preserve the green spaces that make Ventura County so inviting. But those who would make local farmers the unwilling poster children for such a campaign need to be more candid about whether they are tossing them a life preserver or an anchor.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World