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Is ag dying? 

Not really. So why do some people complain it is?

- KNOW YOUR FARMS:  Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms with sales of less than $1,000 increased by 118,000. The number of farms with sales of more than $500,000 grew by 46,000 during the same period, according to the U.S. Census. New farms, on average, had 201 acres of land and $71,000 in sales. -
  • KNOW YOUR FARMS: Between 2002 and 2007, the number of farms with sales of less than $1,000 increased by 118,000. The number of farms with sales of more than $500,000 grew by 46,000 during the same period, according to the U.S. Census. New farms, on average, had 201 acres of land and $71,000 in sales.
I slumped in my favorite chair in the Board of Supervisors chamber struggling to maintain consciousness. If not for the sub-arctic temperatures pumping through the air conditioning system I’d probably have been dead asleep trickling lukewarm coffee into my lap. As far as obscure local government issues go, this material bordered on impenetrable. County supervisors were fielding questions and debating how and whether to regulate events held on agricultural lands. Specifically, they were trying to decipher pieces of dated county code on the subject: bits of esoteric bureaucracy and loopholes they need to close before a more comprehensive agriculture events policy scoots its way through the county Planning Commission up to the supervisors for final approval.

The room was packed with people wearing red T-shirts with black lettering: “Seeing Red.” I jotted the slogan into my notepad and continued daydreaming. A woman approached the podium.

“I also see that agriculture’s dying a thousand cuts,” she said.

My eyes opened a bit.

Another woman shuffled to the podium to speak.

“I have two sisters and a brother; none of us can make a living farming in this county.”

Shockingly, through all the hand wringing by the supervisors about hampering the ability of local farmers and ranchers to supplement income, no one seemed to question whether small agriculture is actually threatened.

Later, I scribbled in my notepad, “Is ag dead?”

Strictly by the numbers, agriculture in SLO County and throughout California, is not only not dead, it’s thriving.

According to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, SLO County ranked 15 out of 58 counties in the state for agricultural production between 2006 and 2007, the last reported numbers. From 2006 to 2007 the local output increased by almost $25 million, raising the total revenue earned to about $654 million in 2007.

Ag took a hit locally in 2008 after deep freezes destroyed many crops, but revenue nonetheless surpassed $547 million, according to SLO County’s Department of Agriculture/Weights and Measures 2008 report. The same report states that SLO County was one of the top 10 counties in the state for organic farmers and between 1999 and 2008, money generated by agriculture increased 53 percent. Vegetable production alone increased 67 percent during that period.

I took my question and a stack of financial reports to Dr. Wayne Howard, chair and professor of agribusiness at Cal Poly.

Sitting in his mostly undecorated office, I asked Howard whether agriculture is dying. He peered skeptically over his thin-rimmed glasses and waved a hand at the stack of financial reports.

“You’ve got the stats,” he smirked. “It’s not dying.”

Wine grapes ranked highest grossing among the county’s agricultural products, earning local vintners about $124 million in 2008. The top crop used to be barley with grapes far behind, Howard remembered, but there isn’t much barley anymore and productive ranches are now rare in this area. But that’s what agriculture does, he said: it evolves from year to year; crop to crop. So why would some people fear the demise of agriculture at the hand of over-regulation? According to Howard, agriculture has never been an easy gig.

“I don’t have a single answer for who’s right, who’s wrong; what’s good, what’s bad,” he said. “But agriculture, yeah, these trends have been going on for as long as we’ve been collecting data.”

The largest threat to agriculture is the loss of agricultural land. Since 1992, SLO County has lost a net 303 acres of prime farmland, according to the California Department of Conservation. Between 2004 and 2006, for example, 1,387 acres of agricultural land were converted to “urban and built-up land.” (Some acreage is also converted into agricultural land from year to year.)

The financial reports indicate that agriculture is doing fine, as long as farmers keep farming and don’t sell their property or develop it. But in arguing for the ability to host events, speakers at county meetings have warned that if they don’t have a supplemental source of income, they may have to sell off or subdivide their land.

Perhaps the real question, then, is not whether agriculture is dying, but who says it is?

“And so what we have in this county is a situation where we have a lot of ag land; we have a lot of people who for the most part had an interest in agriculture and wanted to make a go of it, but found out that it’s pretty hard,” said Michael Cerone of Cerone Farms.

click to enlarge SQUEAKING BY :  For 20 years Randy Kwiatkowski has farmed pears and wine grapes in San Miguel. Overregulation, he says, is killing the small farmer. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • SQUEAKING BY : For 20 years Randy Kwiatkowski has farmed pears and wine grapes in San Miguel. Overregulation, he says, is killing the small farmer.
Barely breaking even

A few gray-and-white cats skulked through brush and uprooted grape vines on Randy Kwiatkowski’s 20 acres in San Miguel. Kwiatkowski is a telephone-company technician first, and a farmer on the side. He wore a windbreaker sporting the company logo of his fulltime job. He poked at a few of the mangled, dry vines on the ground he recently pulled to make a buffer around his mother’s home, which is also on the property. With 17 acres of wine grapes and about a half acre of pear trees, he estimated that about 10 to 15 percent of his income comes from farming—barely enough to offset his property tax bills.

“And it’s tough,” Kwiatkowski said of farming, still fiddling with the dead vines.

Why is it tough? Kwiatkowski said through his 20 years of farming the property, he’s seen increasingly more hands from the county, state, and federal government reaching out for their share of his profits. He doesn’t like it.

“If there’s a dollar to be made then the state has a hand out, the county—everything,” he said.

He was planning to build a winery on the property, but the economy dropped out and he’s put those plans on hold. Though he’s not sure when he’ll try for a winery again, Kwiatkowski knew it would be difficult to slog through the red tape of building a commercial facility and was certain he’d need to hold events to market the wine and stay profitable.

Regulations are killing small farmers, he said. Looking out across the other farms stretching across the landscape on an overcast and chilly evening, Kwiatkowski regretted that agriculture on the small scale is fading and in its wake large commercial operations are moving in.

“The small family farmer’s going away,” he said. “I mean, that’s been going on for years.”

He’s not alone. In fact, Kwiatkowski was just one of a larger group of disaffected farmers and ranchers who criticized county officials on Jan. 26 for considering new grading regulations that many said were just another example of government plunging a knife into the agricultural jugular. They berated officials for drafting agricultural policy from behind a desk without using common sense about agriculture or how to actually protect it. Charlie Whitney was another of them.

Sitting at a Thai restaurant in downtown SLO, Whitney poked unenthusiastically at his cashew chicken and leaned in to speak in whispers as if others in the restaurant were spying on him.

“Boy I’ll tell you, most of these things aren’t mom and pop anymore, it’s agri-business,” he said.

Aside from his work as a consultant and serving on the Santa Margarita Area Advisory Council, Whitney, an Orange County transplant who settled in Santa Margarita about 35 years ago, has 42 cows on his property. He doesn’t really make any money from that enterprise, but he likes living in the country and he likes raising cattle. If he really wanted to make a go of it, to make a steady income from ranching alone, Whitney guessed he’d need at least 500 head and lamented that it used to be closer to 300.

“There’s just a lot of difficulty in it,” he said, still whispering barely above the restaurant clatter. “And government regulation—as we’ve been talking—doesn’t help any of it.”

One of the loudest voices of organized agriculturalists, the Coalition of Affected Business Owners (CABO) was the group behind the people in the red shirts. Gary Vierra is one of the founding members and a group spokesman.

“God knows we could use a little extra income around here,” Vierra said. “Especially now.”

The group has only about 30 members, but through some smart organizing and showmanship at county meetings, has clearly helped steer the arguments over agriculture events.

“Our area’s changing,” Vierra went on. “Legislation isn’t helping. People are changing. ... So people who do want to hang on to what small ranches they have, they’re not going to do it by going to a farmers’ market no matter how you look at it.”

CABO members argue that small, local agricultural operations have been so financially drained that events are one of the few ways to preserve agricultural land in the county.

The people who conduct events claim they are hurt by the restrictions on ag land use. According to CABO member Carolayne Holley, about 90 percent of weddings are held on agricultural properties. But Holley works for a wedding planning company. Although Vierra grew up in a ranching family and has seen how local ranching has all but vanished, he works for a catering company.

At county meetings, counterpoints to CABO have often come from the Ag Tourism Coalition. Kim Pasciuto of the coalition put it this way: “And you know farmers don’t attend those meetings because you know what they’re doing? Farming.”

Vierra, however, argues that CABO is one of the best voices for local agriculture.

“But the bottom line in the big fight was that they’re afraid we’re going to turn all our small farms in our area into like a Disneyland,” Vierra said. “I just don’t see that. They want their small farms. They’re not going to turn them into Disneyland.”

click to enlarge DOING FINE :  Cerone Farms owner Michael Cerone, says it’s hard to be a profitable farmer, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The biggest threat, he thinks, is development: “It’s very difficult to farm on the edge of urban landscapes that are encroaching over you.” - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • DOING FINE : Cerone Farms owner Michael Cerone, says it’s hard to be a profitable farmer, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. The biggest threat, he thinks, is development: “It’s very difficult to farm on the edge of urban landscapes that are encroaching over you.”
Growth industry

There aren’t many local statistics on agricultural events in SLO County and whether such events are keeping the agriculture industry afloat. The first survey on the subject wasn’t completed until just last year. In 2009, Small Farm News published the findings of its statewide survey, which concluded there were 2.4 million tourists who visited agricultural properties in 2008.

It’s called agritoursim. What is agritoursim? Small Farm News’ definition included “shopping at farm stands, picking cherries, touring packing houses, staying at guest ranches, riding horses and wagons, attending weddings in vineyards, learning jam making, and playing in corn mazes.” It’s a broad category but, though agritourism implies that tourists come to gawk at the inner workings of an actual productive farm or ranch, the real moneymaker relies on the fact that farms and ranches are pretty backdrops.

The 2009 survey concluded that weddings, family reunions, and retreats accounted for 32.9 percent of agritourism—the largest of any of the defined events. Farm stays came in second with just 15.1 percent of the market. Of the 554 respondents, 332 identified themselves as agritourism business operators. And 22 percent said they made $100,000, while another 22 percent said they made less than $1,000.

James Conaway seems to see intensive agritourism—particularly in the wine industry—as a metaphorical raping of agricultural land.

“Because corporations—in the end—don’t give a damn about the land,” he said.

Conaway is the author of Napa: The Story of an American Eden, among other books written about the changing landscape of agriculture. A Stanford graduate and former wine critic for the Washington Post, Conaway wrote about the explosion of wineries in the Napa valley that morphed the area from a rural home for farming and ranching families, into an agricultural Mecca, and now into what he sees as an entertainment-based economy.

“Agriculture is subverted by making money off parties and eventing and selling substances that have absolutely nothing to do with agriculture,” Conaway said with a lingering Memphis accent. He likes to call agritourism “eventing.” And while he understands the need for the smaller, innocuous events, he thinks big entertainment gurus take advantage of community support for agriculture.

“So in a way it’s kind of a bailout,” he said. “People in the community kind of bail them out, allowing them to do these things knowing full well that it’s probably going to change the nature of the place.”

There’s a distinction to be made, however. Many local farmers don’t host events and have no desire to do so. Perhaps the rise of agricultural events as a crutch for small farms has occurred thanks to new agriculturalists; otherwise known as “hobby farmers” or “residential lifestyle farms.”

“So being small, they need other markets to sell and other venues to be able to support the lifestyle,” said Jackie Crabb, executive director of the SLO County Farm Bureau. She added that about 80 percent of farmers in California have non-agricultural jobs to supplement the high cost and low return of maintaining a farm or ranch.

Usually, agritourism events are small, temporary, and fairly benign, Crabb thinks. But sometimes people do overstep the loose bounds of what is and isn’t acceptable on agricultural land. That’s why the county is revamping its rules on such events, she said, the language of which is still being hashed out by county staffers.

Indeed, SLO County is far from alone when it comes to controversy over events.

Are events necessary to keep agriculture alive in California? John Gamper, director of taxation and land use for the California Farm Bureau Federation, laughed wryly.

“There is ground in this state that has sustained families for three generations,” he said. “And when it changes hands to a different owner who has different ideas, all of a sudden it’s not worth anything anymore.”

Napa County is reviewing its events policy, Gamper said, as is Tulare County, which was the second most profitable agricultural area in the state in 2007. In Monterey County, listed as No. 3 on the California Department of Agriculture list, officials are preparing to develop rules for agricultural events in preparation for an expected influx of wineries. Bob Roach, the assistant agricultural commissioner there, said there isn’t much agritourism yet, but it’s coming: “It’s something we’re sure thinking about up here.”

It’s not dead

On a miserably cold and raining Saturday morning people are scampering from tent to tent at the SLO Farmers’ Market. If agriculture is in fact dying or breathing its last painful breaths, these people are the zombies mindlessly shuffling around as though nothing’s wrong. They huddle under tents to escape the rain, which is collecting in large puddles and periodically spilling over the edges.

I walked to one tent where Jessica Newell of Fair Hills Farm was bundled in a rainbow-patterned sweater and blue scarf standing behind a table filled with boxes of apples. A Punky Brewster look-alike, Newell stared blankly when I asked about her business and whether it’s too difficult to make a living from agriculture alone anymore. Aside from working for Fair Hills Farm, Newell does have a second job, but it’s also in farming. She has a family farm: the Pepper Creek Family Farm in the Huasna Valley.

“There’s definitely a lot of money to be had if you’re in the right market,” she says.

Not far away Johanna Finley sold produce at the Finley Farms Organic tent. Shoppers nudged past me to fill plastic bags with lettuce as I asked her whether there’s enough money in agriculture. Matter of factly, Finley said of course agriculture is still profitable.

“I think definitely you can make a living,” she responded. “It just depends on what kind of living. It’s not corporate or anything like that.”

Staff Writer Colin Rigley can be reached at crigley@newtimesslo.com.

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