General Plan Agriculture Element Violates SOAR and the Agriculture Guiding Principle

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By Lynn Jensen

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The new “Agriculture Element” of the General Plan violates the principles of the 2016 SOAR ballot measure passed by a majority vote of the people. Through glossy mailers with photos of the green fields tended by our local farmers and ranchers, voters were led to believe they were supporting Ventura County Agriculture. But the new Agriculture Element, largely controlled by two last-term County Supervisors that are also SOAR Board members, has no goals or programs to support the specialty crops and grazing lands displayed in the pictures.

Further, the Agriculture Element fails to implement the “Agriculture Guiding Principle” adopted unanimously by the Board of Supervisors in 2018 that includes: “promote economic vitality”, “support a diverse and globally-competitive agriculture industry” and recognizes the “dependence on water and farmworker housing”.

The Agriculture Element applies to the existing 95,000 acres of local agriculture that consists almost entirely of specialty crops including healthy fruits and vegetables; nursery stock and cut flowers. Yet, not a single one of the six goals in the Agriculture Element support these specialty crops.

As stated in the Findings and Purpose Section D of SOAR: “For agriculture to be sustainable in Ventura County, it must remain economically viable. This SOAR ordinance seeks to add and improve necessary goals and policies to encourage agriculture to remain viable in the County for the life of the ordinance and beyond.” This SOAR purpose was omitted from the Agriculture Element, ignoring the collaborative efforts of stakeholders to balance economic and environmental priorities as envisioned in the Agricultural Guiding Principle.

The process for approval of this 20-year long-range plan has been rushed, chaotic and inefficient, discouraging stakeholder review and comment, particularly in the lack of time to prepare for the Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors hearings.

VC CoLAB members need to show up at the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, August 6 at 1:00 PM to advocate for local agriculture, specialty crops and to support the Planning Commission recommendations. Some information and solutions are outlined below:

GENERAL PLAN AGRICULTURE ELEMENT VIOLATES SOAR PRINCIPLES

VC CoLAB had a role in revising the goals and policies in SOAR and we have a vested interest in making sure that all of them are implemented, in their original language, in the Agricultural Element, including a legal challenge, if necessary.

The current Agriculture Element violates the principals of SOAR by omitting a key SOAR principle in the Findings and Purpose, making substantive language revisions, minimizing important goals and omitting programs to support local agriculture.

Fortunately, there were excellent recommendations by the Agriculture Focus Group with proposed revisions by County Planning documented in Exhibit 41. This language was further improved by County AG Commissioner comments at the Planning Commission, after which, the Planning Commissioners recommended further improvements that were passed unanimously.

Exhibit 41 with Planning Commission revisions restore original SOAR language, add important programs to encourage facilities and programs to support local agriculture, Land Conservation Act contracts and farm stands, adding a farmworker housing policy, and most importantly revises Section 8.3 to support specialty agriculture and innovation. These revisions, if adopted by the Board of Supervisors will significantly improve the Agriculture Element.

Per the 2016 SOAR Ordinance: “…the voters of Ventura County adopted the Save Open-space and Agricultural Resources (SOAR) in order to protect the County’s agricultural, rural, and open space lands, to strengthen the local agricultural economy, and to preserve the County’s quality of life.” Viability of the local agricultural economy depends on the production of specialty crops that provide a competitive advantage to Ventura County.

VC CoLAB supports changing the name of Section 8.3 to Specialty Agriculture, supporting the will of the SOAR voters. We also support modification of the underlying Goal AG-3 by the Planning Commission as follows: “To promote the expansion of agricultural activities to include innovation in specialty agricultural practices and products.”

Three important Goals in SOAR’s main section 1.6.1 Farmland Resources support local production and sales of specialty crops. These goals were minimized to policies and misplaced in the Agriculture Element Section 8.1 “Agricultural Land Preservation”:

  • SOAR GOAL 1.6.1.2. / Policy AG-1.5: Encourage the continuation and development of facilities and programs that support agricultural production and enhance the marketing of County grown agricultural products.
  • SOAR GOAL 1.6.1.3/ Policy AG-1.6: Improve the economic viability of agriculture through policies that support agriculture as an integral business to the County.
  • SOAR GOAL 1.6.1.4/ Policy AG-1.7: Encourage opportunities for Ventura County residents to buy local agricultural products.

These three goals do not fit in Section 8.1 of the Agriculture Element

SOLUTIONS:

  1. Remove the three misplaced Policies AG 1.5, 1.6, and 1.7 from the Agriculture Element Section 8.1, under Goal AG-1.
  2. Move Policies AG 1.6 and 1.7 to the revised Section 8.3 Specialty Agriculture under Goal AG-3.
  3. Make Goal AG-1.5 a new program in Section 8.7 Implementation Programs as recommended by, the Agriculture Focus Group, County Planning, the AG Commissioner and the Planning Commission.
  4. Adopt Exhibit 41, Focus Group Recommended Revisions dated June 19, 2019 and all of the revisions unanimously adopted by the Planning Commission for the Agriculture Element.
  5. Add Section D (underlined above) from the SOAR Findings and Purpose to the introductory verbiage in Section 8.3 Specialty Agriculture.

FAILURE TO IMPLEMENT THE AGRICULTURE GUIDING PRINCIPLE

As a key part of the General Plan update process, the Board of Supervisors collaboratively adopted an “Agriculture Guiding Principle”, with stakeholder input, on January 23, 2018 to “guide” the Agricultural Element as follows:

“Promote the economic vitality and environmental sustainability of Ventura County’s agricultural economy by conserving soils/land while supporting a diverse and globally-competitive agricultural industry that depends on the availability of water, land, and farmworker housing”.

Missing in the Agriculture Element are goals to “promote economic vitality”, “support a diverse and globally-competitive agriculture industry” and recognize agriculture’s “dependence on water and farmworker housing”. The resulting Agriculture Element fails to balance economic vitality and environmental sustainability of agriculture, being completely one-sided in its implementation.

These omissions ignore the realities of the current struggling agricultural industry. Instead, the Agriculture Element focuses on climate and renewable energy goals that target agricultural businesses, even though agriculture contributes only a small amount to total county GHG emissions. Section 8.5, Sustainable Farming and Ranching is misleading, quoting percentages without citations while not even including an estimate of the percentage of total county GHG emissions that are attributable to agriculture.

SOLUTIONS:

  1. Implement the five SOAR solutions above,
  2. Add a policy to “Support a diverse and globally-competitive agriculture industry” in Section 8.3 Specialty Agriculture.
  3. Add a notation on Page 8-2 to reference that Agricultural Water goals and policies are in Chapter 9, Water Resources Element.
  4. Add citations for the percentages quoted in Section 8.5 and include the total number of GHG emissions in the county contributed to local agriculture to Section 8.5 with a citation for the scientific analysis.

IMPORTANCE OF THE REVISED 8.3 SPECIALTY AGRICULTURE SECTION

To support the agricultural economy, goals and policies in the General Plan must consider the realities of current agricultural production where nearly 100% of irrigated agriculture are specialty crops. Per the U.S. Department of Agriculture: “Specialty crops are defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture, and nursery crops (including floriculture).”

Specialty crops have a limited growing range based on climate and soil type that have allowed them to be competitively grown in Ventura County. However, the increasing risk local farmers are facing may eliminate this competitive advantage over the next 20 years.

Statistics from the 2017 AG Commissioner’s crop report provides a summary of existing crop types, acreage and production values for Ventura County:

The four major irrigated crop types are:

These four crop types account for 99% of Ventura County agriculture’s $2 billion value to the economy. Crop value does not represent business profitability, which depends on many factors and is highly variable across the county.

The above statistics confirm the importance of specialty crop production to the Ventura County agricultural economy. Section 8.3 Specialty Crops, as revised by the Planning Commission, will support innovation in water conservation and research, like the potential new strawberry varieties from UC Davis that hold great promise for Ventura County agriculture.

Innovation in pest control is also critical for specialty crops in Ventura County. While our coastal climate and fertile soils are commonly cited as an agricultural advantage, for specialty crops, they can be both a blessing and a curse. Farmers constantly battle with insect pests, bacteria, and fungi, that thrive in this climate, under strict pest control regulations and vanishing options.

The Agriculture Element needs to support the growing of specialty crops in the county by the above recommended revisions. VC CoLAB supports the revisions recommended unanimously by the Planning Commission and recommends the above solutions to conform to SOAR principles and implement the Agriculture Guiding Principle.