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Agriculture takes leadership role in meeting all of county's needs

Carmel-By-The-Sea, 17-Mile Drive and Pebble Beach Golf Links are in Monterey County.

The county also generates 10 percent of California’s annual $30 billion agricultural income. Monterey is the third most productive county in the state. Agricultural land values are among the highest in the state. Recent farmland sales reached $40,000 per acre. Farmland rents are inching toward $3,000 per acre.

Rugged and vast Big Sur also is in Monterey County. And so is a census tract in east Salinas with a population density greater than Manhattan in New York City.

This social and economic diversity poses a formidable challenge for Monterey County as it faces the inevitability of a huge population growth.

Monterey, like all other counties in the state, will be impacted as California’s population burgeons to 58 million people within the next four decades; 24 million more people than live in the state now.

Agriculture is viewed as the sacrificial lamb as policymakers and politicians try to find the land and water to accommodate the 24 millions of tomorrow.

Common Ground

However, a group of Monterey County farmers believe agriculture can co-exist with growth if that increase in bodies predicated on fact-based planning for growth. They have teamed up with other economic segments in the county along with labor and housing advocates in an organization called Common Ground to push what they call "common sense" approaches to Monterey County’s future that will, among other growth fallouts, keep Monterey County from becoming another Los Angeles County.

Thirty years ago Los Angeles was California’s No. 1 agricultural county. Now it’s 26th and tumbling because agriculture has been pushed out under the weight of more than 20 million Southern Californians.

However, Common Ground is far more than agricultural preservation. Its creed is "Stability and Change in Monterey County. Planning on Common Ground; A Fact-Based Look at Land Use."

According to Salinas vegetable producers Sig Christierson of Major Farms and chairman of Common Ground and organization board members Don Nucci, co-chairman Mann Packing Co. board, a tenet of Common Ground’s goals is to make housing affordable for the county’s working people — the farm workers and farm mangers, policemen, firemen and teachers.

"Only 15 to 16 percent of Monterey County’s population can afford to buy homes in the county, and that is not the way it should be," said Nucci.

"It’s basic economics 101 — the only way to have prices come down on houses is to provide more supply and you do that by having a plan to decide where housing will be built," said Christierson.

Fought proposition

The foundation for Common Ground was laid when a group of second and third generation Salinas Valley farmers raised $300,000 to defeat an onerous "ag land/open space" preservation voter proposition that would made it difficult to continue farming in the Salinas Valley and elsewhere in the county.

"It was an ‘open space’ initiative that did not recognize farming as a living, breathing economic industry," said Christierson.

"The proposition (Measure E) was put forth by people who said they wanted to save open space, but it did recognize that farming is an economic, breathing economic industry," said Christierson.

"The proposition was put on the ballot by the same people who do not want farmers to use pesticides and herbicides to farm," said Christierson.

"There are a lot of organizations around who say they want to preserve agricultural land or preserve open space, however, there are no farmers on most of these organizations," said Nucci.

Defeating Measure E was a big victory for Monterey County agriculture, but Christierson and others knew the "environmental radicals" who championed the initiative were not going to stop at that one defeat.

They also knew to have a long term impact on future land use decisions, they needed a broader economic base than just agriculture and invited the county’s hospitality industry, affordable housing advocates, labor unions and others with an economic stake in the county’s future to join with agriculture as Common Ground.

Tourism partner

Tourism is a major element of the Monterey County economy and Nucci said farmers have discovered a lot in common with the county’s hospitality industry, especially the issue of affordable housing.

"Before Common Ground, there was not dialogue between Salinas Valley and the Monterey Peninsula. It was like the Alps separated Monterey from Salinas," said Nucci. "Since we have joined together in Common Ground, the Alps have been knocked down to hills. We understand each other’s problems much better."

Labor unions are also on the same side of the fence as Common Ground.

"The UFW, Teamsters and United Food and Commercial Workers Union all joined with ag, the hospitality industry and other employers in supporting affordable housing issues before the county board of supervisors in the planning process," said Christierson.

"We have to get everyone to recognize the human resources that agriculture and a lot of industries in the county depend on. There are census tracts in east Salinas with higher population densities than Manhattan — 15 to 16 people living in small houses — bottom line terrible conditions," said Nucci. "We must make available affordable houses to give people a decent life. And, I am not talking about just farm workers. We have policemen, firemen and teachers who cannot afford to live here."

The median-priced home in Monterey County now exceeds $350,000.

If no-growth advocates prevail, it would only drive that figure higher.

Not mostly transient

Contrary to popular belief, Christierson said the ag workforce is no longer mostly transient. "Sure, there remains a certain transient element, but people want to stay in one place. Farm workers do not want to go to labor camps. They prefer to stay in town where there are services," said Christierson.

If they do travel to Yuma or Huron, it is on a per diem basis. "Most of the workers want to make their homes in Salinas," he added.

Common Ground became reality three years ago and since then has monitored the planning processes in the county and cities and have attempted to provide valid facts to counter the often emotional pleas from anti-growth groups.

"We are having an impact, but we are not where we want to be in the sphere of influence," said Christierson.

In the rapidly growing West, many communities have groups, which want to stop growth. It is a "the last fellow through the door lock it" mentality.

"Salinas and Monterey County are going to grow. There is a significant group that wants to deny reality," said Christierson.

And, it’s not going to come from the outside. "People don’t understand that in the next two decades, 85 percent of the total population growth will come from within Monterey County, births minus death. Only 15 percent of the population growth will come from migration," said Christierson. "People involved in planning need to understand that."

"We have to prepare for that with smart growth," he emphasized.

Good job thus far

"Salinas has done a pretty good job to this point managing growth. It started with a 1982 general plan that directs development north and east where the less productive farm ground is and stopped growth south and west where the better farm ground is."

Salinas has seemed to avoid one growth nightmare now facing many Western cities today. It is checkerboard development where cities and counties have allowed developers to hopscotch over farmland. The result is urban sprawl with farmers caught in the middle and tracts of undeveloped land within cities.

Nucci said the city of Salinas has a population of 160,000 in 19 square miles — the same populations as Modesto, Calif., or Santa Rosa, Calif., in one-third the land area as those two cities. Salinas plans to add only five square miles to that total to accommodate growth over the next 20 years.

Christierson said Common Ground’s vigorously supports that type of smart growth.

Common Ground recognizes that farmland must be taken for growth. "All the cities in the Salinas Valley are surrounded by farmland so farm ground will have to be used to meet the growth," he said.

In most areas of California, there is an economic tug-of-war between urban interest and farmers. Farmland is being lost, not so much from oppressive urban growth pressure but from low commodity prices. In many cases it is better to sell than continue losing money farming.

Vegetable industry

That is not the case in the Salinas Valley where the vegetable industry has been perhaps the most innovative and profitable segment of California agriculture.

"We have doubled our irrigated acres since the 1950s, up to 1.4 million acres. We have also doubled our yields," said Nucci.

"We do not suffer from a shortage, if anything we produce too much," said Christierson. "It may be blasphemous, but it may not be the worst thing in the world if some of the ag land around here went out of production."

There are no other regions California to produce summer vegetables like can be produced in the Salinas Valley.

However, vegetable producers do not believe they have to move out. Vegetable farming economics have changed dramatically over the past decade and that is one reason Nucci, Christierson and others believe farming can exist in a growing society.

"It is not just a crap shoot of commodity lettuce and broccoli. We can buck the (no-profit) trend in California agriculture because we have added a lot of value to our product, and we as farmers benefit from that," said Nucci.

Salinas Valley farmers now produce two and sometimes three crops during summer vegetable season, with unbelievable yields and income potential.

That is driving farmland prices to astronomical levels. The latest, large block Salinas Valley land sale was for $40,000 per acre.

‘Become smart’

"No matter what you pay for farmland in the Salinas Valley, you eventually become smart. A block sold for $18,000 per acre several years ago and everyone gasped. That looks pretty smart today," said Nucci.

However, there is not much Salinas Valley farmland for sale. Most is owned by absentee owners and farmers lease ground, paying $2,400 or more per acre to farm it. "Every time I pencil production costs at these land rent prices, I shutter. Nevertheless, there people waiting in line if someone hesitates to pick up a lease," said Nucci. The costs are being covered by higher yields and increasing efficiencies.

Much of the rental ground is owned by financial institutions or trusts which most are not interested in selling. "If they can continue to collect the kind of rents they do, why sell?" said Nucci.

"A lot of people think we are a bunch of greedy farmers just waiting to sell out. That is not true. Farming is the best use of much of this ground. Rather than take high value land and put houses on it, we need to meet the needs of the community by putting houses on less valuable farmland," said Nucci. "It is a trade off we have to make to meet the future needs of everyone in Monterey County."

Highly productive Salinas Valley farmland is becoming too expensive for housing.

Vegetable producers will be able to meet future demand for fresh and processed summer produce by continuing to innovate as they have in the past. For example, since 1982 average leaf lettuce yields have increased 36 percent per acre.

More yield gains

"We had a meeting not long ago and one of our leading producers here said in the next 10 to 20 years we can expect yields to increase another 50 percent in the Salinas Valley, in effecting adding 100,000 acres to the farmland base here," said Nucci. "Innovation will meet demand — not more farmland."

Every California community is facing the inevitability of growth and the political, social and economic challenges that entails. For Monterey County’s Commons Sense and Salinas Valley farmers, it is a challenge that can be successfully met with reasonable and smart land use planning decisions.

"Everyone involved in Common Ground is willing to look first at the good of the community and not only at their special interests," said Christierson. "We in agriculture certainly recognize that.

"We all also know we have to look at facts, and that is a major reason Common Ground exists, to gather facts.

"We may not be happy with the facts, but you have to make decisions based on facts and not emotions."

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