There is perhaps no more appropriate landing ground for eco-savvy sensibilities and future-conscious principles than the farmland of Santa Barbara County. Our rolling rangeland accounts for some 723,000 acres-approximately 90 percent of all privately owned land in the county. Add to that the fact that ag activity is invariably “upstream” from the Pacific Ocean, and you get a situation in which broadly applied agricultural techniques can have a sweeping, positive impact on the community. That being said, farming is the ultimate “show me” industry, and as such, practitioners are slow to change and famously skeptical when it comes to new growing methods and innovations. With cash surplus a seldom-enjoyed luxury in the industry, farmers need more than a passing fad to change the way they do business. Simply put, the possibility of reaping bonus points with Mother Nature is seldom enough motivation for farmers to dive headlong into pursuing renewable energy, “green” ideologies, and sustainable approaches.
Luckily for us, Santa Barbara County agriculturalists are, broadly speaking, doing their part in balancing economically viable farming with environmental stewardship. Though there is certainly room for improvement, there is also much to be celebrated. One of the largest growers in the nation, Bonipak Produce (aka Betteravia Farms) in Santa Maria, was recognized in 2003 with the Grower Achievement Award. Using computers to streamline its drip irrigation system, the 14,000-acre farm has cut water use in half in recent years-a move that has since been mirrored throughout the county.
Additionally, Betteravia practices “minimum tillage” farming, which uses fewer big, diesel-hungry machines. The emergence of satellite imaging has helped reduce over-watering and allows for more specific applications of fertilizers and pesticides-two things that directly impact the destructive run-off created by farming. Also in Santa Maria, Teixeira Farms have made a name for themselves nationally with their solar-powered cooling facility. Since they started their $1 million solar panel project last April, the farm has given back some 193,447 kilowatt hours of energy to the Pacific Gas and Electric energy grid-roughly enough electricity to power 3,849 homes for a day-while preventing more than 239,000 pounds of destructive carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere. As a result, “We are seeing more and more solar and biofuel conversions on local farms every year,” said S.B. County Agriculture Commissioner Bill Gillette.
Also helpful has been the proliferation of organic farms in the county, most of which have opened in the past decade. As of 2006, 58 certified organic farms were operating in Santa Barbara County. While the county doesn’t offer any specific rewards or incentive programs for “green” farming, the United States Department of Agriculture is currently working with more than 100 individual farms here in various cost-share programs that aim to control erosion, improve irrigation practices, protect creeks, and manage pesticide use.
The latter provides the biggest stumbling block toward ecological nirvana. In 2005, some 125,749 permitted applications of pesticides were documented in the county, with approximately 4,350,000 pounds dispensed. While fungicides and insecticides have become increasingly more organic-based, their use in private and commercial farming continues to contaminate groundwater. And though regulations remain strict on them, nasty fumigants like methyl bromide and chloropicrin make Clean Water Act violations an unfortunate-and regrettably inevitable-side-effect. The powers-that-be have long since known of the health risks associated with fumigants, but unfortunately scientists have been slow to develop other options. “The bottom line is that things are getting safer. : But alternatives haven’t come along nearly as fast as anyone would like,” explained Gillette.
While the strides of big-name farms and the daily efforts of small-time growers to minimize their earthly impacts are certainly the calling cards of progress, there is much work to be done.