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Central Coast agriculture facing uncertain future

Agriculture is the beating heart of the Central Coast, a multi-billion dollar industry that provides top-quality food, produce and wine locally, across the country and around the world.

But many in the local industry say agriculture on the Central Coast faces an uncertain future with challenges on several fronts.

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The road ahead for Central Coast agriculture is paved with uncertainty, with major potholes including a chronic labor shortage, a stringent regulatory environment and California historic drought, when will it end and what will future water supplies look like for an industry that uses the most water per acre in the state?

“We’re constantly looking for it and spending a good amount of money trying to find it”, says Russell Doty, a fourth generation avocado and lemon grower in Ellwood Canyon in Goleta, “I would like to be optimistic, I don’t want to be the fourth generation and the last generation here, that’s something that actually makes me nervous.”

The drought has taken a toll on the sprawling, 1,800 acre Las Varas Ranch, a working avocado and cattle ranch on the Gaviota Coast that is currently for sale.

“We’ve had to reduce our herd size by at least 50 percent, its really unfortunate and sad”, says ranch general manager Paul Van Leer.

A lack of federal immigration reform has led to a labor shortage for Central Coast agriculture.

“Its harder to get people to come here and a lot of our labor is immigrant labor”, Doty says.

“When we pick we have to pick now, well the whole state has to pick at the same time because that’s just what we are forced to do, but we don’t have the labor to do that”, Van Leer says.

Then there’s federal, state, regional and county regulations on agriculture that many in the industry say are crippling, excessive and over-reaching.

“We spend hours upon hours in the office instead of out in the fields”, Doty says, “meetings and filling out paperwork instead of farming,”

“There’s so many things you have to fill out, time wise, and submit and monitor and test its just, you have to get a compliant person to have that happen”, Van Leer says.

Those in the business of administering and enforcing ag regulations say they are there for good reason.

“We have water quality degradation in groundwater and surface water”, says Chris Rose with the Regional Water Quality Control Board, “so yes, they do seem stringent I suppose to growers, however there is a reason and the reason is greater water quality.”

“If a farmer cannot be sustainable then they are going to stop farming”, says Steve Pepe who has spent the past 20 years growing wine grapes in his vineyards in northern Santa Barbara County which he has decided to lease out.

With the multiple layers of regulations, constant labor challenges and the ongoing historic drought, agriculture on the Central Coast is at a pivotal crossroads.

“At some point in time if the vineyards and the row crop guys are not sustainable then what’s going to happen to the land?”, Pepe asks, “we saw what happened to the San Fernando Valley and that’s where we’re heading unless there’s a change in attitude in the county.”

“It just seems there are so many things chipping away at our profit margin, so many nails going into the coffin”, Van Leer says, “I feel sorry for the younger generations that are farming and want to be farming.”

“You have to make money, it doesn’t make sense if you don’t make money”, Doty says, “this is our livelihood, its our business, its our family, its our tradition and I’d like to keep that going.”

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