San Diego 'The Farm Bureau of San Diego has abdicated its responsibility," said Pandora Rose, owner of a 74.5-acre avocado ranch in Ramona, about its opposition to the Rural Heritage Initiative, Proposition B on the November 3 ballot. "I escaped Los Angeles two years ago and bought a farm property in Ramona. I went to a Farm Bureau program -- and no one there talked about the problems of farming. All they talked about was getting the full market value of their land by subdividing and developing it."
Al Stehly, president of the Farm Bureau, denied that all his organization is concerned about is helping farmland owners make a profit by converting their farms into developments. "We deal with hundreds of issues: water, pesticides, rodent control, labor, labor housing, organic farming, and many others," Stehly said. "We're opposed to Proposition B because it's going to hurt many of the farmers by devaluing their properties."
The Farm Bureau is not only taking a high public profile in the campaign against the initiative but is also donating generously to the campaign against it, according to initiative supporters. Meanwhile, Pandora Rose and Dan Brimm have become the leaders of a separate farmers' organization whose members support Proposition B. Called the San Diego Alliance of Farmers, it was started, according to its founders, to counter the pro-development agenda of the Farm Bureau.
"Most of us who are really into farming have come to realize that the Farm Bureau has, consciously or unconsciously, been taken over by land speculators and others not particularly interested in farming," said Brimm. "So we started this organization, and it's amazing how quickly people have gathered around."
"I'm taking action to be part of the issue of how are we going to maintain a part of nature along with growth," said Scott Murray, another farmer who supports Proposition B. "The San Diego County Farm Bureau is unusual, compared to the farm bureaus in the Central Valley. It's become a property-rights group. As San Diego loses its farming infrastructure, the farmers in the Farm Bureau want to sell their land to developers, and they don't want to be limited in their ability to do that."
Though Proposition B has several provisions, the main effect of it would be to change the zoning in San Diego County's agricultural preserve so drastically that almost all development in the area would be impossible. In some parts of San Diego's backcountry, Proposition B would change the minimum parcel size to 20, 40, or even 80 acres. One of the main arguments opponents make against the initiative is that the vast majority of farms in the area are already smaller than that.
"In some cases, farmers won't be able to divide their land among their children after death, and so it will have to be sold under auction," Stehly said. "It would also discourage new farmers from purchasing farms less than 40 or 80 acres -- which is too much to get started on."
Longtime Democratic Party activist Margaret Moody brought up this issue at a recent meeting of the San Diego Democratic Club -- and persuaded them to remain neutral on Proposition B, even though the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee has endorsed it. "My family has a 20-acre plot that would be affected," Moody said. "We have a two-room cabin and the rest of the land can't be developed. Under Proposition B, we couldn't sell the land because we couldn't split it, and no one would want to buy a parcel that big that couldn't be developed."
"It wouldn't affect her ability to sell her land," said Rural Heritage and Watershed Committee staff member Linda Michael, who helped develop the initiative. "She has 20 acres. The initiative doesn't change her family's ability to use her land or put it on the market."
"Farmers rarely do divide their land among their kids," added Brimm, "and if they do, the initiative does allow people to divide their land if their intent is to continue to farm it. And, under the initiative, someone who wants to get into farming can go into a larger farm and -- providing it's not on a steep hillside or so far off the beaten path that it would need new roads for access -- they could buy part of it."
Sierra Club executive committee member Eric Bowlby stressed that, even though the initiative may specify a parcel size of 40 or even 80 acres, "farmers can subdivide the 40-acre parcels to the sizes specified in the current levels of zoning -- 2, 4, 8, or 20 acres. The Union-Tribune is completely in denial about the fact that the initiative does provide for small farms." Bowlby said he personally solicited 10,000 signatures for the initiative and, of the 40 landowners in the area who told him they were against it, all but one wanted to sell their farms to residential developers.
"The one exception was someone who said he wanted to be able to subdivide his land for his kids," Bowlby explained. "When I told him there was a provision in the initiative that would allow him to do that, he said, 'I don't want to have to apply for the exemption.' Yes, you'll have to fill out some paperwork -- but the exemption is there."
Michael also responded to opponents who have said that the downzonings in Proposition B are purely arbitrary. "The plan is based on the County's own land-use designations," Michael said. "It's not appropriate to develop on your agricultural preserve, so the initiative puts in a parcel size appropriate to agriculture." Michael said there is nothing arbitrary about the initiative; the lands it covers are the ones the County itself has designated as an agricultural preserve, and the parcel sizes come from California state law that sets standards for agricultural zoning.
The initiative campaign takes place against a backdrop of trouble with agriculture in general. "We have seen farmland continuously disappear," said Brimm. "Nationally we lose 50 acres of farmland per day, and just last year 100,000 acres of prime California farmland disappeared." Scott Murray, another farmer who supports Proposition B, said that in the 1962 census of agricultural lands there were 60,000 acres in San Diego County devoted to tomatoes and other row crops -- and by 1995 there were only 3000 acres left.