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Pajaro Valley Gold

[whitespace] Dick Peixoto
Robert Scheer

From the Ground Up: Fruit and vegetable farmer Dick Peixoto (right) and employee inspect a crop on Peixoto's spread south of the city of Watsonville.

With an industrial park and a $134 million water pipeline on tap, some activists call for a return to Watsonville's roots

By Traci Hukill

LITTLE MORE THAN a century ago, eager prospectors struck gold at either end of Monterey Bay, drawing rushes to modest lodes in the Santa Cruz Mountains and in the Santa Lucia range south of Monterey. While the cities of Santa Cruz and Monterey boomed, Watsonville and the Pajaro Valley missed out. Residents there had to content themselves with legends of buried treasure, reportedly left behind by wealthy Spanish and Mexican families escaping federal taxation when statehood settled over California.

The stories fed hope but produced nothing. The fabled chests of gold coins never broke Pajaro Valley topsoil.

But the area's wealth may yet surface. Now, while the troubled valley's economic future hangs in the balance, a group of farmers and conservationists believes the Pajaro Valley's richest treasure and the cure for its ills still lies underfoot--not buried in its soil but composed of it. Sustainable agriculture, they say, is the key to building a sustainable community in south Santa Cruz County.

Ken Kimes, an organic farmer and member of a citizens group working to preserve agriculture in the area, says that in Watsonville and elsewhere, farming lies at the base of the nation's economy.

"One reason America has become so wealthy is because we're in this perfect temperate zone," he says, adding with a self-conscious chuckle, "You know, amber waves of grain and all that."

But these are hard times for the Pajaro Valley and for Watsonville in particular. High unemployment, poverty and overcrowding have reduced the quality of life here for too many of its residents: More than 11 percent of the people who call Watsonville home live below the poverty line. And many of the people who work at Watsonville's better-paying jobs live elsewhere, taking their tax dollars north to Santa Cruz and south to Monterey County. Even the land itself seems under siege, as sea water intrudes on the over-pumped aquifer, threatening to pollute the groundwater with saltwater.

In an effort to contain the stampeding herd of social and economic problems, Watsonville's city council and planning commission have proposed corralling them at the end of a course of action that includes the much-publicized annexation of the Riverside and Tai properties--not just to build housing, but also to pave the way for light industry to assuage unemployment and feed growth.

Simultaneously, the Pajaro Valley Water Management Agency has proposed building a $134 million pipeline from the Central Valley to address the valley's saltwater intrusion problem.

The two proposals, though distinct, meld in critics' eyes into a single disturbing scenario: a habit of relying on sprawl to solve problems caused by poor planning, and a pipeline that feeds that habit by opening a floodgate for developers to pour into the valley.

Even worse, critics contend, the changes could further marginalize Watsonville's neediest population. And in the meantime, Pajaro Valley's prized farmland, which experts call some of the best in the world, will get gobbled up and paved over.

Back to the Future

OPPONENTS OF THE ANNEX-and-industrialize plan see visions of the San Joaquin Valley, where an estimated 12,000 acres of prime farmland fall to urbanization each year. But they have a little time to rally forces around an alternative proposal: a seed plan for a sustainable community built on ecologically sound agriculture.

The Pajaro Valley Futures Project, an in-depth study of how Watsonville can develop by increasing density within its existing boundaries rather than spilling over them, will also examine what causes unemployment there. The Local Agency Formation Commission, which has the final say on the annexation issues, says the city should consider the project's findings before applying for the rezoning necessary to annex the Riverside and Tai properties. Project organizers expect results in June.

Meanwhile, the pipeline project, which could pipe in up to 18,000 acre feet of water each year from the Central Valley for farmland irrigation, awaits voter approval, also scheduled for June.

The four months until then don't bring much peace of mind to the members of the comprehensively named Campaign to Save Pajaro Valley Farm Lands and Wetlands. In their eyes, Watsonville stands poised on the brink of a series of decisions that could radically change the future. Look at what happened in the Santa Clara Valley, they say. Look at the San Joaquin.

"Watsonville is at a turning point," says Chris Lyons, chair of the farmland campaign. "It could either become a model for a sustainable community or, if not, it could end up looking like Morgan Hill or Gilroy. It can be a model for the rest of the United States or another example of knee-jerk planning and urban sprawl."

Frank Bardacke, another campaign member, sees the solution to Watsonville's economic woes in a return to the valley's roots, so to speak.

"There's a possible future for Pajaro Valley that has to be fought for," he says, "in which you could have a measure of economic justice and an ecologically sound method of agricultural production.

"It would depend on the development of organic agriculture, the unionization of farm workers and on a strong connection to the San Francisco organic foods market--the largest organic foods market in the world.

"And it would depend on thinking of the Pajaro Valley as the Napa Valley of organic produce. If you think of this as a beautiful place, a place that needs to be preserved, it becomes a place people like to come to visit."

Bardacke's vision highlights several points of the campaign's five-part alternative plan for the Pajaro Valley. That plan, drawn up by members of the seven groups that comprise the campaign, consists largely of promoting ecologically sound agriculture that pays living wages and doesn't exhaust the soil. The urban counterpart to that section of the plan involves supporting local businesses rather than chains and developing Watsonville's downtown.

The campaign favors bolstering education at all levels so Watsonville residents can get better-paying jobs in town (one recent study shows that half of Watsonville's jobs are held by non-residents, and another suggests that many residents lack the training required to get the existing jobs). It calls for "in-fill" development--which increases urban density--over sprawl, and seeks to develop ecological and agricultural tourism.

The idea of the Pajaro Valley becoming a tourist's Mecca might take some getting used to, but if UCSC agroecology professor Sean Swezey is to be believed, this place is so fertile and so rare it could already be a working museum.

"Santa Cruz County has some of the best farmers in the world farming some of the best soils in the world in one of the best horticultural climates in the world," he says emphatically. "It has tremendous potential for increasing its organic industry."

Swezey believes this county--especially its southern half--could become an international force in the organics business.

"We're well known around the Pacific Rim for our talent here," he says. "I see no reason why that talent can't be applied. We're situated to be a very strong Pacific Rim player in organics."

He estimates that close to 10 percent of Santa Cruz County's irrigated farmland--which generated $260 million in gross production in 1996--is either growing certified organic produce already or transitioning to organic production. In contrast, the nationwide average for organic farmland is 1 percent.

Chris Lyons
Robert Scheer

Hard-Lyon Preservationists: Chris Lyons' Campaign to Save Pajaro Valley Farm Lands and Wetlands believes the area faces opportunities and risks.

Labor Pains

PAJARO VALLEY'S DEEP sandy loam, flat profile and cool, dry summers make it one of the best places in the world to grow not just artichokes, flowers, sprouts and plums but also berries and leafy greens, neither of which can tolerate high heat and both of which are labor-intensive, especially when they're grown using organic methods. Organic crops, for one thing, require hand weeding. Later on at harvest time, berries demand time-consuming careful selection because they're so perishable, and baby lettuces, because their growing season lasts so long here, may be harvested as many as six times in a season.

The reward for all the labor is a high return--organic produce on average brings in up to one and a half times the revenue conventional produce does--which helps explain why a handful of the valley's conventional farmers is transitioning to organic.

Dick Peixoto is one such convert. Born and raised in the valley, he started farming as a senior in high school 22 years ago. The 40 acres he started out with have burgeoned to 1,750 acres that generate $15 million a year in revenue, making him the biggest farmer in the Pajaro Valley.

Peixoto (pronounced pu-shoat) plans to transition 100 acres a year to organic and currently farms 250 organic acres of baby lettuce, radicchio, strawberries and a variety of other produce--70 items in all.

Peixoto's seen some fundamental changes in this valley over the course of his lifetime. One of the most worrisome, he says, is that Watsonville laborers aren't getting the work they used to--exactly what's troubling the Watsonville City Council.

Peixoto points to a trend of large growers--not farmers, but growing companies that contract laborers to the farmers--moving to Salinas, where land is cheaper and they can draw their labor pool from a larger geographical area.

"I see a lot of larger companies coming in from Salinas now that bring their labor with them. We're just not getting the percentage of jobs we used to," he says. He estimates that at any given time, more than 75 percent of the workers in his fields are from Salinas, not Watsonville. He describes a situation in which Watsonville laborers must drive to Salinas, ride buses back to Watsonville to work a mile from home and ride the buses back to Salinas before returning to Watsonville.

"And it's not intentional. No one's saying, 'Let's only hire people from Salinas,' " he says. "That's just the way you do business."

Peixoto's main concern, though, is not labor but water. The money he's making at organic farming is good enough to keep this shrewd businessman on his transitioning plan. But Peixoto, who in his green ball cap and denim shirt makes an unlikely hero of progressive ecological causes, is already feeling the strain from the water-price increases levied to pay for the Central Valley pipeline project.

"Nine out of the past 10 years my people have gotten Christmas bonuses, and the only reason they didn't get one this year is because of the water-cost increases. My water bill this year is going to be about a quarter of a million dollars.

"I love farming here," he says. "I want to farm here till the day I die. But if water gets too expensive, I'll be forced to move over to Salinas, San Benito County or Hollister.

"One thing I think the water agency hasn't considered is that if the farmers leave here, the residents are still going to have to pick up the tab for that pipeline," Peixoto says. Worse than that, he says, if the farmers leave Watsonville, a number of agriculture-related businesses will also go under.

"I'll bet 75 percent of the businesses in Watsonville are farming-related," Peixoto guesses. "Just go down Walker Street. You'll see everything down there is farming-related. If water gets too expensive and farmers are forced to move, all those businesses will fold."

Ground Control

PEIXOTO'S RIGHT about Walker Street. Not far from the controversial Riverside parcel, near the train tracks close to downtown, lies the agribusiness district. Semis with bright Dole paint jobs rumble up and down the Walker Street artery, where within a two-block stretch 12 businesses and warehouses stand crowded together. Scotts Valley Sprinkler and Pipe Supply. Arctic Cold Storage. Kennedy Brothers Spray and Fertilizer Equipment. C.T.R. Tractor Repair.

No one has bothered to tease out how many of Watsonville's businesses rely on agriculture, though industry people have an idea of what is usually the case. According to Rick Bergman, who works in the agricultural commissioner's office, "Agriculture's impact on the economy usually has a multiplier of three times gross production. That means the goods and services required to keep agriculture working varies from two to three times what agriculture itself produces."

If that formula holds true for Pajaro Valley, then the corridor of the valley that runs from the sea to Highway 101 and from Corralitos to Moss Landing, whose gross production totaled $508 million in 1996, generated between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in ancillary business revenues that year.

Much of that revenue goes elsewhere--to equipment manufacturers, shippers, fertilizer companies--but a whole local industry of equipment dealers, truckers, fuel distributors and packaging plants benefit from it, too.

Several blocks from Walker Street lies downtown Watsonville, the commercial heart of the Pajaro Valley. Randy Repass, chair of the multimillion-dollar company West Marine and a member of the Pajaro Valley Futures Project, would like to see downtown Watsonville distill its culturally rich essence into a thriving business community.

Repass believes it would attract people in the same way Santa Cruz's Pacific Avenue does. His vision aligns with the farmland campaign's plan to rejuvenate downtown.

"The downtown area has a lot of potential," Repass says, "but right now a lot of people see no reason to go there. If you want to eat good Mexican food, that's a reason to go to downtown Watsonville. But there's a perception that it's dangerous--and I don't think that's true--and there are not a lot of businesses that cater to people looking for the unique, smaller specialty shops that they can find in downtown Santa Cruz.

"I think we need to have stores that deal with the whole community, not just the low-income Hispanic community."

That does not mean running the discount stores and mercados out of downtown, Repass emphasizes. On the contrary, he says, those elements make Watsonville unique.

"We're different than any other place within miles of this area, different than Santa Cruz, Monterey, Carmel. We want this to be a town where people want to come, a town that's culturally diverse and stable--a fun place to live."

Toward that goal, Repass and his wife recently bought and began renovations on the Kalich Building, a local landmark that fell into disrepair after the earthquake damaged it. They hope that move will focus the business community's attention on downtown, rather than on the much-vaunted industrial parks slated to fill annexed property.

Critics say Watsonville land is too costly for profit-conscious corporations, and that new industry might not necessarily solve Watsonville's unemployment problem.

Pajaro Valley Futures Project board member Ken Kimes cites the two studies that indicate Watsonville's residents might be unqualified for many of the city's 30,000 jobs.

"What it amounts to is that the people in Watsonville don't have the skills to take on jobs that are already in Watsonville," Kimes says. "The problem is, if you add jobs by bringing in industry, you'll exacerbate that situation.

"If you add 1,000 jobs, you'll import 800 people for the 200 from Watsonville," he says. "What's really needed in Watsonville isn't just the creation of more jobs, but for people to have the jobs that are already here."

The people involved in the Campaign to Save Pajaro Valley Farm Lands and Wetlands can cite endless reasons why the annex-and-industrialize model won't work: the local economy's backbone will crumble if farmers are driven out, the industrialists might not come, if they do come they'll make things worse for the people who need help the most, and Watsonville will start sprawling just like countless other communities in the western United States.

But the other side to their point of view is that Pajaro Valley already has the tools to sustain a healthy, thriving, enjoyable community: It has people, businesses and an extraordinary natural resource in its soil. Just like the legends promised, Pajaro Valley's real wealth is in the ground.

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From the February 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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