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Big Apple Country

[whitespace] David Moore
George Sakkestad

Food for Thought: Superior Foods CEO David Moore envisions new ways to save farming and bolster Watsonville's economy.

The factories have left and the developers are at the door. But before the farmland is gone for good, some local activists think that combining organic agriculture and tourism may provide a better way to bolster Watsonville's economy.

By Bob Johnson

IN WATSONVILLE, they're dreaming of using agriculture as a lure for tourist dollars. It's a vision of tourism a la Napa Valley's wine country, but with a Monterey Bay sustainable agriculture twist. They're dreaming because they have to.

When Green Giant and other food-processing companies left town for Mexico a decade ago, some 4,000 good-paying union jobs at the plants that lasted most of the year were lost. To fill the gap in the local economy, civic leaders have been considering ever since paving over the surrounding farmland to make room for industry and shopping centers.

The latest front line in the clash between city leaders and environmentalists is a plan to annex 96 acres of rich bottom land off Riverside Drive to build an industrial park. Next in line is likely to be a proposal to build a golf course, shopping center and 1,800 homes on the 646-acre Tai property west of town. Half of that land is now the largest organic farm in the county.

That proposal forced longtime Watsonville residents to imagine how agriculture might save itself. The problem has long been that farming could never compete with retail when it came to generating tax dollars and jobs. But a plan is afoot that might allow agriculture to make the kind of contribution to the local economy that would make developers less covetous of the prime land it occupies.

David Moore's family began packing apples in the Pajaro Valley in the 1870s. Today Moore is the CEO of Superior Foods, one of the largest food processors, distributors and brokers in the state. But he wonders openly how much longer agriculture can sustain the valley of his ancestors.

"We need to ask how ag could become a better industry, because we cannot stay the ag that we are," Moore says. "If ag can't do better for this community, then we have to do something else. This is the most expensive farm ground in the country. We need to create a unique value-added product that is market-driven."

Six months ago, Moore surprised Watsonville by suggesting the Pajaro Valley might best survive by becoming a world sanctuary for sustainable organic agriculture practices. He also envisioned a Pajaro Valley where farming would serve as a magnet for tourist dollars. Those two ideas now form the foundation for a new attempt to reinvent the local economy.

The Last LAFCO

FLANKED ON THE Monterey Bay coast by two towns--Santa Cruz and Monterey--that peddle their good looks for a living, Watsonville has always settled for the tougher money that comes from hard work. But the proximity of those tourist economies has had a downside for Watsonville agriculture by driving up local land values.

Moore's was the first bold suggestion that Watsonville could graft the riches of the region's tourism onto the agriculture economy. "A lot of people thought I was out of my mind," Moore confesses, but adds, "A lot of people thought it was a great idea."

Interest in creating a Napa Valley of sustainable agriculture has grown as Watsonville has faced annexation controversies caused by the crisis in the economy. "Agri-tourism," as it is known, would provide an opportunity to revive the economy without sacrificing farmland. In its preliminary stage, the idea has generated interest among farmers, environmentalists, business people and city officials. It also became a campaign issue in the last election, when Marion Thomas Martinez, an unsuccessful candidate for City Council District 7, touted the idea.

Last August, the Santa Cruz County Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO), which oversees requests for municipal annexations, slashed the Riverside Drive request by more than half to 96 acres. It also effectively postponed the application when LAFCO representative and county Supervisor Mardi Wormhoudt requested that Watsonville consider the recommendations on land-use planning of the Pajaro Valley Futures Project, a coalition of farmers and environmentalists formed by the county Farm Bureau, Watsonville Wetlands Watch and the Community Alliance of Family Farmers.

With discussion of those recommendations not set to begin until Dec. 8, it could be a year before the city considers the group's report and returns to LAFCO for annexation approval. But Wormhoudt's savvy stipulation gave the Futures Project instant credibility and led to a more cooperative working relationship between agri-tourism proponents and city officials. But the hard part still lies ahead. Before the rubber meets the road on the annexation question in the next year, organic farming and tourism proponents will have to make their case.

Making Ag Work

AS ITS NAME IMPLIES, the Futures Project has tried to look beyond the next public hearing, or even the next annexation. Borrowing from a popular New Age planning term, the members of the Futures Project expanded its work into a new group known as the Pajaro Valley Visioning Process, which meets regularly to discuss what kind of valley it wants to leave to the next generation.

The attempt to envision and build a sustainable, agriculture-friendly Pajaro Valley has also attracted concerned business leaders who share an interest in preserving the quality of life in the valley. In addition to Superior Foods' Moore, Randy Repass has served as a vital link between the farmers and environmentalists--and a broader group of Watsonville business people who are eager to preserve Watsonville.

Repass moved to Santa Cruz County a quarter century ago and founded the fabulously successful West Marine. A decade ago, he moved his company's headquarters to the Westridge Center at the north end of Watsonville, and his home to a rural site on Highway 152 east of town. A year ago, Repass grew anxious that the proposed development of more than 800 acres of farmland threatened what he treasures about the area.

"You develop a picture of where you want to be in 30 or 40 years and then decide what you can do in the next year or two to move towards it," Repass says. "It's called long-term visioning. In business, we call it strategic planning."

Repass is no starry-eyed idealist. Keeping agricultural space open will depend on finding a way to create jobs, and therein lies the rub: how to make environmental tourism work.

"We're trying to figure out how to optimize the quality of life around here," Repass says. "Part of that is making ag viable. It also includes keeping some of the land in open space, more jobs for people who want to move up, housing and a tax base for the governmental agencies."

While agri-tourism is emerging as a vision that reconciles economic and environmental interests, the stakes are high for those involved in the planning process. Although few concrete ideas have emerged on how to make it work, the Pajaro Valley does have a few things going for it: it is in the path of significant tourist traffic, and it has the experience of Napa Valley to draw on.

John Martinelli
George Sakkestad

Comparing Apples and Grapes: Local apple juice producer John Martinelli sees lessons for combining agriculture and tourism in the experience of Napa Valley.

Biting the Apple

CURRENTLY, MARTINELLI'S is the only local firm using the area's special qualities to market its products, although without citing the Pajaro Valley by name. The label on the back of large jugs of Martinelli's apple juice reads: "The pleasantly temperate central coast of California, with its rolling hills, sheltered valleys, rich soils, cool ocean breezes and sunny autumn days, is ideal for growing the superior apples selected by Martinelli's Gold Medals apple juice."

Perhaps not coincidentally, it is also the only food-processing firm that is expanding its Watsonville work force. Martinelli's took over the abandoned Green Giant plant, opened another juice-processing line and plans further expansion. "We're bringing apples in from the outside and hiring people here to process them," company owner John Martinelli says.

But even a robust expansion of Martinelli's will add at best 50 jobs to the company's current work force of 150 employees. At its peak, the Green Giant plant employed more than 1,000 workers.

Martinelli wonders if the entire valley could sell the idea that this is a special place--not just one whose products are worth patronizing but one that itself is worth visiting.

"If we were able to do what the Napa Valley does, that would be incredible," Martinelli says, who obviously believes his own promotional material. "We could let people in San Jose know that coming to the farm is like going to the fair, or the zoo, or Great America. It's like wine-tasting, except the whole family can do it.

"This is the Napa Valley of the apple business. With the cool moist climate here, the apples ripen on the tree instead of falling to the ground. We do produce a better-tasting apple because of our unique climate."

In addition to exploring ways to attract tourist dollars, coalitions are also forming to find ways to raise the value of the agricultural products themselves, as a way to make the ag economy worth preserving--with an emphasis on the organic agriculture that is already thriving in the Pajaro Valley.

Environmentalists and farmers have often clashed over issues like pesticide use, but found common cause when it comes to land-use questions. But in the effort to create added value for local agriculture, that is changing, and organic ag is often the link.

A number of organic farmers and environmentalists are discussing linking the Monterey Bay Sanctuary and environmentally friendly agriculture by providing market incentives for farming practices that spare the sanctuary from sedimentation, nitrates and pesticides that run off into the bay. The idea would be to showcase the Pajaro Valley as a center of organic agriculture. In other words, a "Grown in the Pajaro Valley" label could become synonymous with safe agriculture, providing consumers who are willing to pay a premium for organic produce with a shorthand way of making good purchasing choices.

"Hopefully, it would help market the products that are grown in the Monterey Bay area using conservation measures that help protect the watershed of the Monterey Bay Sanctuary," says Holly Price, director of the water quality protection program for the Monterey Bay Sanctuary. Price has been discussing the idea with Sam Earnshaw, the local representative of the statewide Community Alliance of Family Farmers.

"The hope is that we can capitalize on consumer recognition of the Monterey Bay area, which is growing nationally and internationally," Price says. But she cautions against overoptimism. "We're just starting to talk about it. It's very premature."

Missteps

THE DIMINISHING apple orchards are a symptom of how Watsonville has been overwhelmed by changes in crop patterns, caused largely by the extraordinary value of land in the Pajaro Valley. It is a problem that afflicts land all along the Monterey Bay.

For over a century, the Pajaro Valley produced the best apples on earth. But apples fetch, at best, $5,000 an acre. Strawberries and bush berries replaced apples because they bring in more than $20,000 an acre. During the last 20 years, as land lease rates skyrocketed, two-thirds of the apple orchards of the Pajaro Valley were ripped out. It is no wonder Martinelli's is now buying some of its apples elsewhere.

Berries are labor-intensive, but the jobs are largely low-wage and seasonal for the least skilled agricultural workers.

"Over the last 20 years our population has doubled within the same city limits," Watsonville city manager Carlos Palacios says, noting one of the consequences of the change in Pajaro Valley agriculture. "We have an industry that provides a lot of jobs and brings a lot of people to Watsonville. Over the last 10 to 20 years, we have switched from apple orchards to row crops and strawberries, which is one of the most labor-intensive crops."

Palacios is intent on attracting better-paying, more stable working-class jobs to Watsonville. But there have been frustrations in the attempt to rebuild the area's industrial base.

The Seagate Corporation's cavernous Watsonville facility at the north end of town stood unoccupied for a decade until a year ago. As the food processors began leaving town in the mid-1980s, Watsonville looked forward to the 3,300 production jobs promised by Seagate. But before the plant was ever occupied, the company transferred its disk-drive production to Singapore and Bangkok. In addition, the prize of the greatest annexation battle of the 1980s, the Landmark Industrial Park property on the west side, has gone without industrial takers and has been rezoned for housing.

Earnshaw fears the job market will bring Watsonville the worst of both worlds--growth that destroys farmland but doesn't provide good-paying jobs for the neediest residents. "We need to match jobs with the work force we have in Watsonville," Earnshaw says. "If they bring in upper-end high-tech jobs, they're going to bring in a bunch of people who don't live here and drive some of the residents out."

Zoning for Dollars

PALACIOS FINDS HOPE in the smaller light manufacturing firms from within the region that have located in Watsonville. He ticks off a list--Alfaro's Micro Bakery, Orion, Sierra Therm, California Tube Lab--and hopes they are small steps in the long, hard march toward industrial revitalization. As city manager, Palacios struggles to find revenue to pay for cops and parks. His support for agri-tourism is guarded.

"Agri-tourism is part of a solution to our problem," Palacios says. "Is it the entire solution to our problem? Absolutely not. We need a healthy community with adequate jobs and housing for the people who live here, but we also have to have a tax base. Under the rules as they are now, we have to compete for sales tax dollars, and that's hard to do with a low-income community."

Changes in the rules of the local government money-making game would ease the pressure to expand into the farmland. Since the voters limited property taxes in 1978 with Prop. 13, local governments throughout California have tried to maximize their revenues by encouraging sales-tax-producing commercial developments, such as has taken place in Capitola.

The zoning-for-dollars game makes land within range of urban centers more valuable to develop than to farm. Some of the strongest support for sharing sales-tax revenues, at least within the county, is coming from environmentalists, who are eager to remove the fiscal incentive to annex and develop farmland.

"We should consider a regional sales tax within Santa Cruz County or the Monterey Bay region," says Chris Lyons-Johnson, an activist with Wetlands Watch. The recent passage of Prop. 11 would allow local governmental entities to enter into such sales tax revenue-sharing agreements.

The Visioning Project is already leaning toward consensus on other strategies to ease Watsonville's economic woes without devouring the farms. "There are some things we can agree on," Palacios says. "One is using redevelopment to encourage infill and density."

In an attempt to prevent annexation of the rich lands off Riverside Drive, the Futures Project has compiled a list of properties within city limits that could be used for industrial development. Prominent in that inventory of underused land, which will be discussed by the Watsonville City Council on Dec. 8, is the 12-acre downtown vacant lot owned by the Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District.

Avoiding the Past

EVEN IF THE FISCAL incentive to pave over farmland were removed, Watsonville would still need to find stable employment for its people. Agriculture economist Dave Runsten, who studied the job flight in the frozen vegetable industry as a graduate student at Davis, believes a marriage of agriculture and tourism could be a road toward rebirth.

"There are some elements of it already there," says Runsten. "The Gizdich Ranch [a You Pick 'Em strawberry farm] is one example of agri-tourism, and they're doing very well with it. Roses of Yesteryear is another example. There could be some kind of farmers' flower market. It's an opportunity--it's a question of whether anybody does anything with it."

He recalled the story of a group of travel agents who toured the Monterey Bay a few years ago. They were dazzled when they saw the farms that surround Watsonville. "They all said: 'This is a fantastic place; you could really do something with it,' " Runsten recalls. "But that was the last anybody heard of it. Nobody did anything about it."

With the footsteps of urbanization growing louder, time is growing short.

Farm Bureau director Ken Chimes grew up in Riverside County, where he witnessed the destruction of farmland to make room for urban expansion. His father sold farm equipment, but by the 1960s the spread of concrete had gone so far that his father remained in business by selling construction equipment.

For the last 18 years, Ken Chimes has grown baby lettuce and sprouts in his Corralitos greenhouse. He has built a successful business selling his high-value crop at local farmers' markets, but in order to meet the Santa Cruz County setback requirements he has to lease a five-acre parcel, at nearly $10,000 a year, for his half-acre greenhouse. Chimes' operation is entirely organic.

Today Chimes is working to prevent a repeat of the urbanization experience of his youth. For him, it is a cautionary tale.

"The Farm Bureau position is do everything you can before you annex, because once farmland is paved, it's gone forever," he says. "I watched the farm conversion happen down there [in Riverside County]. It happens faster than you can imagine. You can go from a wonderful bucolic town to a megalopolis in 10 years."

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From the November 25-December 2, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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