They say that the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing. Four years ago, Bud Sloan decided it was time to do something.
What he’s accomplished since then has earned him BEEF’s 22nd annual Trailblazer Award. The award recognizes beef producers for volunteer efforts that make the beef business better.
Sloan, a third-generation cow-calf producer and beef veterinarian along California’s coast in Ventura County, runs a ranch that dates back to a Spanish land grant He understands the value and importance that agriculture brings to the area. And he wants his grandsons to be able to continue the ranching tradition.
But while Sloan and other ag producers were busy with their daily lives, Ventura County was changing. The county’s southern border joins the northern border of Los Angeles County, and as the L.A. affluent began to escape the crime and other urban problems of the metro area, they moved north. What they found, they liked. As the newcomers found positions in city and county government, they began a movement to ensure that nobody else could move in on top of them.
How they’ve gone about it has resulted in a crushing regulatory environment that makes it nearly impossible for ag producers to stay in business.
But the idea for how to deal with that situation came in an unusual way. Sloan, then a second vice president for the California Cattlemen’s Association, was attending a neighboring county cattlemen’s meeting where he heard a talk from the executive director of the Santa Barbara County CoLAB, which stands for Coalition of Labor, Agriculture and Business. It was one of two such organizations at the time.
“I walked away with the idea that we need one of these,” he remembers. “I came back to Ventura County and sent an email to everybody I could think of, whether they were in tree ag, row-crop ag, cattle, vegetables and fruit.” He got about 25 people to show up for a meeting. “We sat down and I started explaining this thing to them.”
The next meeting, he had 35 people. The meeting after that, 45 to 50 showed up. “We realized we could do this,” he says.
And they have. The Ventura County CoLAB officially came about in fall 2010 with about 60 members. It has since grown to about 400 members, with potential for many more.
One of the many things that frustrated Sloan and other ag producers was a county ordinance called SOAR — Save Our Agricultural Resources. Enacted around 15 years ago, it seemed like a positive move. “On the face, it sounds like an issue that would help ranchers and farmers maintain open space and an agrarian economy,” Sloan says.
Instead, it put handcuffs on ag producers’ ability to make any land-use change on their operation by giving the county planning department absolute authority over any land-use decision anywhere in the county. “If you want to change the intensification of the land in any way, you have to go before the population with a special election that you pay for,” he says. Along with other land-use regulations, “it essentially turned a $50,000 equipment shed into a $500,000 project.”
SOAR became the hammer that the no-growth, not-in-my-backyard crowd used to stifle economic growth in the county. “There was never any attempt to ensure that ag could stay viable. They didn’t allow us to be dynamic, to be able to change with the times and the markets,” he says. “It put such a roadblock in the way of agriculture staying viable that we realized we, as an ag community, needed to do something about it.”
Thus, the Ventura County CoLAB came to be, with Sloan as its inaugural president, a position he still holds.
CoLAB started out as a watchdog for efforts by the county government and environmental and no-growth groups to forward their agendas at the expense of the county’s economy, and the businesses that keep it humming. “We started watching everything they did,” Sloan says.
That involves showing up at every meeting. “We have a board of directors who are very active,” he says, and are present at many meetings. The group’s executive director, Lynn Jensen, attends about 35 meetings a month, representing and advocating for CoLAB members. “We have a call-to-arms protocol for emailing everybody. If we have to pack a room, we can do that,” Sloan says.
In its four short years, Ventura County CoLAB has notched several successes by being pragmatic, Jensen says, and by recognizing that often a victory is negotiating reasonable regulations.
“I think one of the reasons we’re successful is we have partners in everything we do,” Jensen says. Many of the ag commodities have county organizations, but those groups don’t have the resources individually to fight the county. Pooling resources through CoLAB, they do. Then, she says, CoLAB staff and volunteers do their homework, understand the details, and come prepared.
“We get into the details with our partners, and we try to negotiate regulations so they’re reasonable and they don’t put cattlemen out of business,” she says. “There’s an economic impact to all these regulations, and I think sometimes they don’t recognize that it’s the successful businesses that pay for all this government.”
From the beginning, Sloan encouraged CoLAB members to be problem-solvers. “We decided Ventura County CoLAB was going to be a solution-based system,” he says. “So that’s been our motto ever since. We’re reasonable people looking for reasonable solutions, and I think we can make a huge dent. We already have.”
In fact, CoLAB has become such a force in the county that people now ask members what they think. That respect for what CoLAB brings to a discussion will serve the group well as it goes forward.
Two issues the group is immersed in presently are a reauthorization of the SOAR ordinance and another county ordinance that deals with land use. With the SOAR reauthorization, CoLAB is working to include positive language that not only allows agriculture to be dynamic and viable, but also promotes ag production in the county. ”We’ve proposed a lot of that language in the upcoming SOAR. We’re not happy with it yet, but we’re working on it and are continuing to work,” he says.
“We’ve made a huge dent in having the county and the population realize that there are cattlemen out here,” Sloan says, “that we are a part of agriculture and a huge part of the ag lands in Ventura County.”
The other county ordinance deals with grading a piece of land. If an ag producer wants to blade a spot to build a shed, for example, the convoluted and complicated ordinance means that the landowner has to do an environmental impact study and get a permit.
CoLAB stepped in and, working with the county public works department, is trying to hammer out a reasonable set of standards for ag producers. However, after months of meetings, the county produced a set of regulations that were almost unrecognizable from what CoLAB had put together. So the CoLAB crew rewrote the ordinance and resubmitted it to the county for consideration.
“We’re two years down the road on this thing,” Sloan says. “But what we have done is made it very obvious that ag has to have a set of standards by which we can function: do our daily, normal, customary processes, without going to the county and get[ting] a permit every time we want to disk a field or remove brush from a hillside. We’re not through with it yet, but we’ve taken a huge bite out of the apple.”
Making it work
When Sloan brought the CoLAB idea to Ventura County ag producers four years ago, it wasn’t like he needed something else to do. Carving out the time to spend four to six hours a day in meetings means a lot of juggling.
But his wife, Kim, is very supportive of his efforts, and a ranch foreman handles the day-to-day work, leaving Sloan free to focus on management decisions. And he’s cut his vet work back to three days a week, which leaves additional time to devote to CoLAB.
He says agriculture is 15 to 20 years behind the environmental and no-growth groups in land use and regulatory effects that determine how ag functions on a daily basis. “And we’ve got to turn that around,” he says.
“So you just have to make the time. Is it worth it? Yeah, it has to be. Seeing what we’ve accomplished over the last four years makes me feel really good.”
All he has to do is watch his grandsons saddle their horses to know why he does it. “If we do not get our hands wet and get into the fray, nobody else is going to do it. So it’s going to take us from the grassroots up to get this done.”
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