Local advocacy organizations representing growers are taking up the banner for using healthy agricultural lands to help draw carbon out of the atmosphere and reduce local contributions to climate change.

“Orchards sequester approximately four tons of CO2 per year, while field crops sequester 0.5 tons of CO2 per year; in order to fully understand the role agriculture plays in greenhouse gas emissions countywide, these numbers must be discussed in this section,” stated Lynn Gray Jensen, board member and executive director of Ventura County Coalition of Labor Agriculture and Business (COLAB) about including that information in the agriculture section of the County’s General Plan.

Right now Ventura County is updating a document called the General Plan. Every city and county in the state must have one and revise it every 20 years. It’s a document that governs all land use in the unincorporated county, and all county codes and ordinances must be consistent with the language in the General Plan.

Seventy percent of county residents who provided input in the early phases of the update process said that they want the county to be proactive in responding to climate change. While reducing emissions and building renewable energy resources is an obvious aspect of that, addressing pesticide use in local commercial agriculture is now a focus.

Today, land use planners are compelled to become experts in developing policies and plans that will build resiliency. Planners were not trained in how to plan communities in the face of climate change. Designing zoning ordinances and impact mitigations based on models of increasing temperatures, sea level rise, severe weather events, environmental justice, advances in technology and the need to reduce emissions that contribute to climate change are all new directives for planners.

The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a department of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has a healthy soils program with staff crossing the country educating farmers about the myriad of living organisms in healthy soil and the importance of soil in resiliency. The program is based on the idea that only living things “can have health,” that soil is not just a lifeless “growing medium” but instead is full of life and living things — bacteria, fungi, microbes — that are a necessary part of growing healthy food. Healthy soil is better able to grow food in the midst drought, extreme weather and, hopefully, other unforeseen impacts of climate change.

According to the NRCS, microorganisms grow, reproduce and “decompose organic matter, cycle nutrients, enhance soil structure, and control the populations of soil organisms including crop pests.” When pesticides are used those processes are interrupted, leading to the cycle of needing more and more pesticides.

“Once people are on the pesticide treadmill, it’s difficult but not impossible to get them off,” said Adam Vega, a 26-year-old Camarillo resident who works as an advocate and community organizer with Californians for Pesticide Reform, a coalition of organizations working to change how pesticides are used in the state. His work includes educating growers on alternatives. “A lot of times people are really happy to hear about a more natural or softer thing to use. Many of the chemical pesticides are nasty petrochemicals and people have just gotten into a habit of reaching to them first. The chemical companies have a good 100-year head start, but the number of people that want to see something new is growing!”

Camarillo resident Adam Vega speaks at a public hearing in April 2019 before the Ventura County Board of Supervisors. Photo by Hannah Benet/Live From the Frontlines. Used with permission.

Vega’s work supports the new directives for land-use planners. Public input, sometimes outcry is needed to move the needle, Vega says, especially when it comes to industry practices that have been viewed as acceptable for decades.

According to state records (CalEnviroScreen 3.0), Ventura County growers use more pesticides per square mile than any other county in the state; 858,200 pounds of chemicals (70 listed substances CalEnviroScreen tracks) per square mile were applied between 2012 and 2014. Monterey County came in second by almost half, with 465,000 pounds per square mile.

Pesticide use in California is regulated by the Department of Pesticide Regulation (DPR), and growers must submit monthly reports of chemical use to the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner to meet requirements of DPR.

Vega was inspired to get involved on reducing pesticide use a few years ago after reading an article reporting data from the DPR that showed that the area around his alma mater, Oxnard High School, was subjected to some of the highest pesticide use in the state.

“It hit me that this was bad and someone had to do something,” Vega said.

Later, he became an intern with The Abundant Table in Camarillo. The nonprofit organization runs a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program from its five-acre farm with a goal of changing lives and systems by creating sustainable relationships to the land and local community.

“I learned there was another way to grow food. We could grow healthy food and community at the same time and in the very same place. That changed my whole perspective and approach to this work,” he said.

Today Vega collaborates with a myriad of organizations working on the issue of reducing pesticide use locally, nationally and globally. He has spoken at public hearings and lobbied with elected officials throughout the region including Ventura County, Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, San Luis Obispo, Sacramento, Richmond and Los Angeles.

At the local level, Vega said he is going to “continue working . . . to make Ventura County the healthiest county in the next 10 years. More biodiversity in our fields, use of integrated pest management throughout the county.” Recently he was part of a coalition that worked to get Oxnard Unified High School District to stop using glyphosate on school campuses for weed control.

As an alternative to heavy pesticide use, he pointed to regenerative agricultural practices aimed at protecting the microbiology of the soil, saying, “If we don’t take care of the soil, we can’t take care of ourselves. With healthy soil we can increase carbon and water capturing capacity.”

A public hearing for the General Plan Update will be held on Tuesday, Aug, 6, 1 p.m. at the County Government Center, Board hearing room; 800 South Victoria Avenue, Ventura. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors will review and vote on the proposed draft document, which will be the foundation for the next phase, Environmental Impact Report scoping. The draft document can be viewed online at www.vc2040.org. Written public comments can be emailed to Susan Curtis, Project Manager, susan.curtis@ventura.org. Oral public comment can be given at the Aug. 6 hearing.