By Reggie Ellis

In the 1990s the dusty trail of agriculture was at a crossroads with the paved path of urbanization in Tulare County. The county began allowing homes to be built on two-and-a-half to five-acre ranchettes in rural areas. But the city folk who traded in their tract housing for the tranquility of country living quickly found out that there are things much louder than the occasional speeding car and the constant buzz of the freeway.

Known as the Zon Gun Wars at the Agriculture Commissioner's Office, Gary Kunkel said the fight over a bird-scaring tactic was a turning point in attitudes toward agriculture in Tulare County.

Neighbors who lived near a pistachio orchard on Avenue 300 west of Road 196 just north of Exeter began complaining of gunshots being fired at least a few times a minute at all hours of the day and night. The shots were actually from a Zon gun, a lightweight, portable, propane-fired cannon that emits thunderclaps to scare off birds, such as crows and bluebirds, which can pick an orchard of its crop before harvest.

Their complaints led to the adoption of an ordinance banning noisemaking devices within an eighth of a mile of a residence in the county to repel birds or other pests if the occupant files a complaint. While Zon guns are typically not used in orchards because they have proven to be ineffective, their demise in the county can be looked at as the first time that residents took precedents over agriculture in an area that still relies on farmers, shippers and packers to fuel its economy. The two cultures of growers and growth have been butting heads ever since and the Tulare County Farm Bureau is trying to do something about it. So last weekend they invited county and city planners to come on a guided bus tour of the problems facing agriculture today and how, by working together, there can be smart growth rather than uncontrolled sprawl.

A perfect example was the bus's first stop on Bardsley Avenue just east of Mooney Boulevard. The bus pulled over to the side of the road where College of the Sequoias is planning to build its new 500-acre farm and dairy center.

Across the street, developers were busily cutting down an orchard to make way for a future subdivision, which may be built before the farm ever gets off the ground. A planner with the City of Tulare also informed the group that the city's third high school is scheduled to open near the farm site in 2008.

"This is the same issue that COS faced with its current farm," said Craig Knudson, who sits on the Farm Bureau's board of directors. He said COS' farm was originally 117 acres on Linwood Street, but has been cut back to 13 because of the demand for development. "They may soon be facing the same issue a lot sooner than they thought."

While at first glance it looks as if there are more acres being farmed - harvested acreage increased by 13,000 acres from 2003 to 2004 - Farm Bureau President Brad Caudill said most of that land was not suitable for crops and was mostly dairies. In other words, prime farmland is being paved, and undesirable land is being left for dairies.

Dairy Air

The next stop on the tour was Hilarides Dairy, a 6,000-Jersey-cow milking operation on 160 acres on Avenue 242 and Road 188 northwest of Lindsay. One of the largest in the state, owner Rob Hilarides thought he could do Lindsay the ultimate service of providing jobs by reclaiming the former Lindsay Olive Growers' brine ponds and turning the property into productive agriculture.

"This is an example of dairy done right in Tulare County," Caudill said.

But the dairy was almost never built because an environmental group, the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), riled up neighbors to rally in opposition of the project because of air quality, odor, flies, noise, dust, water pollution and traffic concerns. The threat of litigation forced Hilarides to be the first dairy permit required to have an environmental impact report. Luckily, Hilarides had the support of the entire California dairy industry and was able to hire the best lawyers and experts to create a document in which every line of information was legally defensible.

"We haven't heard one complaint since we have been open," Hilarides said.

The facility has been in operation for two years and is a model of environmental protection and recycling efficiency. Cows are kept in free-stall corrals where cows can come and go as they please from shady to sunny areas. Much of his land is used to grow wheat and corn silage to feed the cows, whose manure is dried and bedding, then dried again and used as fertilizer on the fields. Water on the dairy is used at least three times beginning with the cooling system for milk, then to wash out the stalls and finally to irrigate the crops with a high content of fertilized water.

The dairy supports 70 families, including some second-generation dairy hands and their families. "If we had more jobs we would love to help even more families," Hilarides said.

Hilarides is also part of pilot program that uses a waste digester to create methane gas, which powers the vehicles such as tractors and forklifts. The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has determined that methane does not contribute significantly to smog.

However, the air district has found that cows emit gasses called volatile organic compounds (VOC) that combine in the atmosphere with nitrogen oxides (car emissions) to form smog. Because there are 2.5 million dairy cows in the San Joaquin Valley, the air district is in the process of determining how many dairies will need permits.

"Who knows what they'll come up with next," Hilarides said.

Quaker Oaks

After parking at the site of the Zon Gun Wars, the next stop for the bus was just north of Farmersville where a Quaker organization is proposing to build a conference center on 23 acres.

In 1999, Bill and Beth Lovett offered their 23-acre property as a location for a convention center for the annual meeting of the Pacific Friends Outreach Society (PFOS), a non-profit religious organization of Quakers. The Lovetts are members of the Visalia Friends Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers, who have had a Christmas Tree Farm there for 20 years.

PFOS filed a preliminary application for a special use permit in 2002 with the Tulare County Resource Management Agency. A public hearing was held on the application. Originally, the $7 million project included 450 beds in sojourner cabins, bathhouses, kitchen pavilion, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, dormitory and library, amphitheater and an educational facility. PFOS recently scaled back the initial phase of the project, which no longer includes the cabins, an educational facility and only has a 170-bed structure in the final phase. According to the county, the project will not come before the Planning Commission for another six months.

"This facility would have to be rented out year-round," Caudill said. "While it has been scaled-down over time, the Farm Bureau is not in support of this project because this is an ag area."

Beyond homes to the west of the property is a 45-acre walnut orchard farmed by Brian Blaine of Blaine Farms. Blaine said having 500 people there at different times of the year could hamper his operation. "That many people would limit spraying [pesticides] and harvesting," Blaine said in a June interview. "The dust stirred up during harvesting is incompatible with those kinds of uses."

Due to the large number of people that could congregate on the property, Blaine said events and activities there may delay spraying and harvesting for a week during high-use times. "I don't have that luxury if I have an infestation or if the crop is prime. A week can be the difference between a profit or a huge loss," he said.

Blaine also sits on the Farm Bureau's Land Use Committee, which has stated its opposition to the project's use. That point was reiterated by Caudill. "This is a tough subject because these are Farm Bureau members," he said. "We believe this is a good development in the wrong place. This property is in the Williamson Act. The sign says it is a Christmas Tree farm, but it doesn't look like that now."

Powerful People

One of Blaine Farms' other walnut orchards is located on Houston Avenue on the eastern edge of Visalia. Brody Blaine told the tour how he gets complaints almost on a daily basis from residents of Eastoak Estates, a high-end subdivision just 100 feet from the western edge of his 50+ acres.

"Last year there were only four to five homes built so we didn't change what we do too much," Brody said. "But now we don't spray anymore because of all the homes. If we are spraying and the wind kicks up right in the middle of what we are doing and even one drop of pesticide drifts into an open window that person will sue and they will probably win."

Other complaints he gets are that flood irrigation attracts mosquitoes with West Nile Virus, that poisoning cute squirrels is wrong and that the dust created when the trees are shaken during harvest is a nuisance. However, Knudson pointed out that nut trees act as vacuum cleaners for the dusty Valley air by sucking particulate matter out of the air and onto the leaves of the trees.

"Except during harvest, these trees are the vacuum bags for our air," he said. "And obviously when we shake them clean there is going to be a lot of dust. But there is a huge benefit for the rest of the year."

Power lines separating the orchard and the homes have also been a hardship on the farming operation. Southern California Edison forced Blaine to take out two rows of his orchard to make sure the lines were clear of the 30- to 60-foot trees. It was a sagging power line that came in contact with a walnut tree that short circuited the power grid affecting 10 million Canadians and 40 million Americans on Aug. 14, 2003.

Steve Liebel, transmission coordinator for SCE's San Joaquin Region, said those power lines are vital to the system that provides power to the entire valley and Los Angeles.

"The first things that get cut during a power crisis is non-essential services, such as a irrigation pump," Liebel said as the electricity sizzled overhead.

Green Fees

The last stop on the tour was Sierra View Golf Course where a developer is planning to convert the land into 200 homes.

The area has been zoned multi-family residential since 1976, but the golf course is surrounded by agriculture, including the Cardoza dairy. Only a quarter-of-a-mile away, Caudill said he wonders if the homeowners will understand that they live in the wind shed of a working dairy.

Currently homeowners are given a notice of Tulare County's "Right to Farm" ordinance as part of their closing documents. Adopted in the 1970s, Ordinance No. 2931 says that: "It is the declared policy of Tulare County to conserve, enhance and encourage agricultural operations within the county. Residents of property on or near agricultural land should be prepared to accept the inconveniences and discomfort associated with agricultural operations, including, but not necessarily limited to: noise, odors, fumes, dust, smoke, insects, operation of machinery (including aircraft) during any 24-hour period, storage and disposal of manure and the application by spraying or otherwise of chemical fertilizers, soil amendments, herbicides and pesticides."

Ideally the ordinance protects farmers against those who have moved into a neighborhood, if the farming operation has been established for at least three years and if it was not a nuisance at the time it began. However, episodes like the Zon Gun Wars are one of the Farm Bureau's best examples of how attitudes change.

"This is a good example of how decisions we make today can come back to impact us 30-40 years from now," Caudill said.

Growing Homes

Forty years from now the San Joaquin Valley will be a much different place. The Valley's population will double by 2050, according to Richard Cummings, a research expert for the Great Valley Center, a think tank based in Modesto, Calif., who gave a presentation following the tour. Tulare County alone is projected to increase from about 400,000 people now to about 870,000 by 2050.

With more people come more homes, which need more space to build. According to a research brief published by the Great Valley Center in February, at least 1 million acres will be urbanized in the Valley by 2040. That means at least a 15% decline in farmland.

"Even if we were to take all prime ag land off the table, even the most conservative estimates show a 9% decline," Cummings said.

The Farm Bureau, like every other entity, seems to favor the city-centered growth proposal of the county's General Plan, which will guide decisions and outline growth development for the next 20 years. The plan puts at least 80% of the growth in the incorporated cities, but city and county representatives don't agree on the numbers. Caudill said the plan allows the county to accommodate growth and preserve prime ag land, as long as cities and the county stick to the plan.

"If we have a good plan then the decision doesn't have to be political," Caudill said. "If you have a good plan, just follow the plan."

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