Q&A with Jackie Crabb of SLO County Farm Bureau

Jackie Crabb has served as executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau for more than a decade, leading the nonprofit organization and its members in the “protection, promotion and advocacy of agriculture.”

The county’s bureau is part of the larger California Farm Bureau Federation, whose delegates represent each county in the state and focus on a host of policy issues, ranging from the definition of agriculture, water, labor, natural resources, and marketing to the philosophy of government.

Crabb has a long career in local agriculture, working for the county’s Agricultural Commission after graduating from Cal Poly, and then as coordinator of the SLO County Ag Education Committee for the Farm Bureau. Since she stepped into the executive director position in 2002, Crabb said she has never looked back.

Crabb recently discussed the Farm Bureau’s goals and challenges with The Tribune.

How has the bureau’s mission changed to fit with the changing nature of agriculture and our community?

The mission hasn’t changed, but how we get there has evolved. When I took the position, I surveyed my board, looking for their direction on where to put our efforts. It was unanimous — focus on regulations/taxes and educating the public. In order to move in that direction, we needed to shift staff to include more advocacy and outreach. Along with that we needed better communications with our membership. The goal is to educate-motivate-activate our members.

What are some of the key policy challenges facing the ag community today, and how is the bureau helping those in ag to meet them?

Ag depends on three resources — the right soil, water and climate. Of that, water is the most challenging. Most of the issues ag faces today are basically the same issues they faced years ago — water (quantity and quality), labor, pests and diseases, energy, markets and transportation to name a few. As the government starts to set new policies in these areas, the Farm Bureau participates in the process where we can, and we keep our membership informed through various communications.

What is frustrating is the current environment. One of the biggest challenges is the lack of reputable, peer-reviewed science that new regulations are being based on. We are also seeing agencies widening their jurisdiction and even stepping on another agency, new rules going beyond the original intent and new interpretations of existing policies. Agencies are getting larger, adding new fees or increasing existing fees.

Other challenges are having policies made by people who do not understand agriculture, the tradeoffs or unintended consequences. We are also seeing consumer activism, the recent Occupy the Farm at UC Berkeley.

What is the future of ag in SLO County, and how might the development of ag land in the county impact that future?

Agriculture as a whole changes through time based on various factors. We used to have dairies and we grew sugar beets. Now we have wine grapes and strawberries. The U.S. ag census reports that 65 percent of county land is in farms, and of that, 68 percent is rangeland. Based on the county assessor’s report, 79 percent of the ag lands are under the Williamson Act — an agreement with the county not to develop for a rolling 10-year period in return for lower taxes based on its ag land value. Our supervisors and the community are strong supporters of this program. We also have a number of land conservancy organizations that have locked in thousands of acres in perpetuity. Many times we hear/read of the loss of ag land based on the California Department of Conservation report, but there is no tracking of the lands that are preserved for ag. That would be an interesting number to have in this dialogue. Losing ag land through mitigations is something our county needs to be cognizant of as well.

Strawberries recently surpassed wine grapes as the county’s top crop. Do you see this as a continuing trend?

In 2011, wine grapes faced challenging weather conditions resulting in a drop in production; even with an increase in harvested acres, the production per acre was less. Strawberries had an increase in acreage, and it has slowly been increasing over the years. Obviously, there is a good market for strawberries and, with good markets/demand, agriculture will shift. Strawberries are also a higher value crop than wine grapes. There were about 35,000 acres of wine grapes harvested in 2011 and only 3,159 acres of strawberries.

What should the county do more of to promote itself as a top ag tourism destination?

The EVC and county have embraced the Economic Strategic Plan that identifies industry clusters with the potential for growth. Agriculture and tourism were grouped together under the same cluster, called Uniquely SLO. The county and cities support Sunset Savor the Central Coast, which is a perfect example of how tourism and agriculture come together.

In 2005, county staff began the process of updating our agri-tourism policies — farm stands/stores, farm stay/B&Bs, dude ranches/camping, ag processing, signage and events. The most controversial is the events ordinance, which was the first ordinance to go before the planning commission and Board of Supervisors. Today, we are still working on nailing down that ordinance.

Once we have an events ordinance approved, then we can move the other ordinances through. I know that our olive growers are eager to have the ag processing policy updated so they can be included in the definition of ag processing, allowing them greater flexibility in processing their olives in our county. The Farm Bureau is working hard on moving these ordinances forward.

In what ways are the county’s youth helping to preserve our agricultural roots?

The ag statistics show an aging population for our industry. There is a great effort on bringing in the younger generation and “new” farmers. There are programs through the USDA to address this reality. The Farm Bureau has a Young Farmer & Rancher Committee, and in our county, because of Cal Poly, we have the largest committee in the state. We are very supportive of the FFA and 4-H programs, and were pleased to learn that there was enough support to have an ag license plate. The proceeds will go to educational youth programs. I’m not sure when the license plates will be out.