San Lucas, Calif., wine grape grower Butch Lindley has more on his mind than his own vineyards these days as he studies on local government issues and policies in preparation for taking the Third District seat on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors in January.
His 1.5 million-acre district, the largest of five, takes in 70 percent of the county. It has some 225,000 acres, or about 85 percent of the irrigated land in the county, and virtually all the county's 46,000 acres of vineyards, so his constituency is clearly agricultural.
With Phil Johnson, his partner since 1974, he manages 4,000 acres of farm properties, including their vineyards and 100,000-case estate winery at San Lucas.
A native of Mesa, Ariz., Lindley, 58, grew up in a farming family in Blythe, Calif., and earned a degree in agronomy from Cal-Poly, San Luis Obispo.
After service in the U.S. Army, including a tour in Vietnam, he worked as an agronomist for several years before joining Johnson, first in row crops and later in vineyards.
He admitted that running for office was “a daunting task” and his duties during the four-year term may consume more time than he thought when he filed as a candidate late in 2001. He won in the March primary and did not face a run-off in the November general election.
Anxious to start
Nevertheless, Lindley said he is anxious to start and is prepared to give whatever it takes to the job, which pays about $95,000 a year and provides a staff of two and an office in King City.
Although he promised to have more to say after a year in office, Lindley lists one of his highest priorities as promoting common interests between the county's two largest industries: agriculture and tourism, each of which has pumped around $3 billion into the economy in recent years.
He said he has an appreciation and perspective for both. “I've been on the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Board for the past two years, and that's given me insight into the hotel and restaurant industry.
“People at the decision-making level need to be reminded of what effect their actions — planning, building, transportation, whatever — will have on agriculture and tourism.”
Future prosperity of the county will be guided by elements of a general plan and its accompanying environmental impact report being debated. The plan addresses many things, from new diversity to preservation and improvement of existing features.
A principal goal is land-use policy, seeking a balanced approach for farming, tourism, housing, infrastructure, and other interests to accommodate a population in excess of 500,000 persons, or some 20 percent more than now projected for 2020.
Maintenance and improvement of 1,240 miles of county roads, more than half of which are in Lindley's district, will be an issue tied into major highway developments to channel produce shipments and the motoring public.
The communities of Soledad, Gonzales, Greenfield, and King City in his district are all seeking to expand into surrounding farmland to accommodate the population increase.
Most housing in the county is available only to upper income households, and in 1999 a survey showed nearly 70 percent of wage and salary jobs paid less than $30,000 per year, revealing a desperate need for adequate, affordable housing for the workforce.
“Water quality and quantity,” Lindley said, “are very sensitive issues across the county, especially the closer you get to the ocean. The city of Salinas has ongoing concerns about salt-water intrusion and nitrates in its water supplies. We know about solutions, but the big question is how to pay for them.”
Environmental and conservation groups, and those who flatly oppose any growth in the county, he said, also have the right to have their positions expressed in the decision-making process.
Despite the various positions, Lindley said he sees an increasing harmonization between agriculture and the tourism industry. “Compared to what it was several years ago, that cooperation is up maybe 95 percent, partly because of interest in the general plan and partly because of — if you will — their survival. Both sides are beginning to understand more about the other and how they can help each other.”
One example of farm-tourism unity is a proposed “winery corridor” to attract visitors to Salinas Valley wineries.
He is convinced that what ultimately takes place in his county will have bearing on the future of California's agricultural economy. “We have to remember that what we grow in the state can be grown in other places, particularly in the southern hemisphere. We have ideal growing conditions up and down the state, but the economics have to be in place for farming to continue. We have to get used to the fact that the world is changing and we will have to change too.”
California agriculture, he continued, is challenged by intense offshore competition, two prime examples being imports of wines and garlic.
“We farm with expensive land, expensive water, and expensive transportation as we struggle to compete with products shipped here cheaply by water transportation.”
He expects that the state's farmers will depend more and more on technology to produce food from a smaller base of water, land, and other resources.
“We are already doing that with practices like using only 1.18 acre-feet of water on drip-irrigated vines that used to take four to five acre-feet. Seed companies have designed vegetable varieties that produce far more on far less land than in the past,” he said.
“Over the next 25 years, to have a competitive edge, we all have to be ready for big changes. Someday we might be doing new and different things like growing lettuce in greenhouses, or using irradiation, once the paranoia against it settles down, or some other process to extend shelf life of produce.”