Local farmers and agriculture leaders talked about the challenges and opportunities they face at the “Growing Possibilities” Ag Forum presented Friday afternoon by the EconAlliance at the Santa Maria Fairpark.

The forum, attended by more than 300 people, included three featured speakers, a panel discussion, recognition awards presented to local strawberry growers and exhibit booths hosted by ag-related businesses and organizations.

It also provided growers from various sectors a chance to meet each other and to tell legislators about problems they face.

“For many of (the legislators), this is the first time to hear this in a nonregulatory, noncontentious setting,” said Steve Pepe, president of the EconAlliance and co-founder of Clos Pepe Vineyards, noting the organization invites attendance by government officials involved in regulating whatever industry is featured at its forums.

“Growers have commented they get very few occasions when they can talk to each other,” he added. “They spend most of their time talking to their neighbors. This was the first time the row crop guys got together with the berry crop guys. They appreciate the opportunity to ‘cross-pollinate,’ to see some of their issues are the same.”

The forum also provided some interesting revelations about the county’s agriculture industry.

County Agriculture Commissioner Cathy Fisher said 39 farms suffered losses as a result of the Thomas fire in December, with direct losses estimated at $12 million.

Smoke from the wildfire impacted the entire area, she said, and in just one week her office distributed 5,095 of the N95 dust masks to agriculture operations.

Fisher said damage estimates are just beginning to be collected from farms that were hurt by the subsequent mudslides because many were left with no electric service or WiFi and couldn’t be reached immediately.

But she said preliminary estimates place losses from the flooding and mudslides at just over $6 million, and she expects that number to rise, bringing total damage to $20 million or more.

She noted many of those hit by the mud were among those damaged by the fire.

“Some of them lost their homes,” she said. “A couple of them experienced 90 percent losses they may never recover from.”

Disasters weren’t the only things affecting agriculture within the last year, Fisher said.

Industrial hemp cultivation became legal in January 2017, but the state has yet to finish writing regulations for the industry and although potential growers must sign up on a registry, the state hasn’t created a registry yet, either.

“So if you’re growing hemp, you shouldn’t be,” she said.

Adult use of cannabis became legal Jan. 1, and she said the state recently reported it has already issued 170 temporary licenses to would-be cannabis operations in Santa Barbara County.

That places the county second in the state for the number of licenses issued — right behind Humboldt County, she said, drawing laughter from the crowd seated in the Convention Center.

“It looks like we’ll be part of the new emerald triangle,” Fisher joked.

Invasive pests, including the Asian citrus psyllid, also remain a threat, Fisher said, adding they’ve been detected at 12 new sites, and the first one since 2012 was found recently in Santa Maria.

Huanglongbing, also known as HLB or citrus greening disease, caused by a bacteria deposited by citrus psyllids has not yet been found in the county, she said, but dozens of cases are found each week in residential trees, especially in Riverside, Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Other pests that remain a threat to county crops include the glassy-winged sharpshooter and the light-brown apple moth.

“New pests being introduced is always on the horizon for us,” Fisher said.

In addition to cannabis, natural disasters and pesticide regulations, Fisher said other issues that will have an impact on county growers in the coming years are employee retention, government budgets, agriculture and urban interface conflicts and new technology.

Another issue that will affect agriculture is the Food Safety Modernization Act, scheduled to become fully in force in 2020.

A new vision

While local agriculture operations will face challenges, some local growers said those challenges represent opportunities for changing the way farmers do business and to explore innovation.

That was the focus for keynote speaker A.G. Kawamura, former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, whose presentation titled “Envisioning an Agricultural Renaissance” encouraged innovation and new technology.

“It’s amazing how much agriculture has advanced in just the last 100 years,” Kawamura said, relating the story of a 92-year-old grower. “Someone who’s alive today, who didn’t have a tractor (when he started), today has these amazing machines.”

He added, “I don’t know when the first of you will have the first driverless tractor, but it will probably be within the next five years.”

Kawamura advised growers to look at the land differently, offering as examples how the soil between the taxiways of an abandoned airport was found to be prime for growing, as was the soil where the former officers’ housing was located at El Toro Marine Base that’s now used to custom-grow produce for a food bank.

“The marijuana growers are out of the closet,” Kawamura said, adding indoor growing techniques they developed for pot can be adopted for produce.

“If I wanted to turn this whole building into an indoor lettuce facility, I could probably turn it around in three months because all the technology is available.”

He showed an image of plants growing inside a barrel slowly rotating around a central fluorescent light tube, a setup he said produces plants 20 to 30 percent faster because they have better uptake of nutrients and are “kind of doing calisthenics,” working against gravity as the barrel slowly turns.

“Our vision for agriculture has to change dramatically if our industry is to survive,” he said.