At this year’s California Mid-State Fair, the San Luis Obispo Farm Bureau Federation honored well-regarded rancher and real estate agent Hugh Pitts as 2016’s Agriculturalist of the Year.
“Hugh leads by example,” read a statement issued by the Farm Bureau. “It’s widely known that when says he says he will do something—he does it.”
The annual award came at an interesting time for Pitts and Paso Robles. In addition to being a loyal and dedicated Farm Bureau member, Pitts also represented Justin Vineyards and Winery in three major land purchases, including the Sleepy Farm Ranch where the company clear-cut and stripped several dozen acres of dense oak woodland.
The work was supposed to clear the way for now-defunct plans to plant a 230-acre vineyard and sparked major community outrage from local residents, wine aficionados, and agriculturalists. It also brought calls for SLO County to draft rules preventing similar acts from happening again. Four days before Pitts received the award, the Board of Supervisors passed a 45-day urgency ordinance to tightly regulate the clearance of native trees.
The board will revisit the issue on Aug. 16, where they’ll decide whether to extend or kill the ordinance. It will require a four-fifths vote to pass, and has become controversial.
Supporters say the ordinance is essential and will protect trees and other natural resources, including water, during a time where acreage suitable for vineyards is in high demand. Opponents say the ordinance is too strict, drafted too quickly, and an overreaction to the actions of one bad actor.
The Farm Bureau itself hasn’t taken a position—their members are split over the issue—but they’ve said it needs more input from the local agricultural industry.
Lynn Diehl, executive director of the SLO Farm Bureau, said the timing of Pitts’ award is a coincidence and has nothing to do with his involvement in the Justin Vineyards fiasco.
Pitts could not be reached for comment.
Diehl told New Times that Pitts was honored for his long-standing dedication to the organization: He’s been a 30-year member and is a vital part of organizing fundraisers and providing food for events. It’s the consistent behind-the-scenes hard work that earned him the recognition, she said.
“There’s always a few people who are obvious choices,” Diehl said. “He never complains, doesn’t say much about anything, he just does what has to be done.”
Pitts is a director-at-large for the Farm Bureau alongside Steve Arnold, 5th District Supervisor Debbie Arnold’s husband. Arnold was the lone vote against the native tree urgency ordinance on July 15.
Justin Vineyards and Winery was acquired in 2010 by agricultural juggernaut The Wonderful Company, the world’s largest pistachio, almond, and pomegranate producer. Since 2011, Pitts represented the company in three major land purchases, including the 240-acre Adelaida Hills property—where an estimated 17,000 trees were cut in 2011—and the 742-acre Hartham Ranch property east of Templeton.
According to a real estate database, Pitts was also the selling agent for the Adelaida Hills property, the first of the three that The Wonderful Company purchased.
Pete Clark of Clark Company Ranch Real Estate, another agent well connected to the local agriculture industry, was the listing agent for the other two properties.
Before the trees were cut at the Sleepy Farm Ranch, Clark’s listing highlighted the property’s untapped potential: “Sleepy Farm Ranch is a 382± acre ranch overflowing with possibilities. Featuring soils ideal for almonds, grapes, pasture and grain, Sleepy Farm Ranch boasts 80± farmable acres with additional potential acreage along the ridge tops.”
-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay