Agriculture in Ventura County is a business, and it is a big one. Total agricultural sales for our County approach $1.5 Billion per year. That is enough to place it around #10 on the list of top grossing farm counties in the nation. (Actual ranking varies a little year to year depending on weather and market conditions.) We produce a very large percentage of the nation’s lemons, avocados, celery, strawberries and other crops. So we are clearly part of the mainstream agricultural industry.
But are the critiques typically leveled at American agriculture relevant to Ventura County? I have read a great many of the books by Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, Russ Parsons, Carlo Petrini and other commentators on the food system scene. And generally, I have to conclude that we are unique… or at least very atypical.
There are several general categories of criticism with respect to our food system. One is that America produces great amounts of cheap, heavily processed and calorie dense foods. (Or “food-like substances”, in Michael Pollan’s words.) These foods are a common part of an American diet linked to troubling levels of obesity and disease. Our food, we are told, is killing us. But in Ventura County the vast majority of our farms grow fruits and vegetables, often destined for minimal if any processing. If our national diet looked more like Ventura County’s crops, this critique of our food system would soon evaporate.
Another criticism focusses on animal agriculture, and impacts on food safety, environmental degradation, and animal treatment. Ventura County has only a very minimal farm animal population. There are still cattle ranging our hills to be sure, but most are “cow-calf” operations, not the feedlots and slaughterhouses that draw criticism. So I don’t think those critiques are valid here either… in fact there might be advantages to mor animal agriculture in VC, not less. (But tt is probably its own article.)
With some justification, federal farm subsidies come in for some criticism. But again, the crops supported by these programs are almost entirely absent. I don’t know a farmer who has ever seen a farm subsidy check. Occasionally I ‘ve been asked if I wouldn’t prefer to have the subsidies come to California, rather than the Midwest. I wouldn’t. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the part of American agriculture with the largest number of problems is also the one most heavily driven by federal farm policies.
Diversification and differentiation are frequently heralded as cure-all for American farmers. Senator John Kerry famously suggested Belgian Endive as an alternative crop in Iowa during the 2004 Presidential campaign. In 2008, 30 different crops had sales of more than $1 million in Ventura County. We are diversified. And due to our climate, we are able to deliver produce that may be out of season elsewhere… an important point of differentiation.
And no discussion of Agricultural woes is complete without mentioning water, especially in California. And while the Southern part of our state is heavily dependant on imported water, Ventura County is once again the exception. 85% of our County’s water comes from our own watersheds, and most of the other 15% is directed toward the suburbanized East end of our county, not agriculture.
Now, God knows that we have our issues here too. But when viewed through the lenses of the larger discussion on food, Ventura County actually looks pretty good. The challenge for us is to make sure that the plans and programs that emerge from our national debate actually benefit, rather than impede, continued progress in one of nation’s shining agricultural lights.