Sharing the 2014 Ventura County Crop Report. #VCCropReport

crop report

This week saw the release of the 2014 Ventura County Crop Report. As always, it sheds some light on a part of our economy that many residents are not that familiar with. I hope people will grab their own PDF copy ( 2014 Ventura County Crop Report) , spend a little time with it, and even share the report and impressions with their friends and neighbors on Social Media.

Here are a few of my observations that I hope will put Ventura County agriculture in perspective for people. I’ve included some tweetable tags for those who would like to share… Acknowledgment appreciated, but not required if shared.

Ventura County is more productive than many states. 2014’s record of $2.14 Billion in crop sales would place our county ahead of nearly half the states in the US.

#VCCropReport : $2.14 Billion in Ventura County crop sales supports local economy

Strawberry dominance diminishing? While still the county’s #1 crop, strawberries saw a drop in acreage from 2013 to 2014…a trend that is continuing in 2015.

#VCCropReport : 2014 Strawberry acreage to 11630 from 13555

The #2 Spot highlights our crop diversity: In 2014, Lemons were the second highest value crop. For the preceding 5 years? Avocados, Lemons, Raspberries, Celery, and Nursery Stock.

#VCCropReport : #2 crop for last 6 yrs: Lemons, Avocados, Lemons, Raspberries, Celery, Nursery

#VCCropReport : More than 50 crops break the $1M barrier #CropMix

Highly productive farms: Take a few minutes to think about some of the per acre production figures in the charts. 18.7 tons of lemons. 26.2 tons of strawberries. 63.5 tons of cucumbers. 89.7 tons of tomatoes. Ventura County farmland is insanely productive.

#VCCropReport : Why we grow lemons here: 18.7 tons per acre not even a record. Life doesn’t give Lemons. We do.

Different crops: Ventura County grows a lot of different crops, but few of the ones that people most often think of. Only 444 acres of corn in the county, out of 90,000+ irrigated acres.

#VCCropReport : Only 1/2% of our farmland is growing corn. #NotInKansasAnymore

A lot of rangeland, not a lot of cows. Ventura County has more rangeland than irrigated farmland, but we don’t raise a lot of livestock. Our ranchers provide great stewardship for this land, and that is important to all of us. But they don’t get paid a lot for the service.

#VCCropReport : Total 2014 Livestock sales $7.9M. Cilantro $23.3M #NuffSaid

Anyone taking the time to dig will certainly find other facts of interest. Please share them! But a  final note: Every year when the Crop report comes out, I run across someone grumbling about how much money farmers are making. If this might be you, please remember that the report only shows the sales… it doesn’t show expenses. Nearly every one of these dollars was spent, much of it locally…labor, supplies, water, utilities, professional services and property taxes. A farmer’s profit margins are lower than nearly every other business. Thanks for understanding.

Behind the numbers

Of all the numbers tossed around during the recent drought discussions, here’s what popped out at me:

California produces 50% of the nation’s fruits and nuts and 25% of our vegetables. Yet all that food represents just 2% of California’s economy... not 2% of the national economy… 2% of just one state’s economy. I’ll grant that it is a big state, but that really underscores just how little we pay for food in this country.

Would the discussion have been different if stories had considered how much is grown with California’s water, instead of how little is grown with one gallon?

Q&A with @UCFoodObserver

It was my pleasure to sit down with UC Food Observer, a social media project of the University of California focused on food and agriculture. They’ve had some great interviews, but I’m really proud to be one of the first farmers featured!

Did Jerry go easy on Ag?

Governor Brown’s recent drought response has raised the question as to whether he was going easy on agriculture. While municipalities face mandated cuts, agriculture does not. Surely this means farmers are off the hook, right?

As usual, it isn’t that simple.Yes, this particular action did not place mandatory reductions on agriculture. But it is worth noting that in some parts of the state, farmers had already seen their water deliveries drop to zero… long before the general public was even paying attention to the issue. Many local groundwater basins are already restricting their deliveries,since they must work with the water they have on hand, regardless of what Sacramento says or does.

Water cutbacks arrived for many farmers a long time ago, and more will follow. The current emergency order is just another page in the unfinished story of the California drought. This page happened to be about urban restrictions. It is not the end of the story.

PS: Petty Ranch is within the Santa Paula Basin… one of the few adjudicated and managed groundwater basins in the state. We have an allocation of 116 acre feet of water, but during 2014 drew only 86 AF… 26% below our allocation. Put another way, we conserved more last year than our urban neighbors will be asked to conserve this year. Like most farmers, we are working very hard  to drive that number even lower in 2015.

The faulty CA desert premise #cadrought

If you accept the premise that California is a desert, it will inevitably follow that little to no food should be grown here. Common sense dictates that agriculture does not belong in a place with no water.

But California is not a desert. It includes desert, but it includes other areas as well, including areas that traditionally have an abundance of water. It includes regions that are self-sufficient in water, even if that water is precious. Any discussion of the drought that proceeds from the premise that “California is a desert” is not sufficiently grounded in the realities of California.

Our state is a large one with a tremendous mix of agricultural crops, water resources, and local climates. As the current crisis has made clear, aligning our crops with the necessary water and amenable microclimates is a work in progress… just as aligning water use with lifestyle, landscaping, and recreation is unfinished business in our cities.

But please… let’s be clear that most regions of this state, particularly the areas most important for both housing and agriculture, are not in the desert.

The 8 Californias of Agriculture #8Cals

California’s drought has been a popular topic in the news recently, and rightly so. But it has been disappointing to see so much coverage that looks at just one part of the state (usually the Central Valley) and makes generalizations about California, water policy and agriculture as a whole. Over and over again, I see them try to describe the state as a monolith, when the reality is that the issues surrounding the drought are quite different in different parts of the state.

California’s farm economy is the largest in the nation, but really it is a composite of several farm economies which vary in many ways… most notably in terms of crop mix and water source. Any breakdown of these regions is going to be somewhat arbitrary and subjective, but please allow me to nominate eight agricultural sub-states.

The nominees are: (drumroll)

The Desert: Centered around Imperial County, the Desert is a big supplier of winter time veggies, fed with Colorado River water.

The Southland: San Diego, Orange, and Riverside counties are supplied with water from multiple directions, but the costs can be staggering.

The Central Coast: Ventura, SLO and Monterey counties produce veggies, greens, berries, citrus and avocados, as well as some pretty nice wines. The region is largely self sufficient in terms of water, but supplies can be tenuous.

The Wine Country: Napa and Sonoma are dominated by the wine industry, making them a unique casein terms of water use and economics.

Baja Oregon: This area has more than just timber and recreational herbiculture…it is also the wettest part of the state, but remains vulnerable to drought due to minimal water storage.

The Wet Central Valley: From the Sacramento Delta north, this region is a key water exporter… a distinction not always cherished by its residents.

The Dry Central Valley: The most productive region in the nation… so long as it has the water.

The Sierras: More dryland farming here than elsewhere in the state. Why? Because I am including the Owens Valley, whose water goes to Los Angeles.

My thumbnail sketches of the 8 Californias are crude, probably even overly simplistic. Some readers may take issue with them. Some may draw the boundaries differently. Some may see 6 regions, or even 12. Fair enough… I welcome any discussion. But even this simple framework is a much more “fine-grained” look at California agriculture than is usually being offered for discussion about the very real crisis this state faces.

We can be at least this detailed, can’t we?

Reflections on #VCFarmDay

2014-09-05 08.53.15

When I went to bed last night after a very long day of talking about figs and farming, I swore I was going to take today completely off from Farm Day.

But I can’t do it. It was a fun day and a great opportunity to engage with a number of people, but two aspects of Farm Day really made an impression on me.

First of all I was really struck by the whole range of operators that the SEE-Ag crew had lined up. People tend to think of our local farm economy being dominated by just a few crops. But part of what makes Ventura County one of the top farm counties in the nation (and therefore the world) is the incredible diversity of crops. This year’s tour included major global leaders and small locally oriented farms. You could see a state-of-the-art organic tomato greenhouse, a small family goat dairy/goat soap producer, packinghouses for a variety of crops, the Ag Museum, a salsa maker, a lettuce and celery grower, a flower grower, an avocado research and demonstration orchard and more. There was no way that anyone could have seen everything that Ventura County has to offer in a single day, and perhaps that’s a message in itself.

I was also impressed with the range of people who turned out. I’ve been involved with a lot of farm out reach and agricultural awareness events, and I’ve learned to expect to see the “usual suspects.” We had nearly 200 people visit our fig orchard yesterday… I knew only half a dozen or so. Reaching new people is important, and this program did a fantastic job of that. I wish I’d asked everybody to tell us where they were from (Next year!) but from those I did ask, I found a number of people from outside Ventura County, including visitors from Venice, Calabasas,and Montecito. It was also great to see a lot of younger people. Despite my graying beard, I’m often on the young side at farm outreach events unless it is specifically at a school. Not yesterday! Visitors in their 20’s and 30’s were numerous, both those with kids and those without.

2014 Farm Day was a great success in my view, and I really have to salute Mary Maranville and her team at SEE-Ag. Too many great farms and organizations stepped up to help for me to list here, but click through to her site and you’ll see quite a lineup.

OK…now I’m going to try to enjoy my day off. (If I can stop thinking about ideas for next year.)

The FTC and Local Food

December 1st may have been a big day for the local food movement, but it passed without much notice. What happened that day, you ask? That is the day that a new set of guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission [Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising (16 CFR 255)] went into effect. Specifically, these expand “Truth in Advertising” laws and create a much higher standard for endorsements. These stricter standards apply both to the “generally expected performance” of the product and any “material connections” between the parties involved. Also the new rules make clear that they apply to all forms of social media, not just traditional advertising. 

How it impacts the local and sustainable food movement:

This is a highly interconnected movement. In this context, how can “material connections” be defined? Applicability is clear in cases where money is involved. But what about endorsements on a personal blog, or a plug on Facebook? On both the for-profit and non-profit sides of the local food movement, people recognize the value of social media to spread the word and cross-promote friends and business partners. Since the users of social media recognize it as having advertising or marketing value, in due course it is probable that the FTC or a plaintiff’s lawyer will as well.

Who gets to speak? In the traditional top-down world that the FTC is used to regulating, the authority to speak on behalf of the organization is typically pretty clear. The new rules expressly hold employers liable for the endorsements of their employees, even if the employee makes the statements on her own blog or Facebook page. Do interns or volunteers within your organization provide “endorsements” to other businesses or advocacy groups?

The other potential vulnerability is in the poorly defined language that is common within discussions of sustainable foods. Take the word “sustainable” itself. While the word is clearly defined in many venues, it is not always clear that it can be applied to a particular product or practice without a large dose of opinion. Likewise, the words “healthy” or “local” are open to interpretation. “Organic” is clearly defined and has clear applicability. But even here there is danger, since benefits beyond organic status are often implied if not explicitly stated. Can these statements live up to a higher burden of proof?

Finally, the new guidelines mandate that the “advertiser” create policies and training for employees, and have a structure in place to monitor compliance. As a practical matter, this is likely to be another case where a small producer may find compliance more difficult than their larger, more traditionally structured competitors. 

Now don’t get me wrong… I believe in accountability and transparency as much as the next guy. But I am concerned that the eventual implementation and enforcement of these rules may have a particularly severe impact in a movement defined by a network of non-traditional business relationships, multiple communication paths via social media, and product claims that may be difficult to quantify. My hope is that we can create and adopt practices which the FTC will accept and others can model, before an unreasonable interpretation is imposed upon us.

Agribusiness and Change: Or thanking T. Rex for your Breakfast

You  know, I’ve never liked the term “agribusiness”. Business has always been a component of agriculture. Yes, it entails land stewardship, and crop science, and just good, old-fashioned hands-in-the-dirt work. But those of us who do it for a living have no reason either to feel apologetic for wanting to make a profit, or feel inferior because we don’t wear expensive suits in a glass and chrome office. “Agribusiness” is useful for vilifying corporate farming, or for making insecure farmers or businessmen feel more important. I’m not much interested in either.

What I am interested in is a return to grass roots, bottom up, entrepreneurial farming. And while I appreciate the support and enthusiasm of foodies, academics and policy wonks, what we really need are people who have an enthusiasm for this business. In the part of my life spent in Silicon Valley, I observed an ethos that changing the world and making a profit did not need to be mutually exclusive. In fact, it was generally felt that making the world a better place was precisely what entitled you to significant financial rewards. (I’ll grant that some people in the Valley got a little bit drunk on this Kool-Aid, but I still like the philosophy, at least in moderation.)

This is why I was very happy to read a piece that Rob Smart posted on Civil Eats. Real change will not come externally and it will not come with a single lightning bolt from on high. Farms and small businesses will be the ones that create the models and the relationships and the innovations that will transform our present food system, just a bit at a time, until we have something much better than we have today. While I hope the pace of change will be rapid, I do believe it will be evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Let’s imagine the food system we want as being represented by a chicken.

Small. Adaptable. Friendly. Managable. Chickens are the embodiment of local scale. There is a reason that they are the iconic emblem of the idealized happy barnyard.

But what is the ancestor of this chicken? The fearsome Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Huge. Predatory. Not very pleasant to interact with, I would imagine. A good representation of today’s food system perhaps? I think so. How did we get from T. Rex to the Rhode Island Red?

Despite the occasional meteor or ice-age, it happened just one little innovation at a time.