It’s different here. #Ventura

I think it is great that there is a growing interest in agricultural issues in this country. Sure, there are some opinions out there I don’t share. There are some people who just seem to like to stir the pot… fine. But what does bother me… a bit… is that here in one of the greatest agricultural spots on the planet, what we do here is so poorly understood.

No matter how many books by Michael Pollan or Mark Bittman a food issues enthusiast has read, they haven’t heard much about Ventura County. We don’t grow corn, soybeans, or wheat. We don’t have large-scale dairy or feedlot operations. We don’t raise any GMO crops. I don’t believe there is a single combine in the county. So whatever your opinions on those crops, and whatever your beliefs about that type of farming, what you’ve read offers no insight into Ventura County… one of the top farm counties in the country. If Ventura were a state, it would be ahead of half the other states in terms of farm output.

An agricultural area that important sharing a county with 800,000 neighbors who understand little about it is a bad situation for farmer and neighbor alike. That’s why I’m glad to have a few new opportunities to add my little bit to bridging this divide.

I was very pleased to be asked to be an adviser for Edible Ojai and Ventura County. I’ve respected and enjoyed this magazine for a while, and the chance to help tell the farmer’s story on their pages is a welcome opportunity.

I’m also working with a network of farmers, restauranteurs, brewers, winemakers, bakers, coffee roasters, and chefs to help raise the profile of Ventura’s food and beverage scene. We produce some of the world’s greatest food… not enough people know to enjoy it at the source. (This group has no name as yet, but you will hear about it here when it does.)

This summer will see a summit event on Ventura County agriculture. Exact dates and location will be announced soon, and I’ll have more to say about it then. But I expect it will be a great chance to reach an audience. Some dinner and tasting events are planned, just in case people find it more compelling to relate to food on a plate, rather than a powerpoint. I know I do.

And lastly, I’m working on another book. I may borrow a few favorite essays from this blog, but the message will be the same as the one that opened this piece: We live in an exceptional and wonderful place, populated with creative and skilled farmers who produce food like no other place on earth.

What Elements Create a Vibrant Local Food Scene?

I have often been asked why  Southern California (and Ventura County in particular) seems to be a laggard in the Local Food movement. With our climate and diversity of crops, it would seem to be a natural fit for our region. During travels to other parts of the country and following the work of others, I have identified a few elements that seem to be common amongst areas that are at the forefront. These elements are listed in no particular order.

Land that is ill-suited to “Mainstream Agriculture.” Two areas that I have visited that have tremendous activity are Long Island NY, and Asheville, NC. Neither of these regions have been  leaders in mainstream agriculture. They don’t offer the very large tracts of land needed for economical production of commodity grain crops or the benevolent climate that supports large-scale fruit and vegetable production. In the “modern” agricultural economy, they are poor competitors. Having been “passed by”, they retained more of the moderate to small-scale farms, and a greater connection to regional markets. For farmers in these areas, the transition to specialty, locally marketed crops is less wrenching than it is to producers in California or the grain belt. And being poorly suited to compete in a globalized agricultural world provides a tremendous motivation to adapt to local opportunities.

A nearby population with significant disposable income.  I know that many people feel strongly that fresh healthy foods should not be solely for the affluent. Those people are absolutely right. But the reality is that without economies of scale, small producers are not as economical. The higher price of “hand-grown” food can be borne by customers who appreciate the difference and are willing to pay for it. Both areas I mentioned above are popular second home or retirement areas for consumers with means. Their populations swell with customers during summer harvest periods. A customer base need not be permanent, as long as it is in place and ready to eat when the crop comes in.

A Food Culture. Many other areas around the country that have seen success have a strong food culture. Portland, Santa Fe, and New Orleans are all good towns for eaters, and always have been. This ties to the previous point. It is not enough to have the right conditions to grow the crops. There must be an environment to sell the crops.

So how does Ventura fare by these standards? We have the affluence. Despite the cost of living and current economic problems, wages and incomes have historically been solid in our region. But we don’t have the land that typically is associated with strong local food systems. As a farmer, I can’t see this as a bad thing. It means it is still possible for me to compete and succeed in the dominant global system of food production. It means that supporting local distribution is a choice, not a necessity. At least for now. We also have not had the food culture. Southern California is the home of the Drive-in Burger stand. Since I love a good burger, that is an observation, not a complaint. But it isn’t consistent with a thriving local food scene.

None of this means that Ventura County can’t and won’t get there. I think we have a great test case of my thesis in the Ojai Valley. Compared to the rest of the County, Ojai has richer residents, poorer soils, and a much greater appreciation for food. I think it no accident that it has also been the center of locavorism in Ventura County and the birthplace of Edible Communities. Today there are new restaurants and cafes opening that embrace our local bounty. I’m happy to see that. I’m event happier that this is creating a chance for me to engage with these customers out of a sense of opportunity, not desperation.