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.)

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And the nominee is…

(I submitted this nomination to the Chef’s Collaborative, but I’m not one to let 300 words go to waste. Might as well let everybody see it!)
California’s Ventura County is one of the most fertile farm communities in the country. Nestled next to the Pacific Ocean’s fisheries, close to Los Angeles and with a population in excess of 800,000 of its own, Ventura is emerging as America’s next great local food hub. No chef has played a bigger role in that emergence than Tim Kilcoyne of The Sidecar Restaurant.
Familiar to farmers and farmer’s market patrons alike, Tim has embraced the essence of California dining. His elegant recipes always emphasize the fresh local ingredients that the season provides. Tim is quick to credit the produce and the farmers behind it for The Sidecar’s success, and local farms are prominently featured on the menu. He effectively engages his customer base through social media, and is generous with exposure for his partners at local farms and wineries in that venue as well. He frequently collaborates with other chefs and restauranteurs.
Tim has not been content to simply lead from the kitchen. He has spread the local food gospel at the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Cooking for Solutions, Outstanding in the Field, and the Totally Local Dinner Series, as well as many farm themed dinners at the restaurant. Most notable is the tremendous effort he has put toward fundraising events for House Farmworkers!, a local organization dedicated to safe, affordable, and appropriate housing for the estimated 25,000 people who work in Ventura County’s fields and orchards. Today it is nearly a cliché for a chef to talk about being connected to the farm, but Tim has been focused on the connection to the hardest working people in agriculture for years.
Among the chefs one of our nation’s top agricultural counties, Tim is the undisputed local food leader. He would be an outstanding choice for the Chef’s Collaborative’s 2012 Sustainer Award.

Do all local food experiments work out?

Of course not. A few years back, I tried a test plot of garlic. I had high hopes for it, since I knew I had some customers interested. But garlic turned out to be just too labor intensive for our operation. We weren’t manned for that level of cultivation, and the test plot was too small to justify adding extra manpower. A plot large enough to be viable would have required even more labor, and expensive changes to our irrigation system. That experiment fizzled.

A later experiment involved San Marzano tomatoes. I think these still hold promise, but that summer turned out to be one of the coolest and dampest on record. The soil never really warmed up, and the end of summer saw stringy little seedlings instead of the lush vines loaded with fruit I had been imagining.

This winter, I planned a trial of favas and garbanzo beans as an edible (and marketable) winter cover-crop. But weeks of dry weather set the favas back. And the garbanzos? My seed supplier wasn’t able to deliver on the order, so that will have to wait until next year.

I don’t like failure any more than anybody else. But as a small farmer facing an uncertain future, I know that riding our existing crops and business model into the ground is a guaranteed disaster. So I’ll make all the little mistakes I can, if it helps me avoid a big mistake down the road. Having access to a market for local produce doesn’t guarantee me success; there are no guarantees in farming. But it does allow me an opportunity.

I’ll take that.

Why they farmed…

The good folks over at the “Why We Farm” blog at Homegrown.org have folded their tent. I followed their progress via their blog from time to time, and had always intended to provide a commentary on their progress. But last month they reached the point where they had gone as far as they could, and are leaving farming for more rewarding pursuits. I guess I need to write that commentary now.

I want to take a moment not only to wish them luck, but recognize their passing from the scene for what it is: A very real demonstration that the barriers to entry in agriculture make it nearly impossible for people of talent and commitment to succeed without an extraordinary amount of capital behind them.

We will never have a truly stable and sustainable agricultural economy if there is no chance for capable people to make a living. Neysa and Travis, you placed yourselves in the test-tube and conducted a three year experiment on yourselves. Thank you for that dedication. I hope that everyone carrying on has learned something from you.

I know I have.

Every Tree is a Living Experiment

I like just about every kind of fruit there is. (Sorry, eggplant.) And I live in a place that will grow just about anything. So experimentation is a natural part of our business.

Ten trees of this. Ten trees of that. Twenty of something else out in Santa Paula.

Of course, all these trees add up to some acreage after a while. They produce far too much for my family can consume alone, yet not enough for the Farmer’s Market, let alone larger channels. There are still more trees and more varieties that I want to add, but where will the fruit go? Better yet, how can I pay the bills?

Fortunately, this volume of fruit is very well suited to the needs of my chef and caterer clients. I get to experiment, knowing that I will not end up with non-earning acreage, and they get to offer unique, seasonal (and very fresh) specials. Everybody wins, everybody smiles.

Chefs make a great focus group. That’s the secret added benefit. They know what they like, appreciate the difference between varieties, and watch for what their customers respond to. This feedback often gives me new varieties to try.

Of course, the end goal of experimentation is not more experimentation. It’s information. Every tree is a thirty year bet on future food preferences. I like variety, but I’m really looking for the one or two crops that set us up for the next generation. So do I believe in the idealistic notions of fresh and local food? You bet. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be good for business.

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.

Farm Name-Dropping: Do Restaurants Have to Do It?

This question was poised by blogger Sarah Deseran in an article of the same name. Read it at http://ow.ly/1cYw7 

Thanks to Tracy Ryder of Edible Communities for tipping me off to it.

Do they have to? Well, no… they don’t have to. But it does help to establish their credentials. If they are marketing to customers who want the story of the food, why wouldn’t they?

As a farmer who sells to some restaurants, I love to see our name on the menu. That visibility is part of the value for us. It makes us part of the “tribe” with the chef and the diner. I hope that I have a relationship beyond “I get money, you get fruit” with my chefs. The other day, I personally picked a box of our Meyer lemons and delivered them on two hours notice, when the chef realized he was going to be caught short for a big weekend. Kind of screwed up my schedule for the day, but I did it. Why? Because my name’s on the menu.

So do they have to acknowledge their farmers? No. But what if they want to tell consumers that their food is about relationships and not faceless, anonymous, commodity foodstuffs? Then they would be fools not to.