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.

On Invasive Species…

The following op-ed appeared in Sunday’s Ventura County Star under my byline, but I should point out that I was merely one of several people who worked on the language, and the positions stated are those of the Ag Futures Alliance as a whole.

 

The Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance has watched in dismay the recent conflict over the efforts to control the gypsy-moth outbreak in Meiners Oaks. The gypsy moth is an invasive species that was introduced into the area by human action. The damage the moth can cause is well-documented and, if unchecked, could result in permanent damage to many California native plants, particularly the oaks for which Ojai is famous. We believe the control approach taken by our county agricultural commissioner and the California Department of Food and Agriculture to be a prudent and low-risk response. Our core concern about this incident is what it says about our community and its ability to share responsibility for stewardship of the natural resources we all depend on. In our 2005 report, “A Community of Good Stewards,” we argued for the mutual responsibility the public and farmers have for preserving agriculture and the environment. We live in an interdependent world. What happens in your backyard impacts mine. In order for us all to enjoy the benefits of a healthy environment, we all must be willing to act decisively as good stewards of the land. At times, this may mean accepting the necessity for community action to deal with a pest that endangers us all. In the case of the gypsy moth, this means a measured application of a naturally occurring compound that is toxic only to a narrow range of target species. Do we know everything there is known about the risks of this material or any chemical in general use? No. Which is why we have to rely on the predominance of evidence and the principle of minimum effective use — which means simply, using the least toxic option in the lowest possible dose at the earliest possible moment to deal with the invasive pest. Looking forward, many scientists believe that climate change and increasing movement of goods and people will mean more outbreaks of invasive species. Many such species are waiting on our doorstep, including false coddling moth, citrus psyllid and light brown apple moth. We strongly recommend improving our capacity to prevent the spread of these pests and our ability to respond quickly when infestations are found. We also recognize that in situations involving highly technical information and highly charged emotions, clear and consistent communication is vital. We expect that, in due time, a sober assessment of the recent experience in Meiners Oaks will yield valuable lessons on all sides for the future. As an organization dedicated to preserving agriculture and the environment in Ventura County, we believe it is important to promptly respond to new pests that arrive unwelcome in our community. Our ecological foundation is fragile and these pests have the potential to harm both native species and the capacity of local agriculture to feed us. This is a problem we all share. As good stewards, we have an obligation to work hard to maintain the integrity of our native environment and avoid potential damage from invasive pests that human actions directly and indirectly introduce. The Ventura County Ag Futures Alliance is a collaboration of farmers, environmentalists, farmworker advocates and civic leaders working to sustain agriculture in Ventura County through consensus building and community action. For more information, visit http://www.venturacoafa.org.