The Question

I’m really looking forward to almost everything about tomorrow night’s Outstanding in The Field Dinner at McGrath Family Farm. Phil McGrath is our local “local-food rockstar” here in Ventura County, and it might be unsettling to have to share his spotlight, if I didn’t already know what a great guy he is. Phil, I’m pleased to be your opening act.

I always look forward to any meal with Tim Kilcoyne from Ventura’s Sidecar Restaurant, so no issue there. I’m also looking forward to the event itself, since I have read and heard about the great job the Outstanding in the Field crew does.

I said “almost everything”, because the one thing I’m not looking forward to is The Organic Question. You see, I’m not an organic certified grower, and I don’t plan to be… certainly not by tomorrow night. For a lot of local food enthusiasts, though, organic certification is considered the entry-level criteria for sustainable agriculture. Given my penchant for complexity, I don’t see the issue as being nearly that simple. But tomorrow night, I will be asked The Question, I will answer truthfully, and I will watch the flicker of disappointment wash over the face of the guest.

So here’s the long answer that I will probably not have time for tomorrow night. I don’t believe that organic certification means that much in the context of sustainability, either in economic or environmental terms. Certification is about compliance with certain standards, which have some relation to (but do not define) sustainability. I’m more interested in the philosophy that guides sustainability, and on that score I feel pretty comfortable. I embrace the organic philosophy of feeding the soil, not the plant. In other pieces I’ve outlined our use of composting, mulching and cover-cropping, so I won’t repeat them here. We have utilized beneficial insects as part of an Integrated Pest Management program for three generations. With any chemical application that I may need to make, I give a good deal of weight to potential impacts on my own soil-ecosystem, let alone the larger environment. And it is my belief that a farm managed with natural or organic processes, with an occasional chemical boost when necessary is a perfectly justifiable and sustainable proposition.

It’s really all about moderation, isn’t it? I enjoy a cold beer (or colder limoncello) occasionally, without feeling like I’m risking alcoholism. A good cheeseburger from time to time is not going to be the death of me. Now if I lived my life on nothing but Slim-Jims and cheap whiskey, then I’d have a problem.

People typically think of the food world as being bi-polar: virtuous, small, local, and organic farms on the one extreme, and greedy, global, corporate factory farms on the other. In his book, The Ominvore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan explores a third option: the so called industrial organic model. In this model a conventional mindset and retinue of cultural practices is employed using organic inputs to create food that is legally organic, but is philosophically indistinguishable from conventional farming. It is this model that has made Wal-Mart the largest retailer of organic food in the world.

I’d like to think I’m part of a fourth model: organic and small in philosophy, but open to the benefits of conventional agriculture when needed. So if a little herbicide will knock down a morning glory patch without hours of hand tool and weed- whacker work, I’ll do it. And if a little extra nitrogen helps get young trees off to a good start before winter, I’m OK with that too.

Maybe if the wine really gets flowing, I’ll get to have this conversation about the deeper aspects of sustainability. But I might have to talk with my mouth full.

Advertisements

Some good news…

I guess it is easy when writing about agriculture to get stuck in a negative vein. Certainly there are plenty of challenges and frustrations that have always been a part of the job. With today’s heavily regulated environment you can always look to the policy makers for some good material to gripe about. (And Will Rogers thought HE had it easy!) But it not only fair, but probably also good for my own mental health to take a few minutes to savor some of the pleasant surprises and positive events which keep me, like other farmers, coming back for more.

Some upside in a down year: Lemon prices were supposed to be pretty poor this year, and not surprisingly they are. But so far, they are holding up a little better than we had hoped. We budgeted on $9.50 per field box, but at the half way point of the year, it looks like we might be closer to $11. That’s a pretty nice bump, although it is well short of the $17-$18 we saw for the last two years. But with both a recession and a strong crop in every corner of the lemon producing world, this is pretty good news. It appears that we will hit or even slightly exceed our production estimate as well. Of course if these trends hold up, we’ll still just break even on the year. Much better than a big loss, though.

Speaking of production, our young Meyer Lemons are continuing to surprise us. We will have to replace some of the young trees due to a rootstock compatibility issue that was not well understood when we planted them. But even with half the block suffering from this chronic condition, we will get about 4000 pounds of fruit from this small planting… not bad for two and a half year old trees. We picked last Friday, but had to stop early to go get another bin. We’ll finish up this week.

We’ll be showing up in a few cool venues in the next few weeks as well. On May 30th, Kris Kristofferson is performing a benefit concert here in Ventura for Farmworker Housing. Our friend and customer, Tim Kilcoyne of the Sidecar Restaurant in Ventura, is coordinating the locally sourced meal, and some of our Meyer Lemons will be in the mix. Next month Tim will be the chef for an “Outstanding in the Field” dinner hosted by my favorite local rockstar farmer Phil McGrath at McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo. The menu is not final, but we may be there either in the form of fresh Meyers or bottled in Ventura Limoncello. Local distribution isn’t big part of our business yet, but the perks are a lot more fun than on the mainstream side of the industry. (Don’t get me wrong… I’m still a sucker for a Santa Maria BBQ.)

Today’s final bit of good news comes from our soil itself. Our lab report shows a huge drop in the need for supplemental soil Nitrogen compared to last year. Two data points does not a conclusive trend make, but is this an indicator that our covercrop program is paying off? We’ve been happy with other results from the program. Erosion last winter was nil and the bee population supported by the mustard has been huge, but the real payoff should be in the soil. Let’s hope the trend continues!

Hey, writing about positive stuff can be fun too! I’ll try to remember to do this more often.