Putting our money where the mouths are

Over the last few months, I’ve made a couple of sponsorship commitments that are a little out of the norm for a farm.

One was for a food truck. The other is for a running team. Why would I spend dollars from the farm like this? It may be that I just wanted to see our new Petty Ranch logo more often. I’m proud of it and put a lot of thought into the design. So I admit… this could all be about ego.

But I’d like to think there is something deeper. Scratch is not your typical food truck, even now that food trucks are cool. It is the creation of Chef Tim Kilcoyne, and if you have followed his blog, you know he has been a champion of fresh, local and seasonal eating. With this truck, he is literally “taking it to the streets.” I’ve been a fan of Tim’s for a while, and he’s always done great things with the figs and Meyer lemons we’ve provided him. Have a look at the Kickstarter video here.

“Everybody’s Hungry” is a blog dedicated to food, health, education and the community, and its mastermind, Jason Hendrick, has been a tireless voice and volunteer. “Tireless” is an ideal attribute for someone with Jason’s pastime: distance running. Everybody’s Hungry Racing Team has been created to help illustrate the connections between food and health and lifestyle in a very tangible way. I haven’t known Jason as long, but the work he’s done for Food Share, Totally Local VC, and promoting local food and craft beers on radio has been exemplary. Read more about Everybody’s Hungry and EBH Racing here.

I am proud to have our logo displayed on the back of Scratch’s truck and EBH Racing’s jersey. And yes… I do believe it is about more than my desire to see our logo in print. These are two gents making a difference, and I’m excited to be a part of it. So if see me eating at the truck with Tim, or running at an event with Jason (albeit much more slowly), know that I’m having a good time, but also know that I’m trying to make a connection too. Food and Health and Community are important to these guys, and they’re important to farmers too. We want consumers to connect these dots, and we want to have Petty Ranch be a part of that connection.

501 Pounds!

When you plant new trees, you never really know what to expect from them in terms of production while they are young. With the vast majority of our fig trees having been planted in March 2011, I wasn’t sure what we’d see in their first season. My benchmark for success was 500 pounds of figs. As of this morning, we have now picked 501… and there is still more to come.

But as happy as I am with our little trees (and “Harry“), I am most grateful to the response of our local community. Chef Tim Kilcoyne at the Sidecar continues to be a fig warhorse, but Julia Crookston of Bona Dea Preserves has edged him out as our top consumer to date. Perennial favorite Kate Dunbar of Petite Reve Cafe has done some fantastic things with our figs, particularly the early Desert Kings. Rabalais Bistro in Santa Paula, 71 Palm and Paradise Pantry in Ventura, and the Italian Job Cafe in Oxnard have been wonderful additions to our family of customers. We are also thankful for our friends who have taken up the challenge of introducing others to Petty Ranch figs… Kat Merrick of Totally Local VC, Gianna Cagliano, and Nancy Hochstein.

The season may not be over yet, but we can’t wait to express our appreciation for those who are  sharing this experience with us. Thank you!

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.

Lead, follow, or get out of the way

In a recent interview with the New York Times, French Laundry Chef Thomas Keller created a stir when he disavowed any responsibility for the direction of national food policy. Chefs, he said, are not responsible for sustaining local farmers or fixing climate change.

Not surprisingly, his comments drew a sharp rebuke in some arenas (Civil Eats, Huffington Post.)  Should they have?

His comments raise two questions. The first is whether or not chefs can be agents of change in our food system, particularly with respect to local food. Clearly they can. I’m fortunate to work with several chef and food artisan friends who are our “local local heros”… People like Tim Kilcoyne, Rachel Main, Kate Dunbar, Julia Crookston and James and Manuela Carling of Ventura Limoncello. Customers are responding to their work, other restaurateurs are following their lead, and food and farming are receiving more attention than ever. These people are leaders and they make a difference.

The second question raised by Chef Keller is whether he personally has an obligation to lead within the food movement. He says “No” and I agree with him. He has built his career around food as art, not food as activism. He is entitled to pursue his vision, as are we all. Even if I wished for his leadership, it would be a futile desire on my part. You can not assign leadership to the unwilling. Not if you expect results, anyway. In fact, I’m glad that he risked the predictable backlash by being honest about his views, rather than assuming a false mantle of leadership.

The Marines have a saying: “Lead, follow, or get out of  the way.” Chef Keller has opted to get out of the way. That’s fine. There are a lot of great people like the ones I mentioned above who can and are leading already.

Those are the people we should be talking about.


I’m excited to be working with TotallyLocalVC.com, a new site dedicated to living, playing and working in Ventura County, and celebrating those things that make this area special. I’ll be writing an occassional column on Agriculture’s role in our county, as well as particpated in some planned farm dinners. Part of the reason my output in this blog has dropped off recently is that I have been writing and editing the pieces that will appear in TotallyLocalVC.com. My first piece, on Ventura before agriculture, should post soon.

So even though I am something of an “insider”, I was still very pleased to be profiled by D.K. Crawford in one of the first pieces published. You can read her (overly generous) article here. She does a wonderful job introducing several of the people that I am proud to call customers and friends: Tim Kilcoyne of the SideCar and Local Cafe, Kate Dunbar of Petite Reve Cafe, and James and Manuela Carling of Ventura Limoncello. The secret to whatever success I have had as a “rockstar farmer” is that I am teamed with people this talented. When you have this caliber of people using your lemons, you can’t help but look good.

I’m trying to apply the same trick to my writing. Having the chance to work with TLVC’s dynamic founder Kat Merrick, and talented writer/photographers like DK is a great opportunity. Watch this space for more work soon!

New Venues, New Friends

This week will find some of our produce in two high-profile events for California diners.

“Savor the Central Coast” is being put on by Sunset magazine to celebrate the food and  agriculture of this region. Tonight, a sustainable seafood dinner paired Seafood Watch with our long-time friend Tim Kilcoyne from the SideCar Restaurant in Ventura. Some of our tree-ripe lemons will play an important supporting role on the menu. The citrus poached shrimp sounds incredible.

 Wednesday, October 6, will see “Good Food for All: A Taste of the Los Angeles Foodshed”, anchoring a conference on Food issues and policy organized by Roots of Change. 35 of LA’s top chefs and restaurants will prepare tasting menus built around ingredients from farms in our region. I’m really looking forward to it, and not just for the food. We will have the opportunity to pair with several partners. This could still be subject to change, but as of now we will be providing avocados to the Loteria Grill; Meyer lemons, and Star Ruby grapefruit and Black Mission figs to Cube Marketplace and Cafe; and lemons, Meyers and Star Rubies to the Water Grill. I’ll be attending this one, and I can’t wait to have the chance to work with some great people who are passionate about food and agriculture.

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.

A Good Night for Farmworkers

Last night I attended the fundraiser held at the Ventura Theater  to benefit HouseFarmworkers. Appearing for this purpose for the second time in Ventura, Kris Kristofferson put on a very well recieved solo acoustic show. Martic Sheen lent his face and voice to a brief documentary which aired beforehand that highlights the benefits that Farmworker’s kids have enjoyed by having clean, safe and affordable housing. With the kid’s own words and camera work, the piece wasn’t always that smooth, but was very moving and hearfelt. A nice appetizer reception was held outside that included food from many local farms and restaurants. A huge and very professional job was done by Tim Kilcoyne of the Sidecar in Ventura. Ventura Councilmember/Kristofferson Doppelganger Carl Morehouse was again instrumental in getting things going.

Ellen Brokaw. So many great things have been said about her leadership that I am not creative enough to add anything new. Ellen, please just replay everyone else’s comments in your head, and then add my thanks.

I’m not a music critic or a society columnist, so I’m not sure how to do a long piece on this and keep it interesting. But I want to  ackowledge the great job that the House Farmworkers teams does. Since 2003 their tireless outreach and advocacy has resulted, directly or indirectly, in 400+ new farmworker housing units in the County. The work is far from over, but thanks to them, the mountain is a bit lower than it once was. These days I am only a supporter of their work, not an active participant, but I was proud to be a small part of it last night.

Thank you.

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.