Making bootprints with @SEE_AG


One of my Dad’s favorite sayings was the best thing a farmer could add to the soil was his bootprints. If we want our community to better understand farming, we might be wise to find a way to let our community put down some bootprints as well. That’s why I jumped at the chance to work with a local non-profit that has done a stellar job of reaching out to thousands of school-kids, parents, and educators.

Ventura based SEE-Ag was founded by Mary Maranville 8 years ago. In that time, she has created a resilient organization with a talented team of on-farm educators, and made Ventura County Farm Day a major annual event. A farm-based program that would reinforce Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) curricula was the next logical step. We were very happy to be asked to participate.

farmlab sign

Today marked the official “groundbreaking” of Farm Lab at Petty Ranch.

“Groundbreaking” might be a misnomer… with a class of third graders on hand to learn about soil, beneficial insects, and plant a lemon tree and pollinator-friendly plants, it seemed more like a “Grand Opening” to me.

By my count, SEE-Ag should reach more than 7,000 people directly this year with their programs; many more will learn about their work through media. Thankfully, not everyone will need to set foot on our farm… we’re really not set-up for that. Not yet, anyway. Each of those 7,000 + will see their understanding of agriculture increased. A little bit in some cases; a lot in others. Maybe a few will even be inspired to make agriculture a career. But the distance between our rural and suburban worlds will be made just a little bit smaller with every trip.

And that is good for everybody.


Q&A with @UCFoodObserver

It was my pleasure to sit down with UC Food Observer, a social media project of the University of California focused on food and agriculture. They’ve had some great interviews, but I’m really proud to be one of the first farmers featured!

The “usual rules” don’t apply #Ventura

What are the two competing visions for the future of the American food system? Just about anyone will tell you that we face a choice between a system that must be either small, organic, and localized, or large, corporate, and globalized. Nearly all national conversations about food observe these rules. Those are your choices… A or B.

But do the “usual rules” always apply? I think they are an oversimplification even at the national level, but they are certainly not accurate in Ventura County. Yes, we have some very small, organic, locally oriented farms. And we have some very large conventional farming operations with a global customer base.

But we have plenty that don’t fit the mold. We have very small conventional farms with global distribution. We have large, “corporate” farms, that have developed local supply chains for their organic produce. Ventura County has huge diversity in our crop mix, but it is matched by the diversity of our business models.

A case study: The most capital intensive operation in Ventura County is actually organic. They are international and “big business” in many ways, but they are also family owned and operated. Growing their crops within a greenhouse, they are able to meticulously control their inputs, but it certainly isn’t “natural” or “traditional”. On a per acre basis, they use more water than any other farm in the area. On the other hand, they are vastly more efficient, and deliver much more produce per gallon delivered. So if we want to talk about their operation, we can’t have that conversation within the “usual rules.”

Like the county around them, they play by a different set of rules.

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.

Ventura Agriculture: The First Century

The second installment of my history series for covers the beginnings of agriculture in Ventura County. This period saw tremendous political change, as Ventura passed from Spain to Mexico to the United States. Change in the farmscape was just as pronounced.

Grains of Time

It is not widely known that barley was once Ventura County’s top crop. In the late 1800’s more than 60,000 acres within the county were planted with it. Eventually, barley disappeared as a major commodity in Ventura County. Even in the 1890’s, it was tough to compete in a global market place with a crop that is priced by the ton. Today barley is experiencing a minor renaissance on local farms. We have planted barley the past five years as part of our rotational cover crop strategy to build soil and fight erosion. If it seems odd that we are growing a crop that never gets eaten, consider the following: Most grain produced in the United States is not destined for human consumption. Instead, it is used to “feed food” in feedlots and chicken houses. Our grains are “feeding food” as well, but they go right back into the soil where they were grown alongside the lemons, avocados or figs that they nurture. I wonder how consumers would take to a  “grain finished lemon”?

Closing Comments : UC Hansen Trust Research Symposium

Prepared remarks for the University of California Hansen Trust Research Symposium, December 1, 2009.

So when we first began to plan this event, I thought to myself that we should call it : “University of California Hansen Trust: Beyond the Pumpkin Patch.” Instead we called it a research symposium, which is more accurate and probably more appropriate. But I want to return to that theme for a few minutes as we conclude this morning’s event.

The UC Hansen Trust is based at Faulkner Farm in Santa Paula, which is well known for the historic Victorian home, large red barn and annual pumpkin patch. These are things to treasure, no doubt. The pumpkin patch event brings thousands of people out for a little taste of agriculture every year. For the past two years it has been operated by the Rotary Club of Santa Paula, and they have done a fantastic job. Money raised from the event has helped to fund many worthy projects in Santa Paula and Ventura County, including ag-oriented programs like 4H and FFA. This year, visitors to the farm saw new signage, detailing the University of California’s role in our agricultural state. But perhaps because of the iconic status of the event, the picturesque setting, or the sheer volume of activity, the pumpkin patch tends to overshadow the UC Hansen Trust’s activities for the other 11 months out of the year.

Today’s event is intended to shine a light on the research mission of the UC Hansen Trust. Many of you in attendance today have played a role in that mission and I thank you for that. Our goals for research are simple: More research, more tailored to Ventura County agriculture, more effectively communicated to the target audience. I said the goals were simple… I didn’t say they were easy.

In the next several years were will look to continually raise the bar. In addition to financial support for research, we aim to make the land at the farm more readily available for research as well. Other symposia such as this one will follow. Again, I thank you for your participation and I invite you to continue to grow with us.

This first annual symposium would not have come together without UCHT Director Jose DeSoto, UCCE Director Rose Hayden Smith, and VCFB CEO John Krist. Those titles sure add a lot of syllables, and each of the three has truly earned their respective position. But it isn’t their offices that made this happen, it is the efforts of these three individuals.

Please join me in thanking Jose, Rose, and John.

I’d also like to thank the UCHT staff, not only for their help today, but for the job they do for Ventura County agriculture all year long.

I’d also like to offer a quick, but heartfelt thanks to Ben Faber. In addition to the research he presented today, he also recently served as the UCHT interim Director pending Jose’s arrival. Ben, I can’t thank you enough for the extra hours of toil that you put forward on the Trust’s behalf.

I don’t know if we have taken full advantage of having a UC research center dedicated to Ventura County agriculture in the past. I do know that we must take full advantage now. It won’t be easy. The intersection of the University of California budget and Ventura County Agriculture will be an economically challenging place for the next several years. But thankfully, the generosity and vision of Thelma Hansen has given us an important tool.

This concludes this morning’s program, but it does not conclude our work. Thank you for coming.