On lemony beverages… #shocktop #vccuisinescene

Fresh off their Pumpkin Peach Ale bashing Super Bowl ad, Anheuser Busch is showing a little niche beer love with the launch of a lemon shandy beer under their Shock Top brand. I like shandies (beer + lemonade), and I also think Shock Top is a pretty nice mass-market beer.  But  I was really pleased to see that they chose to do a launch event in Ventura County… the home of America’s lemons. (80% of US lemons come from California, 80% of those come from Ventura County.) I wasn’t at the event, hosted by our friends at Limoneira, but I’ve seen some pictures and it looks like it was a good time. I can’t say how happy I am to see a national food/beverage event taking place here… the most important food destination that remains pretty much undiscovered.

Now if you want to get something really nice, I bet Poseidon Brewing’s Bubblehead Blood Orange Pale Ale with a shot of Ventura Limoncello would be a real knock out. A double dose of Ventura County citrus flavored beverages is probably prudent as well…. It is cold and flu season after all.

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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.

California Bountiful on Ventura Limoncello

My central strategy for marketing specialty fruit is a simple one: Work with people who make you look good. Anybody who has tasted Ventura Limoncello knows that they make us look Very Good Indeed. Press coverage, awards, promotional dinners… the Ventura Limoncello story is everywhere, and I’m proud to be a part of it. Today’s chapter comes from California Bountiful.

TotallyLocalVC.com

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!

Figs and a Stinkin’ Acre

August and September have been busy months. Irrigation is always critical this time of year, and we are just concluding picking and pruning the lemons. It was particularly busy in the small end of the business: With lemons delivered to Ventura Limoncello, Meyer lemons and figs to the Sidecar, and additional Meyers into “mainstream/niche” markets, September was our biggest month yet for local and specialty fruit.

The experience has encouraged us to try to branch out a little further, so too new crops will be added to the mix. Garlic and Figs.

Now, I know, I mentioned figs already, but let me explain. For the past two seasons we have sold figs to chefs and caterers, but they have all come from the big “family tree” which is 50+ years old and is presumed to be a black mission varietal. What will be new is that we will have a dozen trees of mixed varietals, including Kadota, Brown Turkey, and Desert King. We hope with some new varieties we may find some which really click with our customers, thrive in our microclimate, and fruit through a longer window.

Garlic is something we are going to try on a very, very small scale. I’ll be very happy if we have a thousand pounds of marketable garlic, and despite the title of this piece, we will be committing far less than an acre to it. But I have learned that local garlic is very hard to come by, so I’m going to give it a shot. It will be quite a change from tree crops. One thing I think is underappreciated about agriculture is the vast differences in knowledge and infrastructure to grow different kinds of crops. I try to be polite when sustainably-minded suburban friends suggest that we just grow X instead of Y, but I have a line rattling around in my brain about the difference between painting a portrait and painting a house. Like painters, not all farmers do the same thing.

Continuing in the vein of new crops, next spring should see our first harvest of Star Ruby grapefruit, Sanguinelli blood oranges, and Cara Cara navel oranges. Probably not enough for any meaningful contribution to the bottom line, but it will be great to get the chance to introduce them to our customers (and eat more than one or two.)

Sustainability and viability are always on my mind, and  these factored into the garlic and fig decisions. Citrus fruit in California is potentially threatened by the Asian Citrus Psyllid insect, which is a vector for Citrus Greening disease, or Huanglongbing virus. This has devastated much of Florida’s citrus industry, and as excited as I am about new specialty citrus varietals, I need to hedge our bets. Garlic and figs? Not affected by it. Avocados have had a rough ride the past few years, because as a subtropical fruit, the “extremes” of Southern California weather can push them to their limits. Will our weather be more extreme over the next few years, as it has been for the last three? It seems prudent to think so. Garlic and figs are well known to be capable of thriving with much higher highs and much lower lows. The fact that they have lower summertime irrigation requirements has got to help too, don’t you think?

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.