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.

Advertisements

Reflections on #VCFarmDay

2014-09-05 08.53.15

When I went to bed last night after a very long day of talking about figs and farming, I swore I was going to take today completely off from Farm Day.

But I can’t do it. It was a fun day and a great opportunity to engage with a number of people, but two aspects of Farm Day really made an impression on me.

First of all I was really struck by the whole range of operators that the SEE-Ag crew had lined up. People tend to think of our local farm economy being dominated by just a few crops. But part of what makes Ventura County one of the top farm counties in the nation (and therefore the world) is the incredible diversity of crops. This year’s tour included major global leaders and small locally oriented farms. You could see a state-of-the-art organic tomato greenhouse, a small family goat dairy/goat soap producer, packinghouses for a variety of crops, the Ag Museum, a salsa maker, a lettuce and celery grower, a flower grower, an avocado research and demonstration orchard and more. There was no way that anyone could have seen everything that Ventura County has to offer in a single day, and perhaps that’s a message in itself.

I was also impressed with the range of people who turned out. I’ve been involved with a lot of farm out reach and agricultural awareness events, and I’ve learned to expect to see the “usual suspects.” We had nearly 200 people visit our fig orchard yesterday… I knew only half a dozen or so. Reaching new people is important, and this program did a fantastic job of that. I wish I’d asked everybody to tell us where they were from (Next year!) but from those I did ask, I found a number of people from outside Ventura County, including visitors from Venice, Calabasas,and Montecito. It was also great to see a lot of younger people. Despite my graying beard, I’m often on the young side at farm outreach events unless it is specifically at a school. Not yesterday! Visitors in their 20’s and 30’s were numerous, both those with kids and those without.

2014 Farm Day was a great success in my view, and I really have to salute Mary Maranville and her team at SEE-Ag. Too many great farms and organizations stepped up to help for me to list here, but click through to her site and you’ll see quite a lineup.

OK…now I’m going to try to enjoy my day off. (If I can stop thinking about ideas for next year.)

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.

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.

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.

When Local Food will Work

Without making a conscious decision to do so, I have divested myself from major banks. I no longer own Citigroup stock, and I no longer use BofA for my business banking. I belong to a credit union, finance my farm within the Farm Credit system, and am a customer and minor shareholder of our local Santa Clara Valley Bank. With all the turmoil these days, many critics of our financial systems say this is the right approach to take. It is what we should do. But I didn’t do it to make a political statement or encourage an alternative financial structure for our nation.
I did it because it works. Today I enjoy all the technological conveniences that used to be the domain of the big banks. Online billpay and transfers, ATM access all over the world… you name it. But I get much better service from people who not only know my name, in some cases they even know my dog’s names. Such is community banking in a small farm town. I get the chance to talk with the bank’s CEO on a regular basis as we serve together on several community projects. I would have needed a lot of money on deposit with Bank of America to get that kind of access.
What does this have to do with local and regional food? Right now, a number of people advocate for a local and regional model for our food system. It is what we should do, they say. Very possibly they are right. But in food, as in banking and energy (the other tack I could have taken for this piece) , we don’t do things just because we should. We go with what works for us.
Currently, local food systems fall short. Sure ,we have the Farmer’s market system, and a few CSAs, but access is a real issue. A few consumers with the knowledge, extra time, and disposable income gain the benefits… they get to meet their farmer. But this system hasn’t yet shown the ability to rival the mainstream. But it is growing and getting better. You still need to make sacrifices to eat locally but not to the same degree as just a couple of years ago. So maybe the day is not far off, when this is no longer something we “should do”, but simply “do.”
That will be when local food works.

About SOAR

I am a believer in representative democracy, which is the more positive way of saying I am not a fan off California’s all-pervasive initiative system. As practiced today, this system represents and failure of our elected officials to exercise the wisdom and judgment that the voters should rightfully expect. Instead we get endless campaigns pushing narrow special interests, distorted demagoguery and finally, just plain bad policy.

A favorite local example for me is the Ventura County SOAR complex. I call it that not to make it sound ominous, but because I think it is a real mess. SOAR stands for Save Our Agricultural Resources. But it applies to a series of City ordinances governing the potential conversion of agricultural land to other uses, a county ordinance with the same objectives, and a non-profit advocacy organization of the same name. The term is also used generically to apply to active members of the organization and/or the roughly 70% of Ventura County voters who can be relied upon to vote for just about any “no-growth” ballot initiative. Since two of our 5 County Supervisors are SOAR Organization founders and Boardmembers, people frequently (if imprecisely) consider the County Government and SOAR synonymous as well.

I hope anyone who knows me or regularly reads this blog believes that I am concerned with the long term economic viability of agriculture in Ventura County. So why would I have issue with a program intended to preserve agricultural land? Frankly, because I think that it does little to advance the goal, while restricting options for agricultural landowners (not always the same thing as a farmer).

Even my most organic and liberal farming friends (Yes, we have them here in Ventura… I know conventional farmers who own Priuses!) start to sound a little libertarian when it comes to property rights. This should be understandable. After several generations of carefully stewarding an asset that typically represents nearly the entirety of their net worth, farmers don’t like to see its value diminished. For a farmer, the land is not just a job, it is a family heirloom, legacy to the children, and retirement plan. Sadly though, if a farmer opposes SOAR his concerns are pretty airily dismissed. After all, his financial motives seem clear enough.

Those of us in Agriculture bear some responsibility for this. When SOAR was being rolled out in the mid ‘90’s, we generally failed to engage in the debate. No point dignifying such hare-brained scheme. We did not engage or propose alternative means to similar ends, which are surely one that most remaining Ventura Farmers can embrace. We want to see Ag continue here. We are literally working toward that goal every day.

What to do now? Item one is engagement, and this has already begun. At our County Farm Bureau annual meeting last week, SOAR architect and County Supervisor Steve Bennett was our keynote speaker. He explained the world view of our “urban friends”. In a Q&A session that followed he heard some of the rural worldview. I think there were moments where it was quite clear that neither side had any idea what the other was saying. But both frustration and a desire for cooperation was evident on both sides of the podium.

Item two is for those of us in agriculture to really begin to get serious about the policy directions that frankly acknowledge the desires of the urban majority in this county, while being a fair and workable system for those on the land. To this point, the debate has largely focused on a false choice between SOAR or no-zoning anarchy and unlimited suburban sprawl. We need a richer palette of choices. I agree with their desire for continued agriculture, and believe that local government has a role in shaping land use. There narrow point on which we differ is that in a county with greenbelt ordinances, Williamson Act restrictions, and notoriously cumbersome planning and zoning processes, SOAR believes that an additional layer of ballot box planning review represents leadership in stewardship of the land. I feel it is bureaucratic overkill. Let’s make something better.

Having been pretty tough on the “SOAR complex” let me contradict myself and acknowledge the real passion and commitment for the continuation of agriculture that I have seen from some of the individuals within SOAR’s leadership.  Specifically, I want to thank Karen Schmidt, SOAR ‘s Executive Director, for exhaustive work that she has done in support of the Ag Futures Alliance. A typical knock on SOAR is that it is a one-dimensional means to preserve pretty viewshed for the suburbs. Karen’s efforts in developing new economic opportunities for farmers with local and regional food systems contradict this view. I have enjoyed working with her for nearly 6 years, and I hope that her systematic approach to all the whirling variables in this complex system will be a model for others, even while she and I continue to argue about the details.