From field and farm to fork: county crops feed the world.
“Agriculture is the most healthful, most useful, and most noble employment of man.”
Food. This essential human need is taken for granted by so many in today’s world, but just one day without sustenance brings the importance of food into crystal clear focus. Thankfully, Ventura County, with its sunny weather, rich soil and thousands of acres of farmland, is home to innovative farmers who grow more than $2 billion worth of crops year-round to feed the community and the world.
“Ventura County agriculture is an integral part of our economy and plays a vital role in feeding the world,” said Henry Gonzales, Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner, at the 3rd Annual Agricultural Summit held recently at California State University, Channel Islands.
While 26 percent of the county’s 1.2 million acres of land is agricultural, most people don’t realize that Ventura County ranks among the top 10 agricultural-producing counties in the nation. Local farmers and ranchers produce hundreds of varieties of fruit, nut, vegetable and grain crops. And it’s not just the nearby communities that enjoy the fruits of area farmers’ labor. Crops grown in Ventura County are exported to 81 different countries, including Japan, Canada, Korea, Mexico, China, Chile, Taiwan, the Netherlands, Australia and Thailand.
Aimed to educate the public about the important role Ventura County agriculture plays in the lives of people locally and throughout the world, the Ventura County Agricultural Summit gathered a diverse group of agricultural-related organizations and experts to guide discussions, seminars and panels about important topics in agriculture.
Hosted by the Agricultural Commissioner’s Office, this year’s summit also featured the Taste of Local Exposition, featuring top-line chefs who emphasize locally sourced produce, as well as area wineries, breweries, distillers, purveyors, farmers and vendors who support the Ventura County agricultural industry. Designed to help connect the steps from field and farm to fork, the summit gave guests a firsthand experience of the concept with a farm to plate lunch by Chef Tim Kilcoyne of Scratch Food Truck and a farm to plate mixer created by Chef Jason Collis of Plated Events.
In line with its mission to protect and promote agriculture, the Agricultural Summit provided attendees with valuable insight into the vital importance of farming in our community. Such events help create necessary awareness and appreciation about what it takes to supply thousands of people with healthy food.
Educating communities about local and family farms and ranches helps people recognize the integral part they play in our local economy and encourages residents to help keep them viable, according to Treasure our Farms, an educational campaign designed to engage and inform the local community about the value and beauty of agriculture and farming in Ventura County. Their informative website, TreasureOurFarms.com, serves as an educational resource, with stories about farmers, facts and agricultural events, educational materials and more.
Experiencing farm life firsthand is one of the best ways to make the natural connection between gardens and food on the table, and the 3rd Annual Ventura County Farm Day provided an opportunity for families to do just that. Some 20 local farms, including McGrath Family Farm, Bartels Ranch, Houweling’s Tomatoes, Duda Farm Fresh Foods, Gills’ Onions and Underwood Family Farms, opened their fields to the public, offering tours and samples of their crops. After a full day of farm tours, the event culminated with a family, farm-fresh barbecue, complete with music and games, at Limoneira Ranch, one of the largest providers of lemons and avocados in the United States.
Spearheaded by Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture, an organization dedicated to helping students truly understand the origins of their food by bridging the gap between agriculture and consumption through education, the annual Farm Day event provides an up close and personal look at the farms that feed us.
In Ventura County, 2,150 farms—defined as an operation that produces at least $1,000 worth of products annually—were reported in 2012, the latest Census of Agriculture reports. While the average farm size in Ventura County is 131 acres, the median farm size—meaning half of all farms are bigger, and half are smaller—is 12 acres. Farmland in Ventura County accounts for some 316,666 acres, including grazing land, according to the California Department of Conservation’s Farmland Mapping Program.
“Even with Ventura County’s rich agricultural heritage, children don’t make the connection between the acres of farmland around them and the food on their tables,” says SEEAG Founder and Executive Director Mary Maranville, who was inspired by Ventura County’s “amazing agriculture” to found educational programs to help kids understand and appreciate this precious resource.
“By educating students about the farm sources of their food from field to table while connecting them to the farmland in their own backyards,” kids see why they need to care about plants, gardens and agriculture and become thoughtful consumers and contributors to the food system,” says Maranville, who grew up on a dairy farm in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York herself, and knows all about the dedication and hard work that goes into growing food.
SEEAG’s agricultural education programs, The Journey of Our Food From Field to Fork and STEM-based Careers in Agriculture, are offered free to elementary school students throughout Ventura and Los Angeles Counties. Covering topics such as the food chain, sustainable agriculture practices and the farm-to-table connection, the program culminates with a field trip to the historic Limoneira Lemon Ranch in Santa Paula. A guided tour teaches students about the lifecycle of the lemon, from blossom to distribution, and includes a visit to the citrus orchard, packinghouse and solar array field, where kids learn about solar energy. Some 8,000 children have gained a new understanding and appreciation for their food and the importance of local farmland through the free educational programs. SEEAG.org
“Through SEEAG, many children have the opportunity to visit farms for the first time and gain valuable, hands-on education,” says Maranville. “After the program, they become better informed consumers and agricultural ambassadors that share what they have learned with their peers. They leave the farm with a new awareness and appreciation for agriculture, farmers and fresh food, and are able to make better-informed decisions when faced with making food choices.”
Perhaps the best way to gain a true understanding and respect for producing food is by actually growing it yourself. The Las Flores Community Gardens is a place where community members of all ages can come together to grow fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs in their own, rented garden plots.
“The knowledge here is amazing,” says Las Flores Community Gardens President Susan Sundell. “We have five master gardeners here, and it’s such an amazing resource right in our own garden,” Sundell started out sharing a garden plot with a friend and was hooked by her passion to grow her own plots and become a master gardener herself.
Families, including grandparents, grandchildren, parents, aunts and uncles, tend to their individual garden plots, learning firshand the joys and hardships entailed with growing food, says Sundell, who says other benefits naturally spring from participating in the community gardens too. “The social aspect, to be there for people, is wonderful. It’s my serenity.”
With a mission of “providing space for citizens to garden together to create a shared vision, to work collaboratively and to cultivate a place for individuals, families and friends to learn about and experience the rewards of organic gardening,” Las Flores Community Garden promotes and upholds organic gardening methods and provides garden education and workshops to the public. Located in Thousand Oaks on land allocated by the Conejo Recreation and Park District, the garden is supported in part by the city of Thousand Oaks. A recent city grant allowed the gardens to expand and add a dedicated Children’s Garden, where kids can grow their own crops.
“It’s amazing how many don’t know where food comes from,” says Sundell, “Gardening really opens their eyes.”
Community Garden Master Gardener Darrell Heximer views growing food as a “miracle” and sees the soil as more than just dirt. “It’s a living thing,” he says, reflecting on the knowledge, hard work and luck involved with growing food. Heximer is one of the many generous community gardeners who lovingly share their garden’s bounty with friends, neighbors, family and people in need.
Each day, community gardeners at Las Flores Community Garden donate produce from their gardens to local food banks, including FOODshare.
“We always have excess and we want to share with the community,” says Sundell. FOOD Share is a nonprofit community of volunteers, donors, supporters and friends who distribute more than 10 million pounds of food annually. Its food is supplied by more than 194 partner agencies, including neighborhood and church food distributions and soup kitchens as well as hunger assistance programs. Through its Garden Share program, local gardeners, schools, churches, neighbors and commercial growers can “grow a row” and share it with their hungry neighbors. Visit FOODShare.com to get involved.
Giving the gift of food to people in need is something our farmers do every day. Their labor and commitment to this often-overlooked but invaluable mission of feeding people by growing healthy food is something for which we all should truly give thanks.
For more information about farming and agriculture in Ventura County, visit VCAgriculturalEducation.com.