Farm Day Sneak Peek

The historic Faulkner House, built in 1894, is part of Hansen Research Center

by Sheli Ellsworth

On July 21, Ventura County farmers and Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture hosted a media preview of the November 5, Fourth Annual Ventura County Farm Day. Over a dozen journalist and other interested parties braved the sweltering July heat to visit a few of the over-twenty agricultural facilities participating in Farm Day.

The McGrath Family Farm in Camarillo kicked off the tour by serving lemon-lavender scones, coffee and fresh squeezed juice. Phil McGrath whose family has been farming the coast of California for five generations explained, “There are five Mediterranean climates in the world and Ventura County is one of them.” The McGrath Family Farm is certified organic and most of the fruit and vegetables raised goes to local restaurants and farmer’s markets, but their roadside market is open daily from 9-6. Depending on what’s in season, McGrath’s offers strawberries, Lima beans, broccoli, squash, pumpkins, heirloom tomatoes and more, including the you-pick-‘em option. McGrath’s is also home to several farm animals including a few chickens who refused to comment.

Chris Sayer of Petty Farms emceed the day’s events, “In 1893 there was a newspaper article that claimed that agriculture was going by the wayside. Ventura County is one of the top ten agricultural counties in the country and in California only Napa Valley does more dollars per acre.” Sayer reminded his audience that the upcoming November election may have a significant impact on local farming. Sayer says it is important for people to become educated about what farmers face and how the four SOAR issues will impact Ventura’s farm industry. SOAR is a series of voter initiatives that will require a vote of the people before privately owned agricultural or open space land can be rezoned for development.

The tour visited Houweling’s Tomatoes in Camarillo where over 100 million pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers are grown in 120 acres of greenhouses every year. President/CEO Canadian entrepreneur Chris Houweling, self-described “weird guy who thinks dumb things,” directed the tour. Houweling says he made “a lot of mistakes, but wanted to leave something for the next generation.” He strives to make the facility energy efficient as well as environmentally sound. The cutting-edge facility makes its own energy and recaptures its own heat and CO2 with “the least amount of environmental impact possible.”

Gills Onions, a Camarillo processor, also hosted the group and explained how three to four million pounds of onions are peeled, diced and sliced every week. Like Houweling’s, the plant strives to be energy and environmentally responsible. The plant uses an advanced energy recovery system and utilizes onion waste/juice in fuel cells. A miniature version of the bioreactor will be available for viewing on Farm Day in November.

Farm-to-Table chef Tim Kiloyne served the group a delicious lunch on the grounds of the historic Faulkner House at the University of California Hansen Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Santa Paula even though it seems like Ventura. Tour guide Jose De Soto explained that farming is a dynamic undertaking. The center is always researching different crops and watering methods. They also grow native trees they hope to export to the park system. Current concerns about Bagrata bugs and mealy bugs are being addressed as well as soil improvement alternatives. The Center hosts classroom tours, adult gardening classes and after school gardening programs for children.

Before returning to the McGrath Farm, the tour swung by Chris Sayer’s family farm in Saticoy. Sayer is the fifth generation to farm the Petty Ranch. Sayer agrees that farming requires change. He says he is always experimenting with cover crops like sugar beets, sunflowers and Daikon radishes to enrich the soil. Sayer, who is mainly a citrus grower, is currently parenting ten varieties of figs that seem more like a hobby than a crop. “Figs are drought friendly and what any farmer wants is a crop with minimal impact on the environment and benefits as broad as possible.”

The tour concluded back at McGrath Family Farms for drinks, hors d’oeuvres and one last chance to ask a chicken to go-on-record.

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