Almost paradise

Times Staff Writer

AS pieces of land go, this one is a beauty: 300 acres right on Highway 101 between Camarillo and Ventura. Less than half a mile away, shoppers are fingering fine cashmere sweaters at the Barneys New York outlet store. Just across the highway, others are choosing their holiday accessories at a giant Harley-Davidson dealership.

And in a bare-bones shed not 20 yards from the roaring freeway, farmer Phil McGrath is daydreaming while he helps sort vegetables -- candy-colored red, golden, white and striped beets; chards so bright they look like they're lighted from within; a dozen kinds of lettuce; rustic-looking winter squash; and humble but historically significant lima beans.

Just back from Terra Madre, the biannual conference on sustainable farming held in Turin, Italy, by the nonprofit organization Slow Food International, McGrath is letting his imagination run. Although most people looking at this lovely plot of land would dream about building stores, restaurants and hotels, the silver-haired 54-year-old is imagining a farm village.

And though that may sound far-fetched given the fantastic nature of the real estate involved, because it's his family's land, it just could happen.

As McGrath walks the ground sketching out his ideas, you can almost see his dream taking shape. In fact, many of the elements are already in place.

Here would be a produce stand, on the same spot as the one his family ran for 25 years -- but this time everything would be grown on site. Here would be a classroom to teach students about agriculture -- a 70-year-old one-room schoolhouse has been moved onto the site and is being refurbished to house it. Maybe it could include a museum of the history of Ventura County farming, much of it written by his ancestors.

At the back of the property there is a composting project that transforms green waste from Los Angeles and Ventura counties, paper mulch from Procter & Gamble and coffee grounds from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf stores. McGrath would also like to find a spot for a biodiesel refinery to turn some of the plant waste into fuel.

He envisions housing units for farm workers. And there would be rooms for interns who come to the farm to study organic agriculture. Scattered around the property might be some high-end accommodations to attract curious urbanites on vacation -- like a farming dude ranch.

Would a petting zoo be too much?

Fifth generation

MCGRATH has a hundred ideas, but all of them focus on one thing: keeping McGrath Family Farms alive. Four generations of McGraths have farmed on the Oxnard Plain beginning in 1871, and he is willing to do whatever he can to make sure it reaches the fifth, and even beyond.

It's all about sustainability, says McGrath, clad in a fleece-lined denim jacket against the morning's damp chill. The latest buzzword in our ongoing debate over where our food comes from and how it is grown, sustainability is more of an overarching philosophy than a specific set of rules.

There is a National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit advocacy group with chapters nationwide, and the University of California has a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. McGrath has been active in both, serving on committees and speaking at conferences.

Sustainable farming is based on three general principles: environmental responsibility, social equity and economic viability. Or, as McGrath puts it, "taking care of your land, taking care of your workers and making enough money that you can keep your farm going for the next generation."

There are no hard-and-fast rules about how you get these things done. Though McGrath's farm is certified organic, he's not so sure even that's necessary to be sustainable. In fact, the sustainability movement explicitly recognizes the possibility of responsible, minimal chemical use.

And although McGrath tries to treat his workers well -- all 15 are full-time employees and they earn as much as $17 an hour -- he admits that pay still falls short of a living wage, particularly in pricey Ventura County.

But while some might see the lack of specificity as a shortcoming, it could also help the sustainability movement avoid the internecine battles that have plagued organics, which started with similarly broad, community-connected goals before focusing on the single issue of chemical use.

"Organic is great, but you can be organic and still be a really [bad] farmer," says McGrath, who sometimes speaks in the mind-blown wondering tones of the surfer dude he once was.

"You can treat your workers badly and you can not make enough money to keep going. If a good farmer is using pesticides but only when they need them, hey, at least they're trying. I like to think sustainable is a bigger thing than just organic. I like to think it has that 500-year meaning. Will these kinds of farms still be around? How can we keep them? Farmland is so valuable to a community. It's just like the fire department or city hall. You have got to have farmland to be a healthy community."

One thing McGrath is very clear on is the necessity for farmers to be financially strong enough to stave off the myriad challenges that face them in Southern California.

"There's constant pressure on this land, I mean, look around us," he says. "This could easily be nothing but hotels and motels and stores. We love what we're doing and we have no intention of developing it [the land], but we have to make enough money to allow us to do that."

Indeed, McGrath has extensive experience with the pressures of development. He points out that today he is farming less land than the family lost in eminent domain proceedings in the 1950s and '60s when 250 acres went to the Channel Islands Harbor Marina and 100 acres to Camarillo Airport.

Most of his farm income today comes from leasing land to other farmers. McGrath works only about 30 of the 300 acres. The rest is farmed by organic raspberry growers working for Driscoll's. Theirs are the long, silvery plastic tunnels you see south of the highway.

Almost all of what McGrath grows goes to farmers markets or restaurants whose chefs he has met at farmers markets. He and his employees go to seven markets a week: Santa Monica on Wednesday, Santa Barbara, Camarillo and Calabasas on Saturday, and Ojai, Hollywood and Beverly Hills on Sunday.

The crops they sell vary with the season, but it is always a diverse assortment. Now it includes four kinds of carrots, four kinds of beets, 15 of lettuce, four of chard, assorted winter squash, a couple of types of strawberries, lima beans and flowers.

That diversity is markedly different from the way McGrath's father and grandfather farmed. Indeed, the McGrath family embodies the shifting tides of agriculture in Southern California.

Irish immigrants

THE first McGraths to plant the Oxnard Plain were his great-grandparents, Dominick and Bridget. Irish immigrants, they met and married in Dublin, Calif., near Oakland, then came south in 1871.

At one time, the family owned about 5,000 acres, stretching from the Santa Clara River to Port Hueneme. The land was split up repeatedly by large families of inheritors. Today, McGrath, his sister Roz and brother Rick essentially run the operation, although all of his nine brothers and sisters share in the ownership and the decisions.

And the farming has changed over the years from cattle and sheep grazing to dairy farming to cool-weather vegetables. In McGrath's father's and grandfather's heyday, the big crops were lima beans, peas and broccoli, which were distributed by several local farmers co-ops.

That lasted until the mid-1980s, when an agricultural hurricane hit the area. Basically, McGrath says, "Salinas moved south." What he means is that several of the large produce companies from the north began expanding into Ventura County.

"That was a really big deal," McGrath says. "The cultural change was one of the biggest events I've seen in this area in my lifetime. And it happened so fast there seemed to be no other way to go." At first, it seemed like a good opportunity -- the companies leased the land and the equipment, and they paid McGrath a handsome salary to run the farm. But after a few years, they pulled back, leaving the area transformed.

One of the biggest changes brought by the brief flirtation with corporate agriculture was in the product mix. Rather than growing just the same few vegetables they'd always grown, farmers were pushed to branch out. It was tough, but in the long run, it paid off.

"We'd been farming five to seven crops a year," says McGrath. "And then all of a sudden, we were having to plant things like radicchio and bok choy, things we'd barely heard of." Of course, that was nothing compared to the way he's working now. Regular farming is based on a set schedule: You plant all of your bok choy at once and then harvest it all at the same time.

But to keep farmers markets supplied year-round, McGrath now divides his farm into 3-acre blocks that are continually being planted and harvested and replanted. "The turnover is constant," he says. "Every three or four weeks we're planting another 30 or 40 things." To keep the ground healthy without using chemical fertilizers, McGrath plans a fallow period in each block's rotation, when only cover crops are planted.

Most farmers grow these, then disc them back into the ground. The fact that his nitrogen-fixing legumes -- lima beans, fava beans and English peas -- also produce some of the most lucrative vegetables he sells at farmers markets gives McGrath no end of pleasure. "When I tell that to my farmer friends, it just makes them crazy," he laughs.

An idea blossoms

THERE'S a similar story with flowers. When his sister Roz suggested he start growing them for the farmers markets, McGrath says he was outraged. "I told her there was no way I would ever grow flowers. I'm a farmer.

"Well, of course I did eventually and I have to say now that flowers are really one of the keys to our farm. They bring in the good bugs and the pollinators. I can't believe how much good they do."

In fact, as a sustainable farmer, there is no end to the lessons that need to be learned, McGrath says. "You can't just wake up one day and be a sustainable farmer. It's something that takes a lot of thought and a lot of effort.

"It's a long process of learning. And it's not the kind of thing where there's an immediate payoff. If you look at farming for one year, none of this makes any sense. You just can't do it. But if you look at it for 20 years, it's a different picture. That's when you'll know whether it's worked out or not."

It's that long-term view that means everything. "Forty years ago, this land was all lima beans. Forty years before that it was all dairy. Forty years before that it was all grazing. Who knows what it will be 40 years from now?" McGrath wonders, sitting in a plastic chair inside the schoolhouse-education center.

He still has a lot of questions. "Right now, I'm running out of product with our 30 acres," he says. "If we do all those other things we're thinking about, we'll have to expand. That's not a problem land-wise -- we've got those 270 acres we're leasing that we can grow into. But then we have to start asking ourselves, how big do we want to be? Can we get too big to be sustainable?"

That moment of caution is fleeting, though. McGrath looks out the window at the plain skirting up alongside the Santa Monica Mountains. It's just rained and the light is golden.

"You know, another thing I've been thinking about is maybe putting in a small dairy," he says. "We could sell our own eggs and cheese. And maybe we could even put in a certain amount of vineyard land. We just have to keep asking ourselves: What's the right mix?

"It's a big equation and it's going to take some figuring out. Your imagination can run wild. Three hundred acres right off the 101? That's a big dream for a lot of people, developers and farmers."

russ.parsons@latimes.com

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Roast winter squash puree with apple and ginger

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

2 pounds winter squash (such as 1 large acorn squash)

1 tart apple (about 1/2 pound)

1/4 cup whipping cream

1/2 teaspoon grated fresh

ginger

1/4 cup butter, cut in cubes

Salt

1. Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a jellyroll pan (a baking sheet with sides) with aluminum foil. If the squash is whole, cut it in half and scoop out the seeds with a large spoon.

2. Place the squash cut-side-down on the jellyroll pan and add about one-fourth inch of water. Roast 40 minutes, then turn cut-side-up and cook until the squash begins to collapse and is soft enough to be easily pierced with a knife, about 20 more minutes.

3. Remove the squash from the oven and cool briefly, about 5 minutes. Peel, core and chop the apple. When the squash is just cool enough to handle with a kitchen towel, use a spoon to scoop the flesh into a food processor or blender (a food processor will make a fairly dense, sticky puree; the blender will be lighter and smoother).

4. Add the apples and the whipping cream and puree, stopping and scraping down the sides as necessary. Add the ginger and the butter and continue pureeing until you can't see any traces of the butter. Add one-fourth teaspoon salt, pulse a couple of times to mix well, then taste and add more salt as necessary.

5. Scrape the puree into a small saucepan and warm, covered, over medium heat, 2 minutes. The recipe can be prepared 30 minutes in advance and kept warm in a covered pan over very low heat. Serve hot.

Each of 6 servings: 155 calories; 1 gram protein; 14 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 11 grams fat; 7 grams saturated fat; 34 mg. cholesterol; 106 mg. sodium.

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Chard and saffron tart

Total time: About 2 hours, including rising and baking time

Servings: 6 to 8

Note: Adapted from "The Greens Cookbook" by Deborah Madison. This recipe calls for a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom.

Yeasted tart dough

1 teaspoon active dry yeast ( 1/2 package)

Pinch sugar

1 egg, at room temperature

About 1 1/4 cups

unbleached white flour,

divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 tablespoons creme fraiche

1. Dissolve the yeast and sugar in one-fourth cup warm water (105 to 115 degrees) and set it in a warm place.

2. If the egg is cold from the refrigerator, cover it with hot water and let it sit a few minutes to bring it up to room temperature. Combine 1 cup of the flour and the salt in a bowl and make a well. Break the egg into the middle of it; add the creme fraiche and pour in the yeast mixture, which should be foamy with bubbles. Mix everything together with a wooden spoon to form a smooth, soft dough, adding more flour as necessary. Dust it with flour, gather it into a ball, set it in a clean bowl and cover. Let the dough rise in a warm place, 45 minutes to an hour. If you are not ready to shape the dough at this time, punch it down and let it rise again.

3. Flatten the dough, place it in the center of the tart pan, and press it out to the edge using either your knuckles or the heel of your hand. Add only enough flour to keep the dough from sticking. If the dough shrinks back while you are shaping it, cover it with a towel, let it relax for 20 minutes, then finish pressing it out. It should be about one-fourth inch higher than the rim of the pan. It can be filled immediately or refrigerated until needed.

Chard and saffron tart

1 large bunch chard, enough to make 7 cups leaves, roughly chopped

1 tablespoon butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 large yellow onion, cut into 1/4 -inch dice

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

3/4 teaspoon salt

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups half and half

Large pinch saffron threads, soaked in 1 tablespoon hot water

1/2 teaspoon grated lemon peel

3 tablespoons freshly

grated Parmesan

Nutmeg

1 tablespoon chopped

parsley

Freshly ground black

pepper

3 tablespoons pine nuts

1 recipe yeasted tart

dough

1. Cut the chard leaves away from the stems and save the stems for another purpose. Chop the leaves into pieces roughly an inch square, wash them in a large bowl of water and set them aside in a colander.

2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. In a wide skillet, heat the butter and oil over medium heat; add the onion and cook it until it is translucent and soft, about 6 minutes. Add the garlic, the chard leaves (by handfuls, if necessary, until they all fit) and the salt. Turn the leaves over repeatedly with a pair of tongs so that they are all exposed to the heat of the pan and cook until they are tender, 5 minutes or more. When the chard mixture is cooled, squeeze out any excess moisture with paper towels.

3. To make the custard, beat the eggs, then stir in the half and half, infused saffron, lemon peel, grated Parmesan, a few scrapings of nutmeg and the parsley. Stir in the chard and onion mixture. Season with more salt, if needed, and freshly ground black pepper.

4. Toast the pine nuts in a small pan over medium heat until they are lightly colored, 2 minutes. Pour the filling into the tart shell and scatter the pine nuts over the surface. Bake until the top is golden and firm, about 40 minutes.

Each of 6 servings: 335 calories; 12 grams protein; 29 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 20 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 174 mg. cholesterol; 593 mg. sodium.

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