OUT WHERE Ventura Boulevard is just a country road, near Central Avenue in Camarillo, Phil McGrath farms 40 acres of Ventura County land his family has owned for generations. He sells his organic produce to restaurants and at farmers markets, but here beside the road he also has a farm stand -- a sophisticated, modern farm stand with a sturdy gable roof and handsome landscaping.
Is the farm stand making a comeback? In the days when large parts of Los Angeles and the surrounding counties were still semirural, farm stands were everywhere. But they were a lot less polished.
When I was growing up in Van Nuys, some of my neighbors would just pile up a couple of orange crates, set a plank on top and proceed to sell their apricots in the shade of an acacia tree. Pretty rustic, to be sure, but they were selling fully ripe 'cots, so soft they would never survive being sent to market, and people gladly drove out to buy.
That's how it was done before farmers markets. People who wanted really fresh, ripe produce simply loaded up on local stuff where it was grown.
It was a nice, direct way of doing things. At the time, though, farm stands were the only places in the state where people could legally buy produce directly from a farmer, and it often meant long drives.
Until the '70s, the law required California farmers to send any produce they weren't selling on their property to a packer to be sorted and inspected for standard quality.
The rationale was to keep bad farmers from harming the business of good ones -- and harming the reputation of California growers in general -- by selling low-quality produce (it was really about produce that was being shipped out of state, always a major part of our economy).
In 1976, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a package of "consumer reform" bills, one of which created a system of certified farmers markets where farmers could sell uninspected, unsorted "field run" produce, just as if they were at a farm stand on their own property.
As our population has continued to grow, farm acreage has steadily shrunk and the number of farm stands has declined. There are still some in Ventura County, especially around Ojai and on Telegraph Road (Highway 126) around Piru. Forneris Farms and Tapia Bros. still thrive in the San Fernando Valley, in Mission Hills and Encino, respectively.
In the Inland Empire, there are farm stands along Foothill Boulevard in Rancho Cucamonga and Ontario Avenue in Riverside, and the stand for South Coast Farms in San Juan Capistrano is the last in our area to offer the flavorful but fragile Chandler strawberry (as well as, in season, more than 40 varieties of fruits and vegetables).
"When I first came here in the '70s," says Mariann Zdralek, manager of the Underwood Family Farms stand in Somis, "there were farm stands everywhere. But some farmers sold their land for development and moved out, some started going to farmers markets. We go to 16 farmers markets ourselves." (Underwood also has a U-pick in Moorpark that features kiddie rides -- one way to diversify your market.)
Unfortunately, it has recently become harder to open a farm stand because of provisions in the new California Retail Food Code. "Since July 1 last year," McGrath says, "unless you are selling your own produce exclusively, your stand essentially has to be a miniature supermarket, with automatic doors, sealed windows and sanitized counters. If you can't make this kind of investment, you can't sell, say, local avocados and oranges raised by somebody else, or your neighbors' raspberries." McGrath is thinking of the raspberries grown by neighbors who lease the land from him. Raspberries really grown on his land, that is.
Legislation has been proposed to fix what experts say is an unintended consequence of the code provisions. And McGrath sees a bright future for farm stands and local produce generally.
"If fuel prices continue to rise," he says, "imported produce will be priced out of the market, just as our foreign markets will dry up. We may be forced to eat locally."