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?
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.
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.”