” One of the real values for local food – and I would love to see more – is it helps to connect our neighbors to the issues surrounding agriculture. If they are interested in what we do, and care about what we do, that’s probably to our benefit in the policy arena. If they don’t understand, or don’t care, it puts us as producers in a very bad place. Feed them and they will care.”
– Chris Sayer, farmer
Chris Sayer (@pettyranch) is a Ventura County farmer, a civic leader and a fixture on the local food and agricultural scene. He grew up working on Petty Ranch, a farm his family has operated since the 1870s…and which he now manages. In between his stints working and managing his family’s farm, he studied at Northwestern University, married attorney Melissa Sayer, flew anti-submarine aircraft in the United States Navy, raised two sons and recruited executives for Silicon Valley start-ups. During the process, he learned an important life lesson: produce in the grocery store is just never, ever as good as what you grow yourself.
Sayer grows lemons, avocados, specialty citrus, figs, and is a food entrepreneur. One of his recent projects is producing fig wine in partnership with a local winery. Sayer also serves on the board of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County.
Sayer is the author of Picking our Future: Essays on Food, Change and Farming, and blogs at Saticoy Roots.
Q: As a producer, you face many and varied challenges: water, regulations, market demand, and scale. Care to comment on some of these?
A: It’s a long and complex answer.
Water. In terms of water, we’re fortunate to farm in the Santa Paula basin, which is a managed groundwater and local watershed. There’s no state water. Our system is pretty efficient, but we’ll need to continue to improve.
One of the connections that came up with all of the recent coverage of water issues is that agriculture only represents 2% of California’s economy. But we provide 50% of fruits and nuts for the nation, and 25% of vegetables. That’s a good indicator of how low food prices are generally.
Some of the recent coverage about water issues in California reveals the potential of this drought to change the map. It certainly exposes some of the vulnerabilities of the California system. But then the other thing I think that people miss out on when talking about California agriculture is not just what we grow or where we grow. A large part of California agriculture is when we grow. Part of the reason we grow lemons in Ventura County is because we can grow them year around…and grow them efficiently. You will never see Iowa avocados. In theory, they could grow greenhouse avocados, but that might not pencil out. You could see Iowa strawberries…but not in January. There are opportunities for other states, and great for them if they jump on those.
Regulations. Cost and time are an issue, and it’s only getting worse. But the real issue with compliance is the ever-increasing complexity and need for expertise in such a broad range of areas. A farmer now needs to know land policy as well as the county regulators. They need to know estate law as well as their attorney does, tax planning as well as the IRS. It goes on. And the consequences for being wrong are only getting bigger. Contrary to stereotypes, farmers are often intelligent, educated and sophisticated… but nobody can be a master of that many subjects, and as the penalties for anything less than excellence in every area climb…it’s challenging.
Markets. A lot of the compliance requirements that farmers face come from the private sector, not from government. If you want to be able to market to the grocery chains, you must do X. To export to China, you must do Y. The push for one-size-fits-all food safety is coming from the private sector, and that’s transferring risk to growers.
Scale. This is tied to the previous answers. It’s hard to manage unless you can have separate plantings to suit the needs of different customers. It’s hard to comply without a compliance person. A one man, or small family operation will get increasingly difficult. There’s a long and distinguished history of predicting the end of farming in Ventura County. (My grandfather thought it might be railroads. Others have said factories). But the challenges continue to increase.
Q: What about Ventura County and local and regional food?
A: My observations and anecdotes? Local food has taken off best in places that have a couple of characteristics. They are poorly competitive in global agriculture for one thing. Some areas are better suited than others to large scale production, whether due to topography, climate, infrastructure, etc. Some areas weren’t able to compete as well, and started to drop behind in the 1950’s – 70’s.
Some of these areas are also close to a relatively affluent consumer base. When marginal, inexpensive farmland is close to eaters who can spend, you have the primary preconditions for a good local food scene. Some say the Hudson Valley is “too expensive” at $10k per acre. Land on [Ventura County’s] Oxnard plain is $70k an acre!
Local food traditions that provide an anchor also help drive a food culture: seafood, wine, BBQ.
A local case study: What part of Ventura County has the most marginal farmland and most affluent residents? Ojai.
Asheville and the Hudson Valley are doing great stuff. They have found a way to get out of that niche.
One of the real values for local food – and I would love to see more – is it helps to connect our neighbors to the issues surrounding agriculture. If they are interested in what we do, care about what we do, that’s probably to our benefit in the policy arena. If they don’t understand, or don’t care, it puts us as producers in a very bad place. Feed them and they will care.
Q: What do you see for Ventura County agriculture?
A: If I could predict that with accuracy, my kids would be very rich, one way or the other. The last time land changed hands in my family was in 1954, when my grandfather acquired some land with railroad frontage. Didn’t turn out to be important. We have a fantastic micro-climate in Ventura County. And I would say we have the best water situation you’re going to find in central and southern California; we’re somewhat independent of the rest of the state’s water issues. We have decent groundwater management practices in place. We’re in a part of California that’s feeling the drought the least, which is a result of geography and policy. It’s going to continue to be a very expensive place to do business and we’ll have a continued focus on high value crops.
Q: What should consumers know about farming?
A: American farmers in general, and Ventura County farmers in particular, can grow them whatever they want, however they want it grown. You want local organic barley of an heirloom varietal? No problem. But customization and complexity adds cost, and if the farmer can’t absorb those costs, he will fail.
I would love to grow olives for pressing or wine grapes… but I’ve tried running some numbers. If I do it perfectly from day one, and pick the right varietals, have no marketing or distribution problems, and massively increase my family’s debt to pay for it, I’ve got a 50-50 chance of still being in business 10 years from now. Farming is always a gamble, but you have to keep an eye on the odds.
Q: What we should be teaching kids about agriculture, and how?
A: In my mind, the best way to teach kids about agriculture would be garden-based activities. Get out, do the work, see sometimes that it fails. If the corn fails, and you get only two ears, that’s it. Don’t go to the store to make it up. If you were a farmer trying to make a mortgage on your agricultural enterprise, you’d experience that failure. Survive and try again next year.
There are many, many things people don’t understand about agriculture. One of the biggest is that people don’t understand the financial risk farmers assume. In the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed in some of the news articles and social media, lots of glib comments about farmers fallowing acres. People don’t have an understanding of the financial risks we assume.
Q: Like me, you’re an avid student of history. In what ways does the current narrative match that of the Progressive Era’s Country Life movement? Do farmers have a sense of “city” people telling them what to do?
A: I do see parallels. There’s a similar sense of idealism, that if only people would have enough faith, it would all work out. It’s perhaps long on enthusiasm, and short on pragmatic understanding. I’m afraid that I see some of the same happening with the veterans to farmer push…it seems like often the most enthusiastic proponents are neither. Idealists see farming as peaceful and restorative, but experience suggests that it can be one the most stressful occupations. People who don’t farm sometimes assume that anyone can farm, and perhaps farm better than the people currently farming. Is it surprising that farmers take issue with that assumption?
Q: How are you remaining competitive?
A: I’m exploring new crops that might take over for lemons and avocados. I’m always reinvesting in the soil…cover crops are important. I’m always trying to improve production and efficiency. I have a smaller margin of error these days. Most farmers do.
Q: What does the future hold for you?
A: You know that I’ve written a book. (Picking Our Future: Essays on Food, Change and Farming). I originally planned to work on a revision of the 2012 e-book for hard copy. As I work on it, I find it shifting. I may keep some of the essays, but tighten the focus to the unique nature of Ventura County agriculture. Thanks to Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman, and others, people have read a lot about the backbone of the American food system.
But Ventura County is one of the most important agricultural counties in the nation, and it is very poorly understood, even by our 800,000 county neighbors and policy makers. I’d like to try to help them understand what we do here and why it matters. There are some journalists like Russ Parsons (@Russ_Parsons1 – Los Angeles Times) and Lisa McKinnon (@805foodie – Ventura County Star) who absolutely get what’s going on here.
Q: You have two sons that are young adults. Do you expect either of them to join you in farming?
A: I don’t anticipate it. It is possible, but at this point, improbable. They have their own passions, their own interests, and they’re successful and happy doing so.
It’s a family and place-based profession. If you’re not born into it or marry into it, it’s hard to get into it. Tricky. I content myself with the idea that I’m creating the opportunity for my children or my nieces and nephews.