“Farmland should be as integral to a community as a fire station or a school.”
– Phil McGrath, Ventura County Farmer
The UC Food Observer loves talking to farmers. One of her favorites is Phil McGrath, who farms just down the road from where she lives.
Phil is the fourth generation of his family to farm on the Oxnard Plain in Ventura County (the fifth and sixth generations are on the way). Phil regards farming in this area as “a dream” and says there is nothing better for him, especially when it comes to organic farming. Phil serves on the Ventura County Farm Bureau board. He’s also a member of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. An innovator, he was part of the group that started a Farm to School program in Ventura County and is also part of a pilot program designed to develop a local food hub. Phil’s true passion is farm education. For twenty-five years he has conducted farm tours with elementary, high school and college classes. He can often be found hosting agricultural delegations from all over the world.
The McGrath Family Farm is located 55 miles north of downtown Los Angeles and 25 miles south of Santa Barbara. The farm is split by U.S. 101 (a major freeway)…yes, a freeway runs through it. Eighty-five percent of the 300 acres is certified organic. Phil’s 30-acre direct marketing operation consists of farmer markets, a roadside market and a CSA. Phil sells to many restaurants in Southern California. The McGrath Farm legacy in Oxnard is diverse. It started with cattle ranching (1860s to the 1920s) and has included dairy farming (up to the late 1940s). The McGraths also grew crops historically important to Ventura County, including lima beans and sugar beets, until the late 1960s. Since that time, there has been a focus on row crops.
[Editor’s Note: There is a brief history of the McGrath’s operations on the farm’s website. We’ve also hyperlinked to a blog post by Ventura County farmer Chris Sayer about his sugar beet project. Both are fascinating reads.]
When the UC Food Observer chatted with Phil, he was holding the farm’s iconic companion rabbit on his lap. When asked how he was, he offered his usual, sunny response: “…everything couldn’t be better.” #optimist
Q: As a producer, you face many and varied challenges: water, regulations, market demand, scale and location. In your case, your location – on U.S. 101 – brings with it the additional threat of urban encroachment. Care to comment on some of these things?
Phil: All of these issues are critical to our farm right now. Water is four times more expensive than it was four years ago, if you still have access. Environmental and urban issues have restricted farming to a degree that many farmers feel very limited; we have fewer and fewer options. Market demand means most Ventura County agricultural products are exported. Because of global marketing issues, it’s nearly impossible to compete with products from Mexico and South America.
Land use policy is a very critical issue for us right now. Since the fifties, we’ve lost over 400 acres to eminent domain from the federal, state, county and city governments. Our farm is bordered on three sides by development; we have a freeway running through the middle of it. Twenty years ago, half of our farm along the freeway was placed by the county in a development restriction with no input or choice of our own in an attempt to save farmland. This may save farmland, but it doesn’t save farming or farmers.
My family has been farming here since the 1860s. Urban encroachment is a real threat to us. I have a pretty strong view on the Save Open-Space and Agricultural Resources initiatives in Ventura County (SOAR) and saving farmland.
Q: How can we save farmland?
Phil: The way to save farmland is the way it has sometimes been done in Europe and in some places on the East Coast. Development rights are bought, not taken. This way it’s a win-win situation for both sides. The community maintains what it wants…and the farmer gets to keep farming and realize the value of his/her land. Our family is heavily involved with estate planning right now. Because of restrictions placed on our proposals for land divisions for the heirs, we could not do it the way we had envisioned. Our options are very limited now.
Q: You were on the vanguard of the local food movement. What was that like? What changes have you seen? What’s working better for you? What’s worse?
Phil: We’ve certainly seen more policy change for sourcing local. I am on the Los Angeles Food Policy Council (LAFPC). It is such an honor to be around 35-40 other people that set policy now in Los Angeles County and the City of Los Angeles for local food purchasing in schools and county/city agencies. The group came up with the Good Food Purchasing Procurement Initiative all throughout Los Angeles County and the city. It has now formed its own center. The group is working with large cities like Chicago, Detroit, New York and is getting other cities on board with local food procurement.
I got lucky with the growth in farmers markets in the 1980s and then in the 1990s by connecting with chefs. The chefs have elevated the local food movement to another degree. Chefs are all about making good food and stress local and in season foods. For Santa Barbara and Ventura County, local food is a no-brainer. The Ventura County Farm to School collaborative is going to be the way we get local food to kids here.
But it doesn’t work that way for wholesale agriculture in the region. In Ventura and Santa Barbara counties we export so much of what we grow. It’s what global marketing has evolved to. Land values and rents are astronomical here. Companies like Dole and Sunkist know where the highest markets are…and that’s where our products go. It’s the bottom line for the farmer here in Southern California: we need exports to survive. But I don’t think it’s sustainable.
With climate change and concern about the carbon footprint, with so many uncertainties in world economies, one small ripple in any of the many factors needed for global marketing and it shuts down. America imports much of its food. This needs to change. We grow clean, fair food here. It will be more expensive to the consumer in the short run. But in the long run, it will be cheaper because in your lifetime, your health care will be cheaper.
Q: What else is changing?
Phil: The international interest in local and organics is booming. Recently, I had forty visitors from China. They were agricultural commissioners and health professionals; high-ranking public officials. These visitors are interested in learning about farming organic and selling local. And what comes to mind for me is the picture of smog in Beijing that’s making its way around the Internet. Every week there are visitors at my farm from all over the world. And they want health, nutrition and sustainable farming in their areas.
I’m proud to use the term “sustainable” in relationship to my farming operation. It’s great we’re talking about it. Everyone’s got a different idea about what “sustainable” is. I like the work that Roots of Change is doing in this area. I also think that Ventura County has a lot to add to the national and international conversation about sustainability. We have generated many innovative farming practices here. We’re very close to Los Angeles, yet we’ve sustained farming here.
Q: What about the drought?
Phil: Some land we own [leased out] hasn’t been farmed in over a year. I’ve got a tenant telling me he can’t afford the water. It’s the worst drought in our history and I don’t think people quite grasp this yet. The ground and water are saltier, farmers are doing every possible water efficiency technique there is…there’s not much left for us to do in that respect. And it’s still a huge problem. The bills are increasing and the yields are decreasing. I’m also seeing more soil diseases than I ever have. We’ve got more pests than ever before with new invasive species emerging. Monoculture sets this up and the drought just compounds it.
I grew up in a different time, when farming was more diversified. We grew walnuts, lemons, broccoli, tomatoes and many other things. It was a different world. We can learn much from the past.
Q: What should consumers know about farming?
Phil: I’m not here to try to change any farmers’ mind about what he or she is doing. I am not here to criticize. We all face similar challenges and we do whatever it takes to survive. I’m here to try to change demand. If consumers demand more locally and sustainably grown products, it will change supply. But consumers also need to be willing to pay a premium for local sustainable food. We need to know the true cost of food and how food is grown and where it is distributed.
More and more consumers are asking where they can find locally grown food. I’d love to see the food hub model become more prevalent. Farmland should be as integral to a community as a fire station or a school. Farms should be included in city planning. The idea of a food commons is appealing to me. Ventura County is so strategically placed; the county could really enhance the goal of local distribution to Southern California. I would love to see it happen here.
What is really needed is a societal change. And it’s not just doing one thing, it’s doing a number of things. And I think that ultimately, the biggest drivers for local and sustainable food demand will be the desire to improve health – human and environmental – and nutrition. The price of food will be more expensive in this model, but consumers will demand it be cleaner, too. And consumers will demand more equity, which means farm workers may make more money, which would be a good thing.
Editor’s Note: I’ve previously written about Phil and Will Allen (Growing Power); you can read that post here. To see Phil’s operation, check out this video, produced by the Ventura County Farm to School collaborative.