Growers were frank and honest with U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley about the most critical issues facing agriculture’s future in Ventura County at a round-table the congresswoman organized Thursday afternoon in Oxnard.
Brownley, D-Westlake Village, put together the event, inviting the state’s top agriculture official to Oxnard leafy greens grower San Miguel Produce Inc. to hear about those issues and talk about possible solutions.
“Agriculture is such an important industry for Ventura County,” Brownley said, that she wanted diverse growers to come together “to share and work together to ensure agriculture thrives in the county.”
Growers, local agriculture officials and the premier guest, California Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, agreed that while it was too late to save agriculture in Orange and Los Angeles counties, agriculture here is worth saving because of its untapped potential.
That untapped potential could be the increasing popularity of agritourism and culinary tourism, both Brownley and Ross feel, if stakeholders in the industry and the county can align on a similar vision.
But the most critical issues growers raised at the event — severe labor shortages, a lack of farmworker housing, pesticide restrictions and invasive species — may need to be dealt with first and survived.
The issues are not new, said strawberry grower Edgar Terry of Terry Farms in Oxnard. They’re just more severe, he said.
For producers of the county’s No. 1 crop, strawberries, central Mexico’s rapidly increasing acreage is becoming an increasingly serious issue, Terry said, as many of the big, local growers are expanding there.
According to the California Strawberry Commission in Watsonville, state strawberry acreage increased by 2,460 acres in 2013 to 40,200 acres, but acreage in central Mexico, which is still about half that of California, increased by almost 4,400 acres.
“They’re hedging their bets, and Mexico always had the presence of strawberries for years and years, but it’s growing much more rapidly now,” Terry said.
Labor shortages are probably the top issue facing the industry, according to the growers at the event.
While the problem is not limited to citrus and avocado growers, Leslie Leavens-Crowe, a partner in Leavens Ranches, which grows lemons and avocados in Santa Paula and Moorpark, told Brownley labor was “a real problem” this season.
Her business resorted to using the federal government’s guest worker program, the H-2A program, and shared workers with another grower. But having to comply with the program’s requirements to advertise locally for the jobs and provide food, housing, transportation and training for the workers cost $185 per worker and added $8 to $10 per harvested bin to the volume-based salary paid to workers.
While this was what they had to do for their orchards in Solidad in Monterey County, “we’re looking to do the same thing here, because labor is so, so tight,” Leavens said.
In fact, the business is considering buying an apartment building in Ventura County to house future workers, she said.
Building new housing is also a challenge, growers say, because of land costs and strict building codes.
“It’s important if we want to support our agriculture here. We need to solve that problem,” said Ed McFadden, manager of Rancho Simpatica in Fillmore.
Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales talked about the challenges of the urban interface in Ventura County, referring to agriculture and residential neighborhoods being side by side. He said there was “a disconnect” between the urban community and agriculture, demonstrated in the recent failed proposal to build a bike path would have run across Piru-area farm fields.
“That was the idea to bring in something very nice,” Gonzales said. He said it was a great idea, “but when you put that same bike path within agriculture fields, it doesn’t work there.”
Ross, who comes from the Northern California wine industry, told the growers and agriculture officials that according to the state’s travel and tourism commission, tourism brought in $106 billion in 2012, and $25 billion of that was due to foods and beverages. She referred to it as “culinary tourism.”
Agriculture in Ventura County could “spin off” on that, she said. Growers agreed, saying consumers’ focus on knowing where their food comes from presents an ideal chance for growers to market themselves.
“We do need a much stronger will for farmland conservation in the state because of all the benefits,” Ross said.
The county must expand on that agritourism idea, Brownley said, to capture that aspect of the industry and figure out how to make money from it. But there needs to be give and take on both sides, she added.
“Agriculture in Ventura County should be celebrated,” Brownley said. “All stakeholders in Ventura County have to come together on an agreed-upon vision of celebrating agriculture, and what we produce here, and making agritourism work here.”
Issues: 113th Congress