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Not All the Produce at Stands Is Home-Grown : Roadside vendors often have to rely on the downtown L.A. complex, depending on the season and the crop.


Given the abundance of agriculture in Ventura County, roadside stand shoppers may be surprised to learn that much of the produce offered at these outlets isn't grown locally.

Instead, local farmers and roadside stand operators say it's likely you'll be purchasing goods that were transported into the county from the Los Angeles Produce Market.

Typically, there are three kinds of roadside proprietors: those who offer their own wares exclusively; a combination of home-grown and purchased-elsewhere-veggies; and others, who stock only what they have acquired from wholesalers.

The about 50 roadside outlets in Ventura County--found mainly in unincorporated areas--vary from those that offer a full selection of produce, to the seasonal strawberry and citrus stands.

Craig Underwood, co-owner of Underwood Ranches and the popular Underwood Ranches Produce Stand in Somis, said outlets that offer a wide variety of produce are forced to purchase some of their goods from out-of-area brokers.

"We grow the majority of our produce sold at the stand," Underwood said. "But we also bring in a lot of produce from the L. A. market when it is out of season here."

And as rich an agricultural area as Ventura County is, many products still just aren't commercially grown here.

"The L. A. market is an easy place to consolidate," Underwood said. Besides, he added, "there aren't any major produce terminals in Ventura County."

The Los Angeles produce terminal--located in the downtown area--is a massive complex bustling with buyers and sellers, most of whom do brisk business in the wee hours of the morning.

Much of the produce is trucked in from around the country, and daily flights from around the world also arrive with produce bound for the terminal.

Grocery chains, restaurateurs and others come here to fulfill their fruit and vegetable needs, said James Barker, manager of the Underwood Ranches stand.

"I leave about 2:30 in the morning and get back with the goods at about 10:30," Barker said, adding that he travels twice weekly to Los Angeles. "You haggle for the best price you can get."

Local grower Don Reeder, former president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau, said farmer-to-consumer roadside stand prices are generally better than grocery stores or stands that offer wholesale-purchased goods.

"There's a minimum 45% markup in grocery stores by the time produce travels from the grower to the packinghouse, to the wholesaler, distributing center and then to the stores," Reeder said. "You've cut out the middleman."

Besides a business acumen, stand owners who purchase produce at the L. A. Produce Market also need to know what they're looking at: Is it fresh? Is it high quality?

"You have to be real selective what you buy," Barker said, "because some of the stuff may have been in a holding tank for several days."

So can consumers feel confident that they're getting quality goods and reasonable prices if they purchase from one of the many roadside outlets that buy from downtown Los Angeles?

"The answer depends on the product that you are buying," said Ventura lemon farmer Bob Tobias, who used to operate a local stand.

"If the fruit or vegetable is grown in the county, then you are probably getting a fresher, higher-quality product than retail."

If it is something not grown in the county, Tobias said, it's possible that the produce won't be as fresh.

That's not to say that quality produce isn't available at the L. A. market. It most certainly is, local sources say. But an important point is: Product quality depends largely on the person doing the buying.

"If you go into a stand and you see nice, neat displays and everything is well cared for, you can assume they have been careful about what they buy," Underwood said. "That's just a good general business philosophy."

According to Bob Williamson, a manager within the Ventura County environmental health division, roadside stands in past years were monitored for quality control. "That isn't the case anymore because of less people out in the field. Now it's a low priority."

Nonetheless, Williamson said consumers still can be generally confident when purchasing from roadside stands.

"We haven't received any complaints about a stand in recent memory," he said. "If we did, we'd be right out."

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