CAMARILLO — Natividad Zavala waited impatiently for months as his bosses prepped the 60-acre field, a former swamp that stretches alongside jagged hills just north of the Ventura Freeway.
Come October, the field looked ready and Zavala itched to get down to the grubby job of planting Conejo Ranch. But partners Craig Underwood, Jim Roberts and Minos Athanassiadis held off.
As always in the agonizingly uncertain world of agriculture, the ranchers strained to predict just the right moment to drop 100 million seeds into the waiting furrows.
The timing was complex, the stakes high.
If the farmers misjudged the planting season, they faced the prospect of plowing under tons of vegetables months down the road. If they missed the market's crest, prices could fall so low it wouldn't be worth hiring crews to pick their gourmet greens.
To juggle the ever-shifting variables, Roberts had designed a high-tech crystal ball: a computer program that spits out the number of acres he should plant of each crop on each field each week.
For Conejo Ranch, the green light finally flashed a few days before Thanksgiving.
The field was ready for its first seeds in 15 years. Nattie Zavala was ready, too.
"We'll be successful," he predicted. "When you're standing in front of something positive, you can feel it."
Round-faced and ever-smiling, a man who keeps photos of his eight children in his pickup, Zavala has never tired of watching things grow.
"I give life to the earth and the vegetables, and they give life back to me," he said, shyly testing his sturdy English before diving with relief into Spanish. "When you work with your heart, you get good returns."
Soon, Zavala will get to test his philosophy.
The first Conejo Ranch crop is already peeping out of tidy furrows, and should be ready for harvest within two months. A sprinkling of exotic greens--Japanese \o7 mizuna,\f7 Chinese \o7 tatsoi\f7 and Italian arugula--will get tossed into Underwood Ranches' Sweet Petite bagged salads.
The baby bok choy and turnips will end up in Southern California restaurants. And the four fancifully named radish varieties--Easter egg, French breakfast, white icicle and long red Italian--will be sold at Underwood Ranches' produce stand in Somis.
"Many people wouldn't like to work in the dirt all day," planting supervisor Zavala said. "But I think there's no such thing as ugly work if a man wants to do it."
For their "work in the dirt," the field hands earn about $6.92 an hour, with two weeks annual paid vacation and health insurance. Top supervisors can make close to twice that. As for the Underwood partners, they pull in about $70,000 a year.
While his field hands tend to the day-to-day work, Jim Roberts patrols the land and tries to figure out, in his words, "how to manipulate nature a bit without spending too much money or harming the environment."
He starts by analyzing the soil on each field--digging 20 or so holes and sending samples to a laboratory for a nutrient check. If nitrogen, potassium or some other key element is lacking, he tailors a fertilization program to bring the soil into healthy balance.
It's science with a strong dose of magic.
"When you're dealing with soil in a lab, it's pretty easy to quantify," Roberts said. "But in a field, everything's a whole lot bigger than we can really understand. No one knows why a lot of this stuff works."
On his crops, Roberts uses half a dozen synthetic chemicals that put him at odds with organic farmers. But he can't determine how to wean his fields from the man-made stuff and still turn a profit.
When he refrains from spraying herbicide on lettuce and beet crops, Roberts says, he has to send in teams to handpick the weeds--at a cost of about $500 an acre, 10 times the price of a chemical application. If he skips commercial fertilizer, his plants may turn yellow in the summer, making them unfit for use in the gourmet salad mix.
Roberts recognizes that he and fellow farmers "have tended to back the chemical industry too much." But still, he argues, "You can't say everything made by man is bad."
Indeed, the weed-killing Dacthal and pest-zapping Lorsban, two chemicals used on Conejo Ranch just after planting, have been proved safe over decades of use.
Dacthal is "as close to a nontoxic pesticide as you can find," said Veda Federighi, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Pesticide Regulation. The chemical is so benign, she said, that scientists testing its potency by feeding it to rats found it nearly impossible to kill the lab animals, no matter how much Dacthal they fed them.
As for Lorsban, it is commonly used in home gardens, and some pet owners rub it on their dogs to kill fleas, Federighi said.
Roberts tried to talk a bit about pesticides when 60 second-graders from a Malibu elementary school recently stampeded onto Underwood Ranches on a field trip. But the screaming, skipping youngsters were more interested in picking produce.
As they tore through the fields, stuffing bags with farm-fresh booty, the schoolchildren whooped a steady chant: "Carrots! Carrots! Carrots!"
"I like the sound of that," Roberts said, grinning and chucking his mutt, Roy, a raw ear of corn. "That's our future generation of customers."