YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Agriculture Gives Fair Patrons Food for Thought


In the shadow of the midway at the Ventura County Fair, tucked behind the cinnamon roll wagon and the corn dog concession, agriculture is making the most of its once-a-year chance to show off.

This is the county's oldest and most prominent industry, and it's here--during this annual celebration of the community's roots--where fair-goers can get a clear strong sense of the county's agricultural past and the promise of its farming future.

Displays by old-line ranchers and cutting-edge growers compete for space inside a cavernous Quonset hut. In one corner, Mike Nunez of Oxnard-based Mission Produce enthusiastically explains the nutritional value of avocados to anyone who will listen. Nearby, Linda Hardison Sloan, a board member of the Ventura County Cattlemen's Assn., talks up the importance of protecting agricultural lands.

There are displays by agriculture giants such as Oxnard-based Gills Onions, the nation's largest year-round fresh onion processor, and smaller ventures such as Tierra Rejada Family Farm, a 65-acre pick-your-own-produce operation near Moorpark.

There is even a blue-ribbon exhibit, by Beylik Family Farms in Fillmore, touting the developing science--known as hydroponics--of growing crops without soil.

"You only need to come in here to know that agriculture is alive and well in Ventura County," said Susan Kleine, a former college agriculture instructor who has overseen the farm exhibits at the fair for 21 years.

"Despite all the challenges, it's still a very viable industry," she said. "This gives us the opportunity to tell our story, answer questions and let people know their food comes from farming, not from the grocery store."

It's a message that they would like to extend well beyond the fair's 12-day run.

Although agriculture may no longer be the county's largest employer or its biggest moneymaker, growers and ranchers are trying hard to show that it remains the heart and soul of Ventura County.

More than a century after the first lima beans and sugar beets poked out of the food-rich topsoil of the Oxnard Plain, the industry is stronger than ever, topping $1 billion in revenue for the first time last year, with strawberries and lemons leading the charge.

Some 2,400 growers produce hundreds of crops, from alfalfa to zucchini, on 112,000 acres of some of the most fertile farmland in the nation.

In fact, Ventura County is among the top 10 agricultural producers in California, a state that leads the nation in farm production. And local farmland is more productive than ever, yielding an average $8,687 per harvested acre in 1998, a 75% increase over the yield of a decade earlier.

Agriculture puts more than 16,000 people to work each year, accounting for about 6% of all wage and salary jobs in the county.

Beyond those economic measures, the industry has been bolstered in recent years by new laws and policies--greenbelt agreements and farmland preservation measures--that greatly restrict development on vast stretches of the county's best agricultural land.

While those actions have raised new issues, such as whether farmers should be compensated for what many consider the loss of development rights, there is widespread agreement that the majority of local operations are in position to stay in business for years to come.

"This is our life; this is complete dedication to a lifestyle," said Linda Sloan, who with her husband, Bud, owns a 4,700-acre cattle ranch in Aliso Canyon near Santa Paula. "I think agriculture in Ventura County is holding on strong and I think we have the support of the community."

That doesn't mean there isn't cause for concern.

With prices fluctuating and production costs increasing, many farmers, especially smaller family operations, are finding it harder than ever to stay afloat. Growers and ranchers also face a host of other challenges, from increased foreign competition and mounting conflicts with suburban neighbors to the arrival of new crop-destroying pests and public outcry over pesticide use.

Earl McPhail, the county's agricultural commissioner, said the public need only look at this year's crop of navel oranges, for which prices slumped so badly that growers were giving away their bounty, to understand that farming can be a risky business.

In keeping with this year's fair theme, "Visions of Tomorrow," McPhail devoted his office's display to exploring some of the major issues confronting agriculture.

"Agriculture in Ventura County is as strong as it has ever been," said McPhail, who serves on the fair's board of directors. "I see the industry being viable well into the future. It may not look exactly the way it does now, but agriculture has always been an evolving industry."

Nowhere is the evolution more evident than at the county fair.

The annual event was launched 125 years ago to showcase the community's finest livestock and produce. Though such exhibits are now part of a much wider mix, agriculture continues to be a driving theme.

Los Angeles Times Articles