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Ventura County

Small Farmers Plot Strategy

Up against big agribusiness and other pressures, Ventura County growers gather to share ideas on what yields success.

November 19, 2002|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Ventura grower Phil McGrath knows all about the challenges facing the small farmer.

Between the competition with corporate growers and the headaches involved in getting his produce to market, the fifth-generation family farmer says it was getting harder each year to keep his 23-acre operation afloat.

That's why he carved a niche as an organic farmer a decade ago and threw himself headlong into direct marketing, selling his goods to local restaurants and at farmers markets and roadside stands.

"You really can survive on a small scale," McGrath told other farmers Monday at the 17th Annual California Small Farm Conference in Ventura.

"My whole theme is keep it fresh and keep it local," he said. "If you grow on 23 acres and deliver directly, you can make it work."

That message resonated loud and strong on the first full day of the conference at the Holiday Inn.

The event, which drew nearly 600 participants, featured workshops on everything from record-keeping to agri-tourism, a combination of agriculture and entertainment that many farmers are turning to in order to see a profit.

Will Stockwin, who is handling publicity for the conference, said the annual event provides valuable support to small farmers, especially at a time when the state is losing 1,200 of them a year.

California has an estimated 60,000 small farms, which gross $1,000 to $250,000 a year, according to UC Davis.

"The focus of this conference is to keep small farmers on their land and prospering," Stockwin said. "We can't afford to keep losing these people, because at some point we're going to look around and wonder who is growing all our food."

The conference, held annually at various locations throughout the state, had plenty of local flavor.

It featured a panel discussion on the effect on Ventura County agriculture of a series of slow-growth measures adopted by voters around the county in recent years.

That movement, known as SOAR, has been aimed at preserving farmland and other open space. But many in the agricultural industry argue that it forces growers to keep farming long after it is profitable, because it makes it difficult to sell farmland.

The conference also showcased work done by the Ag Futures Alliance -- made up of family farmers, environmentalists, farm worker advocates and other disparate interests -- to keep the county's agriculture industry alive and well.

Those efforts helped spur new legislation, signed in September by Gov. Gray Davis, giving agricultural officials more power to regulate pesticide applications near schools.

"It's critically important to get together to discuss the issues facing all of agriculture, but especially those facing small farmers," said Larry Yee, head of the county's UC Cooperative Extension and moderator of the Ag Futures panel.

"I think Ventura County is on the forefront of a lot of these issues, and we have been experimenting with a lot of different ways to resolve them," Yee said. "It's fortuitous to have this opportunity to show and share some of the things we have been involved with."

During a morning workshop, Ojai organic grower Steve Sprinkel shared with dozens of growers his secret for capturing a share of the market. Along with partner Olive Chase, he opened a small organic store and cafe three years ago in Meiners Oaks and now sells directly to his customers.

Sprinkel, who has been farming since the 1960s, said that not only is he able to sell what he grows on six acres in the Ojai Valley, but he is able to push other local produce as well at his shop, The Farmer and The Cook.

No more worries about shipping, no worries about corporate competition.

"Pretty much everything I grow I'm able to market because I designed it that way," he said. "I think this can happen locally in a lot of places."

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