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Roadside Stands Have Joined the Fast Lane

In Ventura County, they're an important sideline for many growers and have flowered into a big business for some.

March 16, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

It's not exactly how Edgar Terry saw himself pushing produce when he started farming two decades ago. But with his strawberry crop coming on strong, he decided to join the legions of local growers who hit the road to hawk their harvests.

Along with his wife, Martha, Terry opened a roadside fruit stand on Valentine's Day, selling strawberries six days a week at the family's east Ventura farm.

"I never thought I'd be growing strawberries, let alone opening a fruit stand," the fourth-generation grower said. "We just thought it would be a fun thing to do. And it helps promote what we're doing out here on the farm."

More than 50 produce stands dot the area's agricultural landscape, holding up traditions that run deep in Ventura County and putting the freshest and most natural face on an industry increasingly squeezed by suburban sprawl.

The county's first produce stands date back more than half a century, simple stalls designed to operate seasonally and help farmers sell excess produce. Many were the equivalent of old-fashioned lemonade stands, where a farmer's kid could earn some pocket change by peddling oranges or melons in the summer or after school.

But they have evolved into big business for some growers, providing a direct-marketing lifeline in the face of rising costs and retail consolidation.

They also highlight the best of what Ventura County has to offer, serving as a source for fruit baskets at Christmas, flowers at Easter and sweet corn on the Fourth of July.

"If you talk about agriculture in general, [produce stands] provide a pretty small impact to the farm economy," said farmer Craig Underwood, who operates two stands in the county. "But it has a pretty good impact on guys like us who are just trying to keep a small farm operating."

Underwood has had a front-row view of the evolution.

He launched his first stand in Somis in 1980, then partnered nine years ago with another grower to open the Tierra Rejada Family Farm near Moorpark.

Both operations have grown substantially. And both have pushed the envelope and changed perceptions of what produce stands could be.

In addition to local produce, both businesses feature petting zoos and other farm-themed amusements to attract and entertain families. The Tierra Rejada farm also offers a pick-your-own-produce operation, school tours and an annual fall harvest festival and pumpkin patch.

Underwood estimates that the operations, along with the farm's other direct-marketing efforts, now account for a quarter of the company's business.

"It's pretty hard to get people to take a special trip unless there's something more than fresh produce," Underwood said. "We'll always have that, but it's not enough anymore."

County regulators say they have attempted to keep pace with the evolving industry, including making changes in zoning laws in the mid-1990s that allowed for the emerging mix of agriculture and entertainment, sometimes dubbed agri-tourism.

There are still seasonal operations, especially this time of year, when strawberry season shifts into high gear and produce stands sprout like green beans. But planners say many of the stands are year-round operations, where farmers offer their own crops and those of other growers.

"Farmers are looking to be as profitable as they can be, and direct marketing of their produce has become an important income stream," said Todd Collart, manager of the county's zoning department. "We've allowed a good amount of flexibility to stay in line with the industry's needs and promote local agriculture."

Although that may be true, agricultural officials say there are still challenges facing the industry.

Rex Laird, executive director of the county farm bureau, said concerns remain about stands that primarily sell produce from outside the county, working against efforts to support local agriculture.

Laird said he also worries that the push toward agri-tourism could drown out the message aimed at ensuring that the county's billion-dollar farm industry continues to hold its own against urbanization.

"They are obviously extremely popular," Laird said. "My concern is that we not turn agriculture into a movie set and that people not lose sight of what this industry is really about."

The drive along California 126 could easily provide a movie-set backdrop. Tucked among the fragrant orange groves of the Santa Clara Valley, the produce stands that dot this scenic highway are among the county's oldest and most popular.

The roadway is lined with signs hawking honey and almonds, juicy oranges and fresh-picked pink grapefruit. One stand sells cactus. Another, weeks old and housed in a big red barn, sells flowers from Oxnard and strawberries from Fillmore.

Former farm worker Manuel Cornejo is believed to have been the first to set up shop along this stretch, selling corn and then oranges in the 1970s near Fillmore. Today, his family runs two popular stands, Cornejo's Produce and Francisco Fruits.

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