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Almost paradise

One family farm is showing the way to sustainability, an acre at a time.

December 06, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

AS pieces of land go, this one is a beauty: 300 acres right on Highway 101 between Camarillo and Ventura. Less than half a mile away, shoppers are fingering fine cashmere sweaters at the Barneys New York outlet store. Just across the highway, others are choosing their holiday accessories at a giant Harley-Davidson dealership.

And in a bare-bones shed not 20 yards from the roaring freeway, farmer Phil McGrath is daydreaming while he helps sort vegetables -- candy-colored red, golden, white and striped beets; chards so bright they look like they're lighted from within; a dozen kinds of lettuce; rustic-looking winter squash; and humble but historically significant lima beans.

Just back from Terra Madre, the biannual conference on sustainable farming held in Turin, Italy, by the nonprofit organization Slow Food International, McGrath is letting his imagination run. Although most people looking at this lovely plot of land would dream about building stores, restaurants and hotels, the silver-haired 54-year-old is imagining a farm village.

And though that may sound far-fetched given the fantastic nature of the real estate involved, because it's his family's land, it just could happen.

As McGrath walks the ground sketching out his ideas, you can almost see his dream taking shape. In fact, many of the elements are already in place.

Here would be a produce stand, on the same spot as the one his family ran for 25 years -- but this time everything would be grown on site. Here would be a classroom to teach students about agriculture -- a 70-year-old one-room schoolhouse has been moved onto the site and is being refurbished to house it. Maybe it could include a museum of the history of Ventura County farming, much of it written by his ancestors.

At the back of the property there is a composting project that transforms green waste from Los Angeles and Ventura counties, paper mulch from Procter & Gamble and coffee grounds from Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf stores. McGrath would also like to find a spot for a biodiesel refinery to turn some of the plant waste into fuel.

He envisions housing units for farm workers. And there would be rooms for interns who come to the farm to study organic agriculture. Scattered around the property might be some high-end accommodations to attract curious urbanites on vacation -- like a farming dude ranch.

Would a petting zoo be too much?

Fifth generation

MCGRATH has a hundred ideas, but all of them focus on one thing: keeping McGrath Family Farms alive. Four generations of McGraths have farmed on the Oxnard Plain beginning in 1871, and he is willing to do whatever he can to make sure it reaches the fifth, and even beyond.

It's all about sustainability, says McGrath, clad in a fleece-lined denim jacket against the morning's damp chill. The latest buzzword in our ongoing debate over where our food comes from and how it is grown, sustainability is more of an overarching philosophy than a specific set of rules.

There is a National Campaign for Sustainable Agriculture, a nonprofit advocacy group with chapters nationwide, and the University of California has a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program. McGrath has been active in both, serving on committees and speaking at conferences.

Sustainable farming is based on three general principles: environmental responsibility, social equity and economic viability. Or, as McGrath puts it, "taking care of your land, taking care of your workers and making enough money that you can keep your farm going for the next generation."

There are no hard-and-fast rules about how you get these things done. Though McGrath's farm is certified organic, he's not so sure even that's necessary to be sustainable. In fact, the sustainability movement explicitly recognizes the possibility of responsible, minimal chemical use.

And although McGrath tries to treat his workers well -- all 15 are full-time employees and they earn as much as $17 an hour -- he admits that pay still falls short of a living wage, particularly in pricey Ventura County.

But while some might see the lack of specificity as a shortcoming, it could also help the sustainability movement avoid the internecine battles that have plagued organics, which started with similarly broad, community-connected goals before focusing on the single issue of chemical use.

"Organic is great, but you can be organic and still be a really [bad] farmer," says McGrath, who sometimes speaks in the mind-blown wondering tones of the surfer dude he once was.

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