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Ventura County's crop clout is growing

Farmers are switching to more lucrative exotic produce, boosting the region's state ranking.

November 12, 2007|Catherine Saillant | Times Staff Writer

Some Ventura County farmers are ripping out acres of ho-hum orange groves that produced fruit crated off to supermarkets, and instead are planting lucrative crops such as strawberries, and designer pomelo and jujube orchards, that fetch good money from Los Angeles area foodies.

"We just got into the Santa Monica market," said Robin Smith, who along with her husband, Steve, uprooted half of their Valencia oranges six years ago. Now they also grow squash and other fruits and vegetables prized by gourmets. "We made more money on that one market than we do in the other three," she said, referring to farmers markets in Hollywood, Ojai and Santa Barbara.

Farmers such as the Smiths have brought a new level of clout to Ventura County's agricultural industry, which has jumped to No. 8 in the rankings among California counties that generated the most cash for their crops in 2006.

"When you're in the top eight, you're up there in the elite of California," Earl McPhail, Ventura County's agricultural commissioner, told the county's Board of Supervisors when the report was released last month. Values are compiled annually by the California field office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The new ranking showed that Ventura County farmers took in a combined $1.5 billion from crops, according to the statewide commodities report.

Their bounty raised the county a couple of notches above its previous rankings and past such farmland-rich regions as San Diego, Imperial, Kings and Madera counties.

McPhail attributes the surge to a shift in what is being grown on 2,000 farms stretching from the Oxnard Plain to Ojai. At family-run orchards and agribusiness giants, some orange groves have been torn out to make way for the more profitable strawberries, lemons and avocados.

Large nurseries from Los Angeles and Orange counties have been relocating to Ventura County, drawn by large highway-adjacent plots near Santa Paula and Moorpark. Even mom-and-pop operations are faring well, selling organic produce and exotic fruits at bustling farmers markets in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties.

The newfound luxury produce market has helped defy predictions of a death knell to Ventura County's farm industry, which is thriving more than a decade after voters enacted some of the toughest growth-control laws in the nation, subjecting new development outside urban borders to a public vote.

Voters in Ventura approved the landmark Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources initiatives in 1995. They were wildly popular, and within a few years had been adopted by every major city in the county and its unincorporated areas.

Many farmers bitterly opposed the restrictions, fearing that their land values would plummet, making it more difficult to take out crop loans. And they didn't like voters telling them what they could or couldn't do with their property, said Rex Laird, executive director of the Ventura County Farm Bureau.

There still is grumbling today, Laird said: "How would you like it if someone told you what kind of car to buy?"

Prime farmland in Ventura County fetches about $61,000 an acre, about $40,000 more per acre than in Fresno County, the state's No. 1 crop producer.

Farmers still are struggling to make a living, Laird said, despite producing record crops in terms of gross sales.

"Even if the gross dollars went up, it doesn't necessarily equate to a higher profit," he said. "It costs more to produce some of these crops."

Strawberries have quickly risen as a favored crop, Laird said. They bring in more money per acre than any other crop grown in the county, he said.

"We have historically produced more per acre here because of the incredibly rich soil and the weather," he said. "If you want to find weather like this, you'd have to go to the French coast of the Mediterranean."

The county's mild weather, along with rolling green hills and, yes, those verdant farm fields, make it a target for development, supporters of the SOAR growth-control laws say. SOAR put the brakes on development in agricultural zones while giving farmers assurance that agriculture would remain a viable industry, said county Supervisor Steve Bennett, co-founder of the SOAR organization.

"It gave them certainty that for an extended period of time, their zoning would not change," Bennett said. "So it made common sense to make the investments, whether in irrigation or in crops."

Bill Fulton, a land-use analyst and Ventura city councilman, said farmers have adjusted to restrictions by replanting fields and filling new market niches.

"Farming's a business and farmers always adapt," Fulton said. "And they are adapting in a very positive way. We are really going to see them go more and more in that direction in the future."

Development still is occurring, but it is taking place within urban limits spelled out by SOAR. In the last five years, hundreds of new homes have been built near Camarillo and Oxnard. Hundreds more are expected to go up once the housing market recovers from its slump.

The SOAR laws will start to expire in 2020, and proponents have made clear that they will push hard to see them renewed. Whether voters go along could depend, in part, on whether farming can remain a thriving business.

Steve Smith, who has farmed his Mud Creek Ranch through the advent of the SOAR movement, is vocal in his criticism of the restrictions put on him. He said he doesn't mind the hard work of farming, but said local residents have to do their part by buying local produce.

Without consumers' support, local agriculture will go under, he said.

"Anyone who voted for SOAR shouldn't buy their produce at the local Vons," he said. "That's just not right."

catherine.saillant@latimes.com

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