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You are what you eat

A foodies’ guide to regional produce

By Michael Sullivan 03/15/2012

A mother was talking to her daughter one day and asked her, “Do you know where apples come from?” The daughter responded, “Of course, Mommy! The grocery store!”

It’s not uncommon for youngsters to be clueless about the process from field to fork, but many adults also have no idea where the fruits and vegetables come from when bought at grocery markets; nor do they have an understanding about what is being grown right here in Ventura County. The region’s $1.9 billion ag industry put Ventura County as No. 8 among California counties in total crop value in 2009, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and No. 10 in the United States.

While there is a good chance that during certain seasons county residents will be eating produce grown locally when purchased at area grocers, the process of tracking strawberries grown in Oxnard or lemons from Santa Paula to our homes is complicated, to say the least. As many ag experts in the area have said, the best way to know you are eating locally grown produce is to purchase fruits and vegetables at farmers markets. But not everyone has the opportunity to go shopping at very specific times once a week at the local farmers markets. So in a mission to track our local produce to our homes, various area growers have explained that in order to find it, look at the label.

Product of California

When perusing pints of strawberries, mounds of lemons or packages of raspberries, if you want to eat local, look for “Product of California” on those small round stickers with bar codes. Any product with such a label guarantees that it is at least from California, versus any other country, such as Mexico being a big ag producer. While these stickers will typically indicate the company that contracted with the retail grocer, it doesn’t necessarily mean that that company actually farmed those fruits and vegetables. The names Dole, Driscoll and Natural Ripe may ring a bell, but many times these large companies have contracted with smaller farms.

There are 2,437 farms in Ventura County, according to the most recent Census of Agriculture, conducted by the National Agricultural Statistics Service in 2007. Some of these farmers deal directly with such grocers as Vons, Trader Joe’s and even Walmart, though many go with the bigger companies who then deal with the numerous retailers. And if you purchase fruit during the county’s regular harvesting seasons, then there is a good possibility that fruit and vegetables picked locally have worked their way from the farm to the shippers to retailers’ central shipping warehouses and back to nearby grocery markets.

The variables of farming

Matt Conroy of Conroy Farms in Oxnard knows strawberries — Ventura County’s highest-grossing farm product. On his family’s farm of 115 acres, which he said was small in comparison to those of big companies like Driscoll, he ordered 4.3 million plants this season, which are typically hand-planted. (The Farm Bureau reported the average size for area farms is 106 acres.) The work begins in October and the harvest starts in January and lasts several months. While he said that he doesn’t know the number of strawberries picked, in pounds or tons, since he works in measures of boxes — pints, 1 pound and larger — a good day, he said, is to get 100 boxes. But that is all variable since the boxes come in different sizes. Early in the season, the fruit hits the stands fresh; and toward the end, strawberries wind up as juice or canned berries. Getting averages is difficult because farming can be rather unpredictable.

“So much varies year to year,” Conroy said. He couldn’t state yearly statistics on water use or even how much fumigants he needed because so much depends on the weather. But he knew how many checks he had to sign for a recent harvest period — 230. That includes pickers, shippers and so forth.

Strawberries are just the tip of the Ventura County ag market. Strawberries make up one-quarter of the $1.9 billion industry, per the 2010 Ventura County ag report. Celery, lemons, raspberries, avocados and tomatoes are the next-highest grossing farm products, ranging between $120 million and $175 million in gross revenues.

A much more complicated area of the ag industry is nursery stock, which has so many different sizes and species of plants, the ag report would grow exponentially just to cover the basics. Nursery stock is just as valuable to the local ag industry as lemons or raspberries — it grossed $180 million in 2010.

Slow and steady — the business of growing

When driving through town, it’s hard to imagine the amount of time and energy that it took to create the surrounding green environment. Though many people tend to look at trees as longstanding pieces of nature, the fact of the matter is, many trees have been hand-planted. So have the bushes, the grass and the flowers. These plants and trees, however, didn’t just spring up out of the ground, though some may argue that’s exactly where they came from. Every planted bush, shrub, flower or tree started from a seed somewhere, and that’s where our local nursery stock farmers come in. If you are curious about where some of the region’s stoic oaks or sycamores sprang up from, chances are pretty good they began at a local nursery.

Robert Crudup of Valley Crest Tree Company doesn’t relate to most farmers. Most farmers stick to one crop and go through a cycle of a few months to a year. Crudup said he may plant a seed and not harvest it for a decade. But that’s the way of his business — a wholesale grower of large trees.

Valley Crest does a lot of work locally, though when the construction industry took a hit, so did the tree company. Crudup has seen a lot of changes in the last 50 years his company has been in business. With Ventura County’s ideal Mediterranean climate, more nursery owners have come into the area to capitalize on the good weather. But still his business remains viable, shipping his trees to commercial, multifamily and high-end residential projects throughout Southern California, and in Arizona and Las Vegas.

While the most popular species include native oaks, native sycamores and olive trees, he has more than 250 types and sizes of trees. His inventory list isn’t even in the same ballpark as strawberries or lemons.

Want local? Organic is a good option

If you are dead set on eating local but can’t make it to farmers’ markets, eating organic may be a good option. Because the organic market remains relatively niche, organic farmers do direct marketing with local grocers, stands and farmers markets. It was unclear how much ends up at area markets, but if you find a McGrath Family Farms, Underwood Family Farms or Deardorff Family Farms, you are eating local. McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo, an organic vegetable farm, for instance, was established in 1871 by an Irish immigrant named Dominick. The farm grows seasonal vegetables year round on 24 acres; an additional four acres are dedicated to strawberries and 17 acres for lemons. Organic, live-local foodies can buy produce at the McGrath market on site or pick their own.

Ventura County may have a comparatively robust farming industry, but organic only represents only 5 percent of the market with approximately 79 registered growers accounting for 5,186 acres of land.

Eating locally

If you want to purchase and eat locally-grown products, there are a few things to pay attention to. The following report includes facts about our local farming industry, from value to pesticide use, but it also includes the seasons our area crops harvested as well the company labels to look for.


Photo by Matthew Hill Photography ©2012 

Matt Conroy of Conroy Farms in Oxnard.

1. Strawberries
2010: $542 million
2009: $515 million
2010: 11,875
2009: 11,766
2010: 349,125
2009: 357,216
On average, feeds annually: 85 million
Approximately 80 percent of the strawberry acreage is harvested January through June; the other 20 percent is September through December. Local strawberries are pretty much available year round.
Driscoll, Well-Pict, Giant
Top pesticides in pounds/acreage sprayed in 2010
chloropicrin 1.48 million/10,730
1,3-dichloroproprene 666,002/5,260
metam-sodium 354,438/2,608
methyl bromide 230,669/1,248
sulfur 136,868/49,025



Russell Blades, manager of Underwood Family Farms (organic produce) in Moorpark.

2. Celery
2010: $182 million
2009: $169 million
2010: 11,949
2009: 11,138
2010: 473,054
2009: 419,466
On average, feeds annually: 135 million
Usually November through early July. The whole county of Ventura is a host-free district for the Western Celery Mosaic virus. The host-free period each year begins on July 15 and continues through Aug. 4. This means that there shall not be celery plants in any state of cultivation or growth showing above ground during this time.
Dole, Tanimura & Antle, Deardorff Family Farms, Boskovich, Dandy



Robert L. Crudup, Jr., president of Valley Crest Tree Company in Fillmore.

3. Nursery stock
(fruit and nut trees, potted plants, propagative mat, herb perennials, woody ornamental)
2010: $180 million
2009: $191 million
2010: 3,589
2009: 3,989


Leslie Leavens-Crowe of Leavens Ranches in Santa Paula.

4. Lemons
2010: $176 million
2009: $128 million
2010: 16,856
2009: 17,703
2010: 305,670
2009: 293,881
On average, feeds annually: 77 million
can be pretty much all year round
Sunkist, Dole, Limoneira
Top pesticides in pounds/acreage sprayed in 2010
mineral oil 648,882/12,482
petroleum oil, unclassified 543,586/9,776
glyphosate, isopropylamine salt 42,298/28,087
petroleum oil, paraffin based 41,242/1,660
chlorpyrifos 24,288/7,100

5. Raspberries
2010: $167 million
2009: $155 million
2010: 2,630
2009: 2,838
2010: 24,806
2009: 25,800
Usually April through December

6. Avocados
2010: $148 million
2009: $43 million
2010: 3,589
2009: 3,989
2010: 91,063
2009: 17,483
On average, feeds annually: 45 million
Variety-dependent, example: Hass can be from late November to August. Otherwise, there are other varieties that are harvested throughout the year.
Calavo, Mission


Brian Beggs, business development director of Houweling's in Oxnard.

7. Tomatoes
2010: $120 million
2009: $127 million
2010: 1,607
2009: 1,790
2010: 102,192
2009: 102,938
Usually May through December.
Gargiulo, Houweling, Deardorff
Top pesticides in pounds/acreage sprayed in 2010
chloropicrin 104,819/1,193
methyl bromide 49,368/638
1,3-dichloropropene 16,617 6 226
sulfur 16,219 54 2,202
chlorothalonil 13,345/7,912


Phil McGrath, owner of McGrath Family Farms (organic produce) in Camarillo.

8. Cut flowers
2010: $47 million
2009: $42 million
2010: 863
2009: 881

9. Peppers
2010: $45.3 million
2009: $45.9 million
2010: 2,690
2009: 3,134
2010: 65,611
2009: 62,891
usually July through December
Prime Time
Top pesticides in pounds/acreage sprayed in 2010
sulfur 70,595/5,270
metam-sodium 42,104/165
potassium n-methyldithiocarbamate 41,483/174
1,3-dichloropropene 34,978/411
chloropicrin 19,489/41

10. Valencia oranges
2010: $28 million
2009: $11 million
2010: 3,262
2009: 3,402
2010: 49,198
2009: 30,015
May through October
Sunkist, Dole

The Ventura County 2011 Annual Crop Report is still being compiled and won’t be released until the summer. Also, statistics for all crops regarding pesticide use, feeds annually, labels were accessible.

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