During my summer vacations in the late-’80s, my parents and I would pack up the rental van and head south on Highway 1 for our annual surf trip to Santa Barbara, Ventura and beyond. Embarking on our own personal version of the Endless Summer, we would slowly creep down the idyllic coastline and absorb all the geographical and cultural offerings — from the mile-long left breaks to beach-shack burritos. This, along with playing little league all-star games, was the highlight of my three months of freedom. It was all very Southern California Americana, but taking the place of an apple pie on a windowsill of this Beach Boys inspired Rockwellian-image were roadside fruit stands, in particular the ones selling plump and vibrantly red strawberries. Overflowing from their green, square baskets, these heart-shaped jewels were a treasured treat that also gave a nod of respect to the local culture and economy. It was a delicious time of blissful naiveté, and little did we know that only three decades later this once-constant bounty would become more and more scarce. It isn’t just the numerous roadside entrepreneurs, however, that have since folded up their tables; it’s the big boys too.
Last October and just ahead of the fall grow season, Dole, one of the largest and most recognizable names in the produce game, decided that it was time to shut down several farms, including its location in Oxnard. In doing so, the ag giant cut ties with approximately 170 workers, many of whom are now either looking for similar yet rapidly fading job opportunities or checking cautiously over their shoulders for ICE agents. The reasons for this sudden closure are widely varied, spanning from economic to environmental factors.
The first contributor is a no-brainier, and one that fictitious characters Rod Tidwell and Jerry Maguire famously screamed in unison — “Show me the money!” This is especially true when, according to the Farm Bureau of Ventura County (FBVC), the strawberry industry in Ventura county produces more than double the revenue of any other crop. In 2016 the strawberries alone brought in an $654 million of gross revenue to the county, a far leap from the next-closest crop, lemons ($266 million). Rounding out the top five, were nursery stock ($206 million), celery ($202 million) and raspberries ($171 million). By those numbers it is plain to see a, pardon the pun, growing economic concern for the closing of these strawberry farms. If this sort of occurrence starts trending and additional companies follow suit, the fallout may be more fiscally toxic than presumed.
Based on data from the California Strawberry Commission’s (CSC) website, the number of crates shipped from Oxnard in 2017 (36,042,746) exceeded 2016’s total, however, this number is roughly a 7 million volume drop off from 2017 to 2014 at 43,383,455. These losses in turn lead to relocation and/or job termination, which not only tampers with the lives of workers, but also with the local economy. It is a viciously resulting cycle of cause and effect, and the residual aftermath of this closure may be more dire to the local economy than currently imaginable. According to John Krist, CEO of the FBVC, the closures and decrease in production may be more signs of the times.
“Dole’s withdrawal from Ventura County will not by itself have that great an impact. Given the ongoing labor shortage, any displaced workers likely will be absorbed. Most of the ground being used to grow berries for Dole was leased, so I would expect growers to either find new packers/shippers for their product or will shift to other crops on that ground,” Krist said. “The numbers suggest that there are other specific crops or sectors that are in jeopardy, but I would say that producers across the board — whether it’s citrus and avocados or celery and cilantro — are facing similar challenges: inability to find adequate labor, tremendous uncertainty about the future of the groundwater resource upon which they rely, increased competition from lower-cost production areas, and ever-rising regulatory compliance costs.”
The amount of acreage used to grow the county’s staple crop in the fall season has also been decreasing for the last five years, creating a downward trend not seen before. The strawberry commission reported that in 2013 there were 10,271 acres being utilized for strawberry farming. A consistent yearly reduction since then has now led to only 7,061 acres used for production. Many growers are looking to relocate elsewhere to re-establish their livelihoods, whether it may be in a less expensive county or even another country. This downsizing has come at the hands of cost analysis and number crunching.
“Berry acreage has been shrinking here for several years, which reflects a number of factors, including a shift of production to Baja and to Santa Maria, where costs are lower, yields are higher or both,” Krist explained. “The move is consistent with recent changes in the profitability of berry production here.”
Topping the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen 2018 Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, strawberries continue to top that list year after year. For this year, in sample data, according to the guide, “One strawberry sample contained an astounding 22 pesticide residues. One-third of all conventional strawberry samples contained 10 or more pesticides.” Senior analyst for the environmental group Sonya Lunder told USA Today in 2017 that strawberries need more pesticide than many other crops because they are “vulnerable to pests, they grow directly in the soil, have a high water content and lack a protective outer peel.” In an article by Lunder just released this week on the group’s website, it states that, “Conventionally grown strawberries tested by scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2015 and 2016 contained an average of 7.8 different pesticides per sample, compared to 2.1 pesticides per sample for all other produce.” Fumigants are also a must to ensure a good harvest. 2017 was the first full year without methyl bromide, known for negative impacts on the ozone layer but a fumigant that strawberry farmers had relied on. Some predicted the ban of the fumigant would have a negative impact on farming strawberries, curtailing production, but it has not yet proven to be true. Farmers shifted to other products instead, according to the UC Food Observer, such as chloropicrin, a toxic air contaminant that now requires buffer zones between applications to protect nearby buildings and people from exposure. The shuffle game continues for strawberry farmers.
Other causes of the rapid decline in the industry are largely environmental and include both natural resources — such as groundwater use — and biological infiltration. As the water wars of California continue to rage behind closed bureaucratic doors, many farmers lie waiting in the weeds, literally, to see where the water-use infrastructure is headed. The undeniable effects of climate change have started to take a vise grip on the water supplies used for agriculture, and our addiction to the modern lifestyle is a massive determinant. Yet, as much as I would enjoy an over-zealous rant on the macabre state of the planet, there are distinct living factors at play other than us. The biological issues that have been arising are largely tied to soil diseases, a culprit that has continued to undermine the strawberry industry for several seasons now. In an attempt to combat these diseases, this past year the USDA awarded two multimillion dollar grants, one to the University of California, Davis, and the other to the University of California, Santa Cruz, to research ways of eradicating the issue.
“It’s hard to say whether climate change is influencing the problem of soilborne disease,” Krist said. “They’ve always been there, from root rot in avocados to verticillium wilt in berries. The pace of new pest and disease introductions in California has increased tremendously over the past decade, but that’s a result of global transportation patterns, not climate change.”
This escalating epidemic is not limited to our area by any stretch of the imagination. Having grown up in Monterey County, where agriculture was a staple business and one that many of my friends’ parents were involved with, I have seen similarly distressing consequences to the agriculture business in recent visits. The city of Salinas and the other small farming towns that border Highway 101 between there and Paso Robles, affectionately referred to as the “Salad Bowl,” seem to be losing farms and crops at a similar pace. This fertile landscape supplies the country with roughly 50 percent of the lettuce, spinach, celery and broccoli that make it to the dinner table, suggesting a bleak outlook for the future if not properly addressed. This information is quite disheartening, especially considering our state’s history with the industry. Famed American author John Steinbeck had such a love affair with this culture that he based several of his books on the vast valley, including The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden. Yet, if he could see the paradigm shift that is underway, one wonders what his take on the current situation might be.
Considering the increasing difficulty associated with crop yield, the future of farming has been forced to entertain previously little-used (at least in the U.S.) methods of propagation. One such concept taking flight is vertical gardening, a practice that utilizes grow space and water supply to the utmost potential. In densely populated areas, such as Chicago and New York, urban farmers are stacking levels of various vegetables that scale up the sides of city buildings. This futuristic approach allows for areas once exclusively associated with domestic living to marry with agricultural endeavors.
As well, aquaponics have been increasingly gathering attention due to the symbiotic relationship of plant and fish. For those unfamiliar with the concept, picture a large pool stocked with a specific number of fish and microscopic aquatic organisms. Stationed above this pool are housing units for various types of produce. As the fish feed off the dead plant roots they produce biowaste, which is then treated with natural bacteria that convert the waste to usable nutrients for the new plants.
Moving forward, as a species set on survival, these outside-of-the-box concepts may just hold the key to achieving sustainability. When the rivers run dry and the soil turns to hardened dirt, an eco-friendly and progressive approach hold a greater probability that we can achieve this hope. The Ventura County strawberry industry will no doubt be on the front line of these trying issues in the coming decades, and a change in growth patterns may be the key to avoiding attrition.
Michael Sullivan contributed to this article.