- Author: Brad Miller
Ventura County, as many know, is one of the most productive agriculture economies in California. In fact, Ventura County currently ranks seventh in agriculture production in the entire state. However, we have not always enjoyed this high statewide status. Many changes in our agriculture techniques and preferences in crops have boosted us from being the fourteenth largest agriculture economy in 1989 to our present level. Ben Faber, an agricultural psychologist for the University of California Cooperative Extension office described this transformation in a recent interview.
Faber, a former professor of microbiology, fertility, and soil physics among other subjects at the UC Davis, has been an employee at UCCE for 23 years. His extensive research in his field and Ph. D. in Soil Fertility makes him an expert in agriculture.
So how did Ventura County reach the upper echelons of California agriculture? Faber explains that a variety of factors have led growers to break into the Ventura County market and increase production. Many growers have migrated from the San Diego and Orange County markets due to spikes in land prices. Land values in the San Diego and Orange counties have greatly increased since the 1990s, and continue to climb forcing more and more growers to look elsewhere for land. Another problem is water availability. Faber says that San Diego especially suffers from lack of water, much more so than Ventura County.
However, despite our county’s success in recent years, we are still second fiddle to the Central Valley. It is very difficult for Ventura and other counties throughout the state to compete with the Central Valley in regards to land costs, water availability, and water quality. Those three important factors separate the Central Valley from the rest of the state. For this reason, Faber encourages growers to never invest in a crop that is in direct competition with the Central Valley.
There have been several changes in Ventura County’s crop scene since Faber began working here. Twenty years ago, small growers made up a large portion of the market. Now, large commercial growers that sell to supermarkets make up the majority. Large growers that focus on catering to the consumer have dictated changes in which crops are most profitable. Two decades ago Ventura County’s top grossing crops were lima beans, walnuts, and strawberries. With the exception of strawberries, neither of the other formerly profitable crops are successfully produced here; the focus is more on perishable items. Avocados, strawberries, and raspberries are three of the top products in Ventura County’s market today.
Aside from the cash crops, many small growers now concentrate on farming niche crops. Niche crops are commodities that are specially grown for a particular audience and that are not in direct competition with large growers. Yellow beets are an example of a niche crop. The big growers will most likely own the red beet market, but there is still a profitable market for the yellow beet. This style of agriculture can help keep small growers in business. Looking into the crystal ball of Ventura County agriculture, Faber is skeptical. While we have enjoyed success in recent decades, it is hard to say what the future holds in store for us. Land prices will more or less dictate whether we can survive. However Faber does see some positive change. The industry is becoming sleeker with more college educated, young growers entering the industry, which will contrast with older, traditional farming families. This, coupled with the new concept of robotic farming will force change. We cannot say for sure how Ventura County will deal with all of these changes, but Faber advises that we accept and adapt to them as best we can.