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Interview with Phil McGrath, Owner of McGrath Family Farms

In November, LAFPC Leadership Board member Phil McGrath of McGrath Family Farms received the 2013 Excellence in Agricultural Stewardship and Sustainability Award from the Resource Conservation District of Ventura County. Phil’s family has been farming their land in Camarillo for four generations, starting in the 1860s. Read on to learn more about what’s happening on Phil’s farm and his perspective on organic farming in the Oxnard Plains.

What are the challenges of owning and running an organic farm? What are the rewards?

Farming off the southern Californian coast is the best. We’ve got a lot of diversity on the 40 acres we’re currently farming. We rotate between vegetables, flowers, legumes (which are nitrogen-fixing) and cover crop when we can to keep the soil healthy. I hope to put in some coastal fruit trees in the future. Because we’re an organic farm, insects can be a problem, but using soaps and oils for insect control is still less expensive than commercial pesticides. We have a large family of animals that help out on the farm too. The chickens give us eggs, the guinea fowls roam our fields eating insects, and the geese act as my personal guard dogs, honking whenever they see anyone getting too close to my personal space! But even farming in paradise has its challenges.

EP12Land access is a huge issue, not just for organic farmers in the area. My ancestors farmed over 5,000 acres. But as the family grew, our land was divided up for successive generations, so each piece got smaller and smaller. Over the last fifty years we’ve lost over 400 acres to eminent domain. Currently, 85% of the family’s land is leased to Reiter Bros., a large berry company growing strawberries and raspberries, the number 1 and number 2 crops in the county. The monthly rental income we get helps with farm costs. Half of our farmland is under an ag reserve created in 1995 called SOAR (Save our Ag Resources). The other half is in an urban reserve (created in 1983) with the City of Camarillo. Both of these designations were created with very little choice from us. We have been stewards of the land for a long time. Population pressure has obviously put lots of pressure on the farm for development. What’s most rewarding for me to see, is the agricultural values go up quicker than the developmental values. Maybe someday communities will realize farmland is as, if not more valuable, than commercial property. The future will tell. Demand local and organic, and eat what’s in season. That’s the best thing you can do to create and save sustainable farmland in Southern California.

Like most farms, my biggest cost is labor. Harvesting is the highest labor cost for most farmers, but because I don’t use herbicides, weeding and cultivation costs are just as high. Most farms in Ventura County grow only one crop—mono-cropping—so these farms have huge fluctuations in their need for labor. Since I’m rotating, planting and harvesting monthly, there’s work available year-round, so I can keep my workers steadily employed. My labor need curve is much more level. This way, I’m able to give them more financial security, and I get to maintain low turnover of my workers. Many of our workers have been with us for years. Labor is tied to the price of food, and we are okay with charging more to support our team. In the current food system, I’m still not able to pay them a living wage for Ventura County, but all things considered, I believe this is a better system; direct marketing locally to restaurants and farmer markets, selling at our roadside stand, and having our Community Supported Ag program. I’m trying hard to grow the best for my community, take care of my land, and take care of the team.

What role do you see yourself and McGrath Family Farms playing to move our region forward in agricultural stewardship and sustainability?

Processed with VSCOcam with g3 presetEducation is a huge part of what we do here. We give farm tours, offer internships, and speak at conferences and to classes. We’ve worked with interns from all over the world, young people that want to become organic farmers in their own right. We regularly entertain students from nearby colleges, and right now we are also working with veterans interested in farming.

In terms of sustainability, we stay open minded. We started using rice hulls as an organic fumigant. Incorporating them below our strawberry plant bed to keep soil-borne diseases and pests away. Some preliminary trials have shown better results lasting up to three years. Chemical fumigants only last eight months! We also collect green waste from trash haulers and mix it with our green waste to produce compost, and two years ago we started to collect waste oils from restaurants to make biodiesel. We’re also working with some great researchers from UC Berkeley to pilot “flower islands” in our fields to encourage pollination and support the population of native bees. There are over 1600 bee species native to Southern California, but farmers here import honeybees, which are not native to California, and these are the ones that are experiencing colony collapse and having so many problems.

Have you noticed any recent trends/practices among farmers in Southern California that make you hopeful?

I see farmers in the Oxnard Plain slowly diversifing beyond strawberries, raspberries, and citrus, but change comes slow and status quo is always easier. I think change is happening by policy and by necessity. Two of the most widely-used chemical soil fumigants were banned recently, causing many strawberry growers to rethink their practices and the future. This year was the coldest and driest year on record, and also the first year that growers were not guaranteed water from a very large water agency and had to pump water from their wells. This not only puts pressure on the berry growers, but drains our shallow aquifers and creates seawater intrusion, a problem that became very serious here in the ‘70s. Citrus growers in the region also have a very serious new problem that devastated Florida’s citrus in the last 10 years, reducing it by 250 thousand acres: the Asian citrus psyllid. Ventura County grows enough lemons to feed nearly a billion people. Operating using a system with more crop diversity creates at least a buffer to these kinds of problems by putting “many eggs in many baskets.” I believe more farmers in the region want to diversify and now it is a viable option. The supply is ready. We need the demand.

Over the last 10 years there’s been a huge increase in the amount of adults signing up for tours of the farm. Before that, it was mostly kids, who loved playing with the animals and running around the pumpkin patches, but now I’m getting more and more adult visitors. I see this as a good sign. Many of them are farmers, agricultural specialists or dignitaries, some of them flying in from as far as Japan, Thailand, China, Britain, France, Italy, Denmark, Finland, India, Africa, even Mongolia!

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 presetFarmers and consumers alike are becoming more interested in organics and local distribution. It’s exciting to see the younger farmers who already get why organic farming is important. What it really boils down to is consumer demand. Farmers will respond to what their customers want, and young farmers are seeing the opportunities and taking the lead to meet that demand.

What advice would you give to aspiring farmers and urban agriculturists who want to grow at home or start a commercial enterprise?

Urban farmers have a lot of great opportunities available to them with direct marketing to their communities. Their proximity to their customer base makes it easy to market their products at farmers’ markets and to restaurants. Find your niche. It’s also important for them to keep track of food policy changes, and getting involved with the Los Angeles Food Policy Council is a great start!

 

To find out more about McGrath Family Farms, you can visit their website at http://www.mcgrathfamilyfarm.com/.