By Len Wilcox
Ventura County, California, is perhaps the prettiest place in the world to grow lemons. Nestled between the golden slopes of the coast range and the relaxing seaside and azure-blue ocean, it is just north of Los Angeles on the famous Pacific Coast Highway. In town, Ventura seems far too urban to be an agricultural center; it is better known for its beach bunnies and surfer hangouts. But in terms of total crop value, Ventura is California’s 10th largest agricultural county and the 11th largest in the country.
With an annual gross value of more than $2 billion, agriculture is second only to services as the county’s leading employer. Lemons worth $260 million are shipped out each year, as well as berry crops valued at $840 million and nearly $200 million worth of avocados. About 100 other produce items make up the balance, grown on about 2,000 farms in the mountain valleys and the flatlands next to sandy beaches.
The climate is ideal. It seldom freezes in the winter, and the average high in summer is 79 degrees. Of course this changes with distance from the ocean, but seldom is the weather at all disagreeable, and the sun shines 273 days out of the year. About 17 inches of rain fall annually.
But for all that, it isn’t heaven — not for lemons or lemon growers. The pressure to sell out to developers is always there as Los Angeles is just a short drive down the coast. Also, huanglongbing (HLB) is a big threat. Asian citrus psyllids have been haunting the county’s citrus growers since 2010.
“We’re very afraid of HLB and other pest problems brought in to us from other areas,” says Richard Pidduck, a lifelong lemon grower on a family farm near Santa Paula, 20 miles inland from the sea. He is a third-generation citrus grower. His grandfather planted some of the earliest citrus crops in Ventura County, back in the 1930s.
“Our coastal lemons are more susceptible to HLB than others, as we have a flush three or four times a year,” says Pidduck. When new growth appears, the trees are particularly susceptible to HLB.
“It’s a problem for all of us in citrus. Around here, we should be replacing more of our orchard, taking out older trees for younger ones that will be more productive. But some of our growers have stopped doing that. HLB could be here in five years, with those young trees getting sick just as they are coming into production.”
Pidduck also sees a threat from imported Argentinian lemons.
“There have been a number of interceptions (of diseased fruit) in Argentinian shipments to the EU,” Pidduck says. “With HLB and other pests, we already are under enormous pressure from disease and pest problems. We don’t want or need a new threat coming from Argentina.”
In the 1990s, in spite of crop health issues, the Argentines tried to send their lemons to the United States. At that time, Pidduck helped form the U.S. Citrus Science Council to fight the imports. The council succeeded, and the imports were stopped, but the Argentines are renewing their efforts now. The council has again filed suit to stop the imports.
Fighting that threat hasn’t stopped Pidduck from farming. Like many family farmers, he runs a diversified operation. Currently, he is experimenting with a dozen acres of Golden Nugget mandarins, a naturally seedless fruit that doesn’t need to be tarped. The net-like tarps prevent pollination by bees, thus preventing seeds from forming, and are a major expense in seedless mandarins. He also grows avocados, which are planted on the sunny slopes of his farm as they have different soil and water requirements than lemons.
One big problem is the government’s tough new immigration policy that has choked the labor supply in Ventura County. Lemon growers especially feel the pain. The crop is picked three to four times per year, depending on location.
While it’s a major issue, enforcement of a tough immigration policy is just one part of the problem. Another issue is that affordable housing for labor is scarce. Ventura real estate is highly desirable. As pricey residential and commercial development spreads through the county’s suburbs, farmers try to retain both farmland and a stable labor force that can afford to live in the county. The average income of those workers is about $22,000 per year. Yet the average apartment rent in Ventura County is more than $20,000 a year.
Suburban residents worry about the effect affordable housing for farmworkers will have on their neighborhoods, while the farmworkers worry they will be priced out of the housing market. Trying to find the right balance between these contentious groups is a volunteer organization that works to increase public support for affordable farmworker housing in Ventura County.
ADVOCATING FOR AG
The group, House Farm Workers!, is dedicated to supporting safe, decent and affordable housing for Ventura County farm laborers. Committees have been established by the group that advocate on behalf of the farmworker community. They mobilize public support, engage public officials and collaborate with other grassroots organizations to work for affordable housing for farmworkers. So far, they have been instrumental in building more than 500 homes in the county.
Ventura County Agriculture Commissioner Henry Gonzales is an active member of House Farm Workers!. He is strongly supportive of agriculture and works hard to keep it a thriving industry.
“We have made presentations to city councils, service clubs and anyone else that will listen to us,” says Gonzales. “We have made a lot of noise over the years, and the people have been listening.”
Ventura County also has a right-to-farm ordinance, which was adopted in 1997. The ordinance is designed to protect agriculture from nuisance claims, requires notification of such protection and provides for the agriculture commissioner to mediate any disputes.
The ordinance helps to clarify agriculture’s role in Ventura County and recognizes its importance to the community. It ensures that potential residents are informed about farming operations in the area before they purchase a home.
“We have had a lot of urban development, with people moving in next to farms or near other agricultural operations,” Gonzales says. “They have issues when they hear the noise and activity at 5 a.m., or if they smell a chemical or see someone spraying nearby. They call us and want us to stop the activity. We do talk to the farmer and see if any adjustments can be made, and most importantly, we try to get the parties to talk to each other directly.” If the people start talking to each other, he says, many of these nuisance complaints resolve themselves without any further action.
The right-to-farm ordinance and the efforts of the House Farm Workers! group are two elements that keep Ventura County growing as an agricultural powerhouse and as an urban center. A proactive agriculture commissioner certainly is another key factor. The beachgoers and city workers can enjoy their lemons and avocados, and take pride that their small slice of heaven grows them so spectacularly well.
Len Wilcox is a freelance writer in Sanger, California.
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