By Kansas Farm Bureau Columnist John Schlageck
Huge and nearly impossible to comprehend are words that best describe the economic impact of California agriculture as viewed through the eyes of nine Kansas farm families who toured the state beginning on March 25.
Each year, families from each Farm Bureau district in Kansas tour California agriculture as part of their recognition as Farm Family of the Year designees. This year the Kansans touched down in southern California in Los Angeles. The state's 81,500 farms and ranches received a record $43.5 billion for their output last year.
California's agricultural abundance includes more than 400 commodities. The state produces nearly half of US-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Across the nation, US consumers regularly purchase several crops produced solely in California.
An avocado and lemon ranch was the first stop on this year’s Farm Family trip in Ventura County. Leaven Fairview Ranch is owned and operated by David Schwabauer. Located in Ventura County along the Pacific Coast, Schwabauer is neighbors with nearly 900,000 people in just this county. The top five crops include strawberries, raspberries, lemons, celery and tomatoes.
In addition to the ever encroaching urban sprawl, the biggest challenge Schwabauer faces is pests and disease that threaten his avocado and lemon crops including the citrus psyllid and the boring beetle.
Applying enough water during the critical growing season and finding enough labor to harvest crops is another continual challenge for the Ventura County producer. Schwabauer and other produce growers often cannot find enough help to harvest the fruits and vegetables in their valley.
Lemons imported from Chile and Mexico are also flooding into southern California over-supplying the market and causing the price to tank for local growers.
Phil McGrath has carved out an “organic” niche in Camarillo, several miles north of Leaven Fairview Ranch. The McGrath family farm takes pride in supplying its customers with the freshest organic fruits and vegetable. Their products are picked the same day as delivered with a guarantee that nothing is more than 24 hours old.
A few years ago, McGrath couldn’t sell his fruits and vegetables because most of his Ventura County customers were looking to buy organic.
“They directed me to organic farming,” he says. “My goal is to grow as many things as possible in their season.”
The McGrath family farm grows everything from strawberries and baby vegetables to legumes and flowers. This is not only attractive to their customers but it is also advantageous to sustainable growing methods of crop diversity and rotation.
Pyramid Flowers, located on the southern California coastline in Oxnard, offers premium quality, specialty-cut flowers for the wholesale and mass market trade. Seventy percent of these flowers wind up in supermarkets including those in Kansas.
Owner Fred Van Wingerden opened his 50 acres of fertile fields and 20 acres of greenhouses to the Kansas visitors. A first-generation grower from the Netherlands, Van Wingerden began his flower business in 1979.
For Van Wingerden harvesting his flowers when they reach maturity is critical.
“You have one day to harvest them at that point,” he says. “One day later and the plants suffer and so does my business.”
The trend at Pyramid Flowers has been to steer away from chemical pest control. Cost of chemicals like methyl bromide has rocketed out of sight so Van Wingerden uses steam sterilization to control weeds.
Another fascinating stop on the California trip included Associates Insectary. This grower-owned cooperative provides its fruit and vegetable growing members with pest control advice and beneficial bugs. This sustainable farming program began in the 1920s when citrus mealy bug infestations threatened to wipe out the local citrus industry in and around Santa Paula.
Associates Insectary was established by farmers to help fight this pest by raising and releasing millions of mealy bug destroyer beetles in their groves. An average of 800 million beneficial organisms are raised 365 days each year. They are released in the 8,500 acres of groves that are members of this cooperative throughout the year.
One other farm stop was Kallisto Greenhouses. Located within the Fontana community this family owned business was established in 1976. Located on a 10-acre parcel of land are 257,000 square feet of covered greenhouses. Kallisto sells tropical foliage plants for use indoors.
“This means there cannot be damage on the visible leaves and the plant must be artistically presented,” owner Jim Rietkerk says.
The current economic downturn continues to challenge the Rietkerk operation. Input costs and regulatory burdens continue to increase, however; they believe in their product and will continue to produce plants that they believe will enhance and improve the human quality of life.
John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.