By Teresa O’Connor
As you drive north on the U.S. Highway 101 Freeway from downtown Los Angeles, you probably don’t realize those picturesque open spaces about an hour away are some of the most productive farmland in the nation.
In fact, Ventura County is the nation’s eleventh largest county in crop value, despite its close location to the country’s second most populous city. Ventura County’s agricultural sector earned an estimated gross value of more than $2 billion dollars in 2017, according to the Ventura County Crop and Livestock Report 2017. That’s despite the fact that the United States Census Bureau reported there were more than 854 thousand Ventura County residents in 2017. How do they do it?
A Little History
It helps to understand that farming has a long heritage in Ventura County. When the Mission San Buenaventura was established in 1782, livestock and crops were introduced. Grain, cattle, fruit and vegetables were brought in to support the settlement.
However, it wasn’t until the Civil War that large-scale farming began in earnest, reports the Farm Bureau of Ventura County. By 1880, there were already 573 farms with more than 81,000 tilled acres. Just 10 years later, those numbers would jump to 764 farms with more than 137,000 acres of mostly grains like wheat and barley.
By 1914, the Ventura County Farm Bureau began operating with 300 members, thanks to several legislative acts that established the nation’s land-grant colleges, agricultural field stations and the creation of the University of California Agricultural Extension Service and Farm Advisors. At that time, the top crops were walnuts, apricots, lima beans, oranges and lemons.
Today’s Ventura County Farms
More than a century later, you’ll find those crops still growing at Ventura County farms. About $259 million worth of lemons were sold in 2017, making them the number-two crop for the county. The top spot belongs to strawberries at $654 million. Celery, nursery stock, raspberries, avocados, cut flowers, tomatoes, peppers and cabbage round out the rest of top ten crops. Ventura County boasts 20 additional million-dollar crops, ranging from kale, blueberries, Asian vegetables and oranges to cucumbers, spinach and lettuce.
The Thomas Fire in December 2017 — which was the largest fire in California’s history at the time — caused more than $170 million in agricultural damages, primarily with the avocado, citrus and cattle industries. All 7,000 acres of rangeland that RA Atmore & Sons and Rancho Ventura Conservation Trust steward were impacted by the fire.
Saving Southern California Farms
The fact that Ventura County farms continue to prosper despite natural disasters, encroaching housing developments, drought conditions and global competition is impressive.
Many local residents want the farms to stay. For example, a county-wide grassroots initiative called SOAR (Save Open Space and Agricultural Resources) led to legislation that “requires a majority vote of the people in order to rezone unincorporated open space, agricultural or rural land for development,” explains its website.
Voter-approved SOAR initiatives have been passed by the cities of Camarillo, Fillmore, Moorpark, Oxnard, Santa Paula, Simi Valley, Thousand Oaks and Ventura. They were renewed in November 2016, extending their expiration date to 2050.