Pictured: The Oxnard Plain.
by Kimberly Rivers
Tension is growing between politicians claiming to be “climate leaders”; those who say that enacted policies are too little, too late; and industry sectors lobbying to maintain the status quo. Environmental activists are pushing hard against the fossil fuel industry and commercial agriculture — two sectors that helped build Ventura County but are now being put under the spotlight for activities that contribute to global warming.
“Climate change doesn’t give a hoot who’s president or what we believe. It’s going to do what it’s going to do,” said Brian Rasnow PhD, a lecturer on climate science at California State University,
Channel Islands. He teaches courses in physics, astronomy, and one called “Energy and society.”
The cost of inaction
“As a scientist, I started in the 1980s seriously looking into climate change as one of many scientific issues I studied as a graduate student. It’s sort of frustrating. The scientific evidence is irrefutable and yet the politicians refuse to act. The fossil fuel industry has launched a massive propaganda campaign,” said Brian. “Scientists can see the future . . . Ecologists [are trained] to read the subtle signs of an ecosystem suffering or falling apart.”
He said his students today are still surprised at how irrefutable the science is. “Many are surprised with the clarity of the science . . . they’ve been consuming so much propaganda, they think that there are two equal sides,” when in fact, “there is no debate.”
When he started teaching climate science, it was “how many joules of energy in a gallon of gasoline and how does energy shape the economic growth of our society. Over the years, the course has taken more and more of a political and economic tone.”
The class has shifted to focus on the “root of the problem. What kind of technologies could have an impact?” and the politics behind their implementation. According to Brian, it is “simple math”: If the United States spent a few trillion dollars on solar panels and wind infrastructure, all electricity needs could be met without fossil fuels in about five years. “I try to teach the truth and let them know the reality that they are inheriting.”
While he noted that Thousand Oaks and Ventura County have made good attempts at long-range Climate Action Plans, “none of these plans are aggressive enough in dealing with what’s going to be coming . . . massive climate disruption — droughts, floods and sea level rise. There isn’t the political will to implement at the scale that needs to be done.”
Tina Rasnow, Brian’s sister, lives on and manages the family’s U4EA Ranch (pronounced “euphoria”) on a mountain peak in Newbury Park.
She said that when she has seen presentations from local organizations such as Coalition for Labor, Agriculture and Business (COLAB) about the cost of switching from natural gas to electric, “I’m the one, the only one, that raises my hand and asks ‘how much [does it cost] if we don’t make a change?’”
Drought, higher temps affecting crops and pests
“The thing that’s probably the scariest thing” is a change Tina is seeing in the ocean breeze. “We’re at 1,600 foot elevation . . . Every afternoon as long as we’ve lived here, since 1970, there has always been a breeze that comes from the ocean. Unless there is an extreme Santa Ana [wind], absent that, at 2 p.m., you can almost set your clock to it: The breeze, rolling from the ocean, it was always cool. We never needed air conditioning up here. We’d open the windows, use cross ventilation. But the last few years, the wind comes like it always has, but it blows hot . . . that affects every living thing, in a sense. A person doesn’t have to farm to notice that.”
Tina says water has always been an issue on the hilltop property her family has lived and worked on since the 1970s. They recently drilled two new water wells, only one of which is working. The ranch is not commercially viable due to its water limitations. “The rain fall hasn’t been enough to replenish the well.”
U4EA does grow dragon fruit, which requires little water. (Sales supplement income from communications towers on the property.) “I grow it how I was taught by the Vietnamese women who showed me how to grow it,” Tina explains, “planted at the base of a deciduous tree so it is shaded and supported in the heat of summer.” U4EA started growing them at the base of apricot, plum and peach trees, but “the stone fruit trees got weak and died. There are not enough chill hours anymore. That has happened in the last 20 years. We started to notice the stone fruit [trees] getting sick.” A farm advisor who came out eight years ago told the Rasnows that “because of climate change there are not enough chill hours,” and said that stone fruit would continue to decline in southern California because of climate change.
Tina has also noticed that harvest comes much earlier. “It ripens earlier each year. [Harvest] used to be Thanksgiving. This year we started having dragon fruit in July.”
“We never had ground squirrels on the ranch, never ever,” she continued. “Now, they’ve moved up the mountain from down below.” She said she has read that scientists are reporting that “little rodents and smaller animals are moving up to higher elevation . . . the warming temps are [making them] move higher where it’s a little bit cooler . . . now they are a regular pest here on the ranch.”
Tina pointed to one issue that she said is negatively impacting the county. “I really feel the emphasis on aesthetics that this county has is completely misplaced.” She said the land use restrictions on ridgelines is a problem. “Yes, something could affect people’s view. What do we do to preserve our air, water and soil? That, to me, is more important.”
She supports the changes and mitigations in the newly adopted Ventura County General Plan but “didn’t see a change” in the focus on aesthetics. “It should be on the bottom of the list. [The look] doesn’t affect the health and safety.”
Building healthy soils
She also didn’t see enough emphasis on trying “to move farmers and ranchers to regenerative agriculture” and felt that there should be incentives to encourage farmers to protect and build healthy soils.
At U4EA, Tina said that, “Where you’re building soil, we use a food forest, plant [crops] under the trees,” similar to the indigenous practice of companion plants grown next to each other. “The three sisters, beans, corn and squash. Beans live and grow up the corn stalk, beans give nitrogen [to the soil] and squash grows along the ground.”
She noted that regenerative agriculture is “contrary to modern industrial agriculture,” which uses “monoculture . . . when they plant all the same thing. It’s easier to harvest, the trees are all the same size so equipment can go through, but it’s not good for building the soil that one plant needs.”
She also expressed concern about efforts to fight Huanglongbing (HLB) disease and the psyllid that spreads it. “The county’s solution has been to spray. That spray kills bees. So if you have your citrus trees survive, now because of the spraying there is no pollination, no fruit. The idea that we have to somehow dominate nature and bend it to our will, to me is just hubris. We have to work with nature.”
Regenerative farming practices also incorporate animals into building healthy soil. U4EA uses sheep for weed abatement, and their “manure fertilizes the trees,” along with the chicken manure. Chicken “scratching” also provides aeration while maintaining carbon in the soil, which can be lost through traditional tilling. With this type of farming, machines and other heavy equipment can’t be used, and Tina acknowledged that many will say it’s not economically feasible. “If we paid the prices of what food really costs, it would be.”
Keeping food local and selling to the local community would need to be a focus rather than depending on the “futures [market] and sending food off to China,” Tina continued, adding that Ventura County is the perfect place to have “demonstration farms” that sell locally. She pointed to the long-time ranching and farming families and the need to recognize that regenerative agriculture practices are “not a threat to their future, but it is the future. We need to transition to a different kind [ of system] . . . transitioning away from chemicals, it is sustainable for the environment and for our grandchildren.”
She would have liked to have seen more focus on regenerative agriculture in the county’s General Plan, which went into effect on Oct. 15, 2020 and will govern land use in the unincorporated areas through 2040.
While she said that the county is “making some effort to address” climate change, she stated that “they need to go further. It if were me, we wouldn’t extract any more fossil fuels. We just stop. We are at such a precipice.”
“We have the potential to be in balance”
Phil McGrath is a long-time Ventura County farmer and chuckles when he says “Anyone who knows me laughs when I say I’m retired.” When asked about climate change, and local efforts to stem the tide, he said many local politicians seem to “get it,” but “they are about 20 years behind.”
In his view, local action should focus on “greening of the planet,” cooling surface temperatures and pulling carbon from the atmosphere.
McGrath grew up farming, as did his father and grandfather. “I don’t take anything for granted. The fact that I’m on a phone that has more computer chips than the first Apollo mission . . . I’ll never forget my dad saying in the mid-60s that there is too much affluence in the world . . . People, and their schedules, and their cars, and their air conditioners, and their everything that everybody does — we all keep putting carbon in the air . . . Anytime anyone buys a piece of fruit from Santiago, Chile in January, nobody is thinking of what the true cost of getting that peach 10,000 miles north is.”
He has seen climate change be a major topic in the county for about 20 years. “We have supervisors who claim they are environmentalists, they want to do the right thing, but people’s livelihoods are also in the balance.”
“A long time ago, someone told me that some people think that the demise of Planet Earth [began with] agriculture 10,000 years ago. Once we started trying to tame Mother Nature, it threw off the balance.” But, he added, “As much as we have impacted the planet, we have the potential to be in balance with it.”
He said carbon sequestration is the key. “Keeping the soil cooler and full of life, microbial life would be a huge first step.”
“The first 10,000 years, ag did pretty good. It was organic ag. Populations were not growing as fast. But the last 70 years since WWII, it’s a whole different story. We are all about yields and productivity and the farmer is just trying to cover his cost and making a living out of farming.”
McGrath said the focus should be on the demand side, educating the consumer, but also points to steps local government can take.
According to McGrath, industry responds to consumer demand, providing what people want, when they want it and how they want it. “This is the mission of the industrial world, industrial agriculture. People think that I’m talking about so many sacrifices, but I’m not. It’s basic things. One is eating locally, eating in season. It is so basic to me. We have to slow it down.” Climate change is showing us that “Mother Nature is coming back with a vengeance.”
Water wars and climate change
The year his mother died was 2007 and McGrath recalled that was the “last year we had an exceptional amount of rain. A really nice, wet year. The following 10 years was the longest recorded drought in weather record keeping in Ventura County. “In 2008 we had the Great Recession and many people are still recovering from that.” He said those ten years “were the toughest years for my business.”
The use of “high water crops” that are in high demand and can yield profits for growers have been a focus of the industry in the county for many years. He says this has led to “water wars with farmers, municipalities and the industry in general. It’s not a pretty picture right now. But everybody needs to come together for a solution.”
Acreage devoted to strawberries has declined in the county drastically over the past 20 years. McGrath said it used to be 12,000-14,000 acres, compared with just around 8.600 (2019 Crop Report) acres today. “Mainly it’s about supply and demand. There are [now] cheaper regions with more water” where strawberries are being grown.
“Mother Nature [ensures] the berry comes into season for such a short period of the year. Bears would eat them when they came out of hibernation. They have a lot of sugar.” But strawberries are in demand year round and growers are meeting it by growing a plant from the alpine region at sea level. “So the consumer needs to be educated about what they are demanding from us. We can do it, but do we really want to? Consumers need to understand the true cost to the environment. We can grow most anything on a year-round basis here, but we are taxing mother nature.”
Pinning hopes on hemp
McGrath expressed frustration over policies that limit the ability of local growers to take advantage of a plant that has a wide range of uses, requires very little water, almost no pesticides and has high demand backing it: hemp.
He said the government needs to step in, but that farmers should be allowed to grow this versatile plant, calling it the foundation of a new industry. It can produce biodegradable plastic, reducing the need for one of McGrath’s “pet peeves, single use plastic. Other local companies back the plant. Patagonia said ‘grow it. We’ll buy it. We don’t want to import from China.’ There are medicinal uses too for the CBD oil. Hemp has so much potential. It remediates the soil, by pulling toxins from it. Local government regulation can stifle this industry. Finally, there is this crop, with a ton of potential. But we are dealing with local politics on it.”
Industrial hemp offers a unique solution, and he understands some members of the public have an issue with the smell. But he points out the strongest odor is only “ for a few weeks and with good ag practices that can be mitigated.” Last year the county responded to complaints about the odor by passing an urgency ordinance that resulted in more than 40 percent of the crop being “wiped out.”
“It is such a magical crop, it is food, fiber, fuel and a carbon sequester,” said McGrath. He said other local growers like himself are advocating with the county to be able to grow this crop with so much potential.
“I drive the Oxnard Plain every day of my life. I know where they are fallowing farmland…the land is open, nothing on it. Our community should be helping farmers to plant cover crops to cool the surface of this planet on land being fallowed.”
McGrath said there will be more fallowing in the future and if “this county wants to do the right thing, let’s all help farmers grow cover crops.”
“With an average year of rain we can grow cover crops without using water.” This would “cool the soil surface and capture the carbon and put it back in the ground…Farmers in this county are some of the best stewards of the land that I know, but consumer demand makes us grow things that are stressful on the environment.”
He sees Ventura County as very capable of getting it right.
“For the direct markets, on our farm we grow things in season, organic,” McGrath said, and they sell to direct markets, farmers markets and through local CSAs. His produce is part of CSAs that can be purchased within a 100-mile radius. “We have a 100-mile localvore goal...We could [ all ] easily eat within 100 miles. Demand should change,” and that will take “a whole lot of education.” He said Los Angeles county is working on programs like this; he’d like to see Ventura County follow suit.
McGrath serves on the Board of the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, which meets quarterly. “There are whispers going on right now…that communities should be eating what they grow. Almost like it should be required.” He said that if just 35 percent of what people ate was grown locally, it would have a huge positive impact on the environment. He suggested that requiring food distributors and restaurants to buy local is something the county and cities should start discussing.
“Whole Foods markets, restaurants, Vons, Ralphs . . . requiring them to buy local, making it a law – that would change the world.”
McGrath Family Farms: http://www.mcgrathfamilyfarm.com
Ventura County based Community Support Agriculture (CSA) focusing on local, organic offerings:
The Abundant Table: https://theabundanttable.org/csa/
2019 Ventura County Crop Report Click Image: