When you whiz through Camarillo on Highway 101, you see a startling juxtaposition of urban and rural landscapes. The side by side crowding of neatly tilled, irregularly shaped fields with housing and retail businesses is made all the more eye-catching because it is hard to determine which landscape seems more natural, given each one’s proximity to Los Angeles and the booming metropolis of Oxnard.
For most of California, farming was once the leading economic enterprise, but California’s mild weather and proximity to oceanfront vistas has pitted farmland against the demands of urban populations since the earliest days of settlement by non-native people. In spite of the lasting legacy of the California mission system, Spanish occupation of the Oxnard plain, which is where Camarillo is situated, lasted only thirty years, from 1820 to 1850. In 1850, an eastern banker named Thomas Bard purchased virtually all of the fertile Oxnard plain for about two cents per acre. He then sold large tracts of land to German and Irish settlers who were arriving in California in waves of western migration. Some of the farmland that is bisected by the 101 freeway is part of the original McGrath family farm — a farm that once consisted of 7,000 acres, comprising virtually all the beachfront property from Hueneme to Ventura. You can still see signs for McGrath State beach, which the family deeded to the state, on California roadmaps.
Today McGrath Family farm is in the hands of the third generation of McGraths to farm in California. The nine McGrath children jointly own the 300 acres that were their father’s share of his grandfather Dominic McGrath’s sheep, cattle and dairy farms. Dominic McGrath purchased land in the area in 1867 after he noticed that the mustard plants in Oxnard were higher than any he had seen in the state. He was correct in his assumption that the plain would be good for farming, and, up until the 1960s, rows of vegetable crops and walnut orchards covered the land.
By the 1970s, much of the farmland was being converted to urban development, and, by then, large strawberry growers were also moving in from all over the state, leasing huge tracts of land for the high value strawberry crop. Competition between big agricultural interests and housing developers drove land prices up so high that small local farmers couldn’t afford to lease farmland for their own farms. The McGraths themselves leased their property to a big grower from Salinas and Phil McGrath went to work for his own tenant. Phil’s brother Brian kept several acres of the farm for himself to grow lettuce and row crops, and began taking produce to Los Angeles area farmers’ markets in the early 1980s. In 1992, Salinas gave up its lease on the McGrath farm and Brian headed down to Mexico. ( Most of the McGraths are avid surfers and are known to skip a market occasionally when the surf report is auspicious.) Phil started going to farmers’ markets himself, and noticed that strawberry and flowers would be a valuable addition to his produce sales. At one time, the McGrath farm stand was participating in 18 farmers’ markets per week in Ventura and Los Angeles counties.
Phil McGrath also paid attention to the increasing customer demands for organic produce. He converted his farm to organic production in 1995, even anticipating the phase out of strawberry farmers’ preferred soil sterilization treatment, methyl bromide, and offering organic strawberries – a product that commercial growers vowed could never be grown organically. Customers, and later chefs who were drawn to farmers’ markets because of the variety and freshness of the produce, also started asking for unique crops like arugula, rapini, fava beans and English shelling peas. The interaction with customers allowed Phil to tailormake his farming operation to suit his customers. By the late nineties, restaurant demand had increased to the point that Phil now dedicates his entire Friday to direct restaurant deliveries from Ojai to Los Angeles. He has cut back his farmers’ markets to seven per week and is concentrating on farming for his established customers.
Phil is carrying on the McGrath Family Farm tradition on about thirty acres of land. On this piece of land, so close to the Ventura freeway that one must shout to be heard over the traffic noise in the front driveway, Phil farms forty row crops, which are rotated in three-acre sections every three weeks. At one time the McGrath farm stand was a popular local retail destination, and a place where school tours were given hay rides and a trip to the strawberry or pumpkin patch. Phil leased some of his frontage to an orchid grower who built greenhouses and set up a retail nursery, and he currently leases the remaining ninety percent of his land to the principal owners of berry-growing giant Driscoll, who was looking to lease organic acreage for raspberries and strawberries. Driscoll’s well-tended plastic covered hoop houses stretch in neat rows behind Phil’s fields of organic strawberry, flower and vegetable crops, but Driscoll does not represent competition for Phil’s farming operation – Driscoll is growing for the European and Pacific rim export market.
In 1992, Phil was forced to close his popular roadside stand, with its excellent views of the freeway, due to an obscure Ventura county ordinance that prohibits more than one retail outlet on the same farm property. But Phil has plans to open his farm again to tours and retail sales and to build a cooking facility so that meals can be harvested and prepared right on the farm. He is currently involved in negotiating what he calls “the 999th hurdle” of “the 1,000 hurdles” that exist in County ordinances before he re-opens his farm stand. In a flight of preservationist whimsy, Phil recently purchased the 1931 era one-room schoolhouse where his sister once taught, and had the entire edifice moved to his farm. He has plans to turn the building into an office, agriculture center and non-profit board meeting room once he sets it down. He is also planting a grove of palm trees in what will soon be the office’s front entrance.
Half of the McGrath Farm’s historic three hundred acre holdings is permanently set aside as an agricultural preserve. The remaining one hundred fifty acres is in an urban reserve, subject to development if the rest of Phil’s eight brothers and sisters decide to sell. Farmland is valued in Ventura County, which passed the Save Our Agricultural Resources Act (SOAR) in 1999. This law requires that conversion of farmland away from farming must be approved by a county-wide vote, but farmers can also dedicate part of their land to development. When you walk the back property line of McGrath Farm’s vegetable and berry fields, you can see the future of urban farming, located within earshot of one of the busiest freeways on earth. With good neighbors in front and in back, McGrath Farm is secure as an organic farm and has the potential to grow into an urban agricultural resource center. It’s worth taking a longer look at the next time you drive by.