Remember that movie titled The Kid Stays in the Picture? It was a documentary film about Robert Evans — the hipster producer of the 70s who, among other things, married Ali MacGraw and produced Chinatown, and then generally faded from sight until his biopic came out, reminding viewers that talent and passion can result in career longevity, even when the public has forgotten you.
This scenario seems to me to demonstrate the situation that the children of generations of nearly forgotten farmers find themselves in today. These young members of multi-generational farming families find themselves in a dilemma — whether to stay on the farm and figure out a way to make the farm profitable or to sell out and move away. Farmers have found an increasingly productive niche selling at farmers’ markets, where the connection between the work they do and the customers they serve has become more meaningful and rewarding. And it is just this kind of connection that allows younger farmers to envision a future for themselves on the farm.
Emily Thacher is a fifth generation farmer from Ojai. Her great grandmother emigrated from England in the 1870s and settled in Ojai where, like many early settlers in the area, the family took up orchard farming under the family name of Friends Ranch. The Ojai valley was home to lush orchards of citrus, avocados and walnuts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and today it clings to its homesteading agricultural heritage through strict preservation ordinances.
But the zoning ordinances have an expiration date, and farmers in Ojai are under constant pressure to make the land productive or get out of farming. Citrus growers in particular have a difficult time of it since their staple orange crops of winter Navels and summer Valencias have not increased in price for decades while fuel, land and labor costs have. Most of the Friends Ranch oranges went to Sunkist for the export market, but in the late 1990s foreign competition caused farm prices in California to drop precipitously.
Some members of Emily and her brother George’s family urged them not to go into farming, but their father Tony encouraged them to do whatever they chose. Emily began accompanying her father to farmers’ markets when she was six years old, waking up at three a.m. and working the stand, making change and talking to customers. She found the work to be rewarding and challenging, and she wrote her college entrance exam based on her early selling experiences. She kept on working at markets and on the farm during her college and post graduate summers and vacations in between studying biology and then entymology, and thought of becoming a tropical forest ecologist or a marine biologist.
After graduation she moved back home and did research work for Ventura County, but she missed being her own boss as she had been while working the farm stand at markets.
Meanwhile back on the farm, Emily’s father Tony and several other local growers had begun to market their Ojai specialty, Pixie tangerines, a delicious, all but forgotten seedless tangerine that grew in Ojai like no other place on earth. The growers formed a marketing cooperative, the Ojai Pixie Growers Association (OPGA) and marketed their fruit to specialty markets.
Emily came back to Friends Ranch and began working for the OPGA, lining up buyers and heading up the marketing committee. She also coordinates packing of the Pixies during the harvest season beginning each March. Understanding the Pixie’s unique flavor and growing capabilities — they are alternate bearing and produce a big crop only every other year – helped the growers better understand their product so they could identify buyers who would appreciate it.
All one hundred acres of Ojai Pixie tangerines are now sold through direct buyer contacts. One of the main selling points is that the Pixies come from small family farms — a point that is not lost on Emily, who sees a future for Friends Ranch in growing specialty citrus crops for direct marketing to customers who want to keep farmers farming.
Emily’s brother George moved off the farm and is working in the agriculture business in Northern California. Emily was selected to participate in a two-year Ag Leadership program that will take her to Asia on an extended agricultural visit. She and her fellow classmates have already been to the Midwest to study food cooperatives, and they have been to the nation’s capitol to meet with the Secretary of Agriculture. Her experiences and professional contacts will continue, but Emily is already considering the possibilities of where Friends Ranch will be in the future. Aside from planting new orchards of specialty tangerines, she envisions educating consumers about her farm and farming. She notes with interest that ag tourism is becoming increasingly popular and that bus tours to farms are quickly sold out. Realizing that gas prices have nowhere to go but up, Emily has been suggesting that the next new farm truck should be biodiesel. Looking to the future from a 130-year old farm is where Friends Ranch is today, and where it hopes to stay.
Visit Friends Ranch at the Wednesday Santa Monica, Saturday Gardena and Sunday Hollywood farmers’ markets. And you can visit their website at www.friendsranches.com