To Close Loop of Sustainability, Organic Farm Commits to Local and Seasonal Eating Education
October 17, 2012 | Ron Russ
Scanning the beautiful array of certified organic crops that thrive at McGrath Family Farms in Camarillo, you know you’re in the presence of something truly special.
Phil McGrath is a fourth-generation Southern California farmer whose great-grandfather, an Irish sheep farmer, first acquired this land back in 1868. Phil grew up around the farm as a child and ultimately knew that a commitment to a lasting McGrath farming legacy was what he wanted to dedicate his life to. But, his infectious passion and appreciation for the land and the process he calls “organic farming in paradise” speak of much more than familial duty and responsibility.
Phil’s reason to fully commit to organic farming came not only from an increase in demand, but from a very personal tragedy as well – “My Dad died of cancer in 1995, and I’ve been certified organic ever since.” He’s convinced that there’s a connection between eating organic and longevity. Phil explains that at one time his customers were all educated and affluent; however, now his customers are “people who are educated in the fact that eating organic food is the way to live… and by that, I mean a way to keep living!”
I toured the 30-acres of farmland with Mike Roberts, a McGrath Family Farm Manager and Spokesman, who can’t talk about their successful diversity of production without a big smile on his face. Mike states that the diversity is essential to organic farming because “with diversity, you’re not depleting the soil of the same nutrients. If you’re a mono-cropper, you’re pulling the same nutrients out of the soil every time. We constantly replenish and enrich our soil.”
While McGrath is known for impeccable strawberries, the farm also grows tomatoes, carrots, beets, lettuces, spinach, chard, squash, pumpkins, haricot vert, and more. McGrath also grows an array of fruit and wildflowers, which attract healthy pollinators and beneficial insects.
At McGrath Family Farm, they are always looking for innovative ways to increase sustainability. A few of these creative practices really caught my attention. Nitrogen fixers – Mike explains that “nitrogen fixers play a major role on the farm because when you plant nitrogen fixing plants such as English peas, fava beans, and lima beans, you’re able to pull nitrogen from the air through the plant’s root system and really enrich the soil. This way, we’re not dependent on any chemical fertilizers.” They currently dedicate eight acres of farmland for composting, and collect used vegetable oil from neighboring restaurants, which they then convert to bio-fuel and use to power their tractors.
When discussing sustainable plans for the future, Phil took a moment to clarify what sustainable really means, because “the term has been so watered down.” Phil’s vision for the future is complete self-sufficiency in something he calls, “a closed loop of sustainability” – incorporating not only the three E’s of sustainability: Economic viability, Environmental sensitivity, and social Equitability, “but at this farm, we take it a step further and add a fourth ‘E’, and that’s Education. If you’re not educating people and if you don’t have a discussion plan for future generations, you’re not sustainable. It’s all about the education.” Phil had just finished speaking to 60 kids that morning on what it means to “eat local” and seasonally. “People love that I sell fresh and certified organic food, but if there is anything that I can’t shout loud enough into someone’s ear, it’s to eat local. And eat what’s local here in California, not what’s local in Santiago, Chile.”
On education and local demand, Mike clarifies that “of course we’re going to grow what the customers want us to grow because economically we need to meet their demand, but we’re also working hard to educate and gently shift demand so people will embrace local produce. When you grow something in its natural season, you don’t have to fight against nature. The food then tastes better, it’s fresher and it’s more nutritious that way.”
As for increasing income streams, it’s a constant challenge for an organic farm like McGrath’s. The costs to stay in business increase every year. Their current in-house income streams come from a picked-that-day roadside market and community-supported agriculture (CSA) boxes. McGrath also sells their organic produce at ten Farmers Markets within a 60 miles radius and they deliver produce to 40-50 restaurants in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, including the famed Spago of Beverly Hills, Mélisse, The Four Seasons, Animal, and Heirloom LA, just to name a few. While McGrath Family Farm produce is in high demand, it can still be a struggle to stay in the black. Phil explains, “I’m not in this business of organic farming to make a lot of money. It’s a business where you get up each day and keep pushing forward because you believe in what you’re doing.”