Welcome to 2032
Editor’s Note: In the 15 years that Edible Ojai & Ventura County has covered the county’s stories of food, drink and agriculture, we’ve seen big changes in the way we eat. There’s more organic produce, more farmers’ markets and more of a focus by farmers and consumers on eating local, reducing food waste, increased awareness of water issues and sustainable practices that are good for the Earth. We wondered what the next 15 years could bring. We asked fifth-generation Ventura County farmer Chris Sayer to pull out his crystal ball and share his thoughts.
Farming technology will change faster in the next 15 years than new crop varieties coming out. Farming is about the long haul. About 80% of the trees I tend were already in the ground when the first issue of Edible Ojai went to press in 2002, and some will probably still be there in 2032. Friend’s Ranches in Ojai just debuted a new mandarin variety. . . that has been in development since 1966. These things take time.
We live in interesting times. If someone had told me 15 years ago that an app would continuously monitor soil moisture at my farm for me, my response would have been, “What’s an ‘app’?”
Yet that technology has already been saving us water for more than a year. And it’s just a beginning. Fifteen years from now, I will know more about the health and well-being of my soil and trees than ever before. Infrared cameras and “sniffers” that detect volatile organic compounds will identify nutrient deficiencies or diseases currently detectable only by laboratory test. Many older farming practices relied on “brute force” to overcome gaps in our knowledge.
Over the next 15 years, new insights on the complexity of the biological world will spawn more sustainable, productive and balanced farming practices.
But enough with the big picture. Let’s look at the changes ahead for Ventura County, shall we?
Ventura County’s agriculture has always had a diverse and rotating roster of crops as part of the county’s landscape. I see this rapid evolution accelerating in the next 15 years, and a few familiar factors will be at play.
Drought or no drought, water has always been a precious commodity. Farmers will continue to find new ways to get “more crop for the drop.” With water both scarce and expensive, crops grown here will need to economize on irrigation and demand a premium in the marketplace.
Ultimately, crops are simply water that has been repackaged according to consumer preference. Expensive water can only be used for premium crops. We can grow nearly anything in Ventura County, but water is one of the practical constraints on our options.
Nearly all crops currently grown in Ventura County are heavily dependent on labor for planting, tending or harvesting. While complete farm automation won’t happen by 2032, the need for manual labor will be minimized. Robots? Perhaps. Or simply tasks that need a human touch will be organized so they’re as efficient and productive as possible.
Despite these challenges, our Mediterranean climate will fuel agricultural productivity. Few spots in the world can match our 365-day growing season. We won’t be immune to climate impacts. Even modest variations could have serious implications for certain crops, such as frost-sensitive avocados. But the lack of extreme heat, cold or humidity means this will remain an ideal place to grow a wide variety of produce.
Perhaps the farmscape of 2032 Ventura County is best viewed through the lens of two familiar crops: strawberries and lemons. Both have been staples of our agriculture for decades. Since the 1940s, these two have had a lock on the top spots. But existing trends suggest that they may not be so dominant by 2032.
Strawberries have declined slightly over the last several years, whether measured by acres or dollars. Large strawberry growers with operations up and down the West Coast dominate the markets, allowing them to supply customers year round. Our county plays an important role in this strategy by providing berries during crucial market windows.
But this is an expensive place to farm, and producers are already showing an interest in reducing their dependence on the Ventura County crop. Strawberries will remain among the county’s top crops, but acreage will shrink and their season will shorten to the most valuable periods.
Lemons face pressure from pests and disease, yet prices have been strong for the past few years and lemon demand is increasing. These factors will encourage our county’s sour staple to adopt a smaller and more intensively farmed model.
Growers like me are already moving toward high-density lemon plantings and more tightly pruned trees. More productive trees in less space equal more efficient use of increasingly expensive land, water and labor.
This leaves more space for exciting varieties like mandarins, Meyer lemons and finger limes. These naturally compact trees readily adapt to these growing techniques and promise to add a little more variety to our local citrus offerings.
Hoophouse growing techniques, borrowed from raspberries, will shield citrus trees from pests and disease while giving growers new tools to adapt to variations in climate. This may prove to be a transitional stage toward more heavily automated orchards in which nearly all pruning and harvesting are carried out by machines. These technologies will not be standard farming practice in the U.S. by 2032, but they will be here.
What will make up that “lost ground”?
Radishes, mustards, green onions, cilantro and herbs. These workhorses offer chefs many options for savory dishes. They have phytonutrients that draw the attention of nutritionists and food scientists. Dozens of potential “superfoods” are already being grown right here in our backyard.
Fifteen years ago, kale—not yet the megastar—was already a million-dollar crop in Ventura County. The “next kale” is already in our farmers’ markets. Time will tell which crop will be it.
Vegetables’ short crop cycles also grant them a competitive advantage in terms of climate adaptability. Lemon growers make a 30-year bet on the climate; a cilantro farmer cashes out her chips after just 45 days. This agility will be an increasingly important tool for local farmers.
This rapid crop rotation also promises greater diversity. Crops that might not be economically viable on their own will flourish with the chance to rotate in more lucrative options. We will never be able to compete with the Midwest’s commodity soybeans, but nitrogen fixing and protein-packed legumes have something to offer farmers and foodies alike. Will locally sourced tempeh or miso be a food trend that has its roots (pun intended) in improved local soil? Possibly.
If all this indeed happens, remember that you heard it here first. If it doesn’t, know that Mother Nature and consumers aren’t always predictable. That’s what makes farming interesting!
SPECIALTY CROPS, CIRCA 2032
Here is a list of specialty crops now under development that you might be seeing in Ventura County in 2032, according to Ben Faber, advisor at the University of California, Cooperative Extension Ventura County. Already familiar items on the list reflect ongoing research into new varieties.
Perishable produce that only grows in our mild climate with our water and can’t be processed from a cheaper producing area.