Last week, Phil McGrath joined Chef Matt Poley of Heirloom LA for a seasonal cooking demonstration at our Yamshiro Farmers Market. This week we’d like to give you a deeper look into the farmer, the land and the history of McGrath Family Farm.
Article written by: Rachael Maysels
In Ventura County where agricultural pesticide use is high and the demand for luxury crops is even higher, the McGrath family stands as a bold and defiant contrast to the ideology and practices that surround them. McGrath Family Farms are entirely organic. For five generations they have cultivated five thousand acres between Oxnard and Camarillo using organic practices. The farmland is divided amongst the large family. City Farm had the privilege of interviewing Phil McGrath who owns the Camarillo portion of McGrath farms right off the 101 freeway. Phil works closely with one of City Farm’s favorite food trucks, Heirloom LA. Together McGrath Farm’s tasty produce and Heirloom’s innovative meals make one delectable combo.
Phil credits his land savvy ancestors for a lot of his organic farming knowledge and for taking such good care of the soil. He said, “my ancestors taught me how to farm diversity, rotate crops, compost; things that allow for sustainability.” Phil has also learned a lot about the area’s environmental history through his family. For example, the McGraths have seen a drastic decline in the water supply for Ventura County. Phil states, “what grows best in this county is luxury crops; raspberries, strawberries, lemons, avocados which are all heavy, heavy water users.” As the demand for these crops grew, Ventura County pumped more to irrigate the crops. Because of the proximity to the ocean, water supplies became saline. The current water supply is extremely rationed. Luckily, McGrath farm is able to have two wells on their farm in Camarillo. Phil believes it is severely unsustainable to grow water intensive luxury crops and ship them worldwide.
A very popular feature of McGrath Farms is the U-pick program. They are the only organic U-pick in the area, which attracts many visitors. Phil said, “I plant old varieties with lots of flavor.” The farm also offers educational tours. McGrath Farms receive students from across the world to learn organic farming techniques. Phil told City Farm, “We have a real strong education component.” Phil enjoys having high school and college students come to the farm. The farm is a gigantic outdoor lab for hands on education.
To Phil, organic farming should not need to be called “organic” farming. Organic farming and conventional farming should be synonyms. It was not until very recently in history that conventional farming became farming with chemicals. “I believe organic farming is the future. We need more food without chemicals.” According to Phil, even though the cost of organics is said to deter people from buying them, he has seen a change in his patrons over the past several years. He went on, “my customer base used to be mainly affluent, educated people. Now it’s just educated people that find a way to budget for healthy food.”
Through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), U-pick program, farmers markets, and restaurant cooperation, McGrath Farms make it easy for customers to have access to organic produce. Heirloom LA spreads McGrath’s produce all over the county, catering and with their food truck. Heirloom food truck is a highlight of City Farm’s Yamashiro farmers’ market. Phil says it is just wonderful to work with the Heriloom team, “they are right on the money. They want to buy local, they want to buy in season, and it’s simply delicious.” Heirloom makes weekly visits to McGrath farms for fresh food. When asked to name his favorite dish from Heriloom, Phil had a tough time choosing only one. He finally answered, “once they brought stuffed squash blossom to the farm. I could’ve eaten 50 of those things.”
Phil has concluded that the future of the agri-food system in the hands of educated consumers. Phil spoke seriously, “if everybody saw how much strawberries were sprayed they would stop eating strawberries.” It is up to the public to create the demand for more organically grown produce. Many farmers cultivate with chemicals because at the moment it can be the more lucrative business plan. But as time and opinions change, so could business plans.
Phil prophesized that with an increased demand for organics struggling farmers would benefit, as would the environment, and public health. But hey, if you are not convinced just try one of Heirloom’s lasagna cupcakes and taste the mouthwatering effect off organic ingredients!