Farmer standing in front of his field with a house in the backgroundPhil McGrath, owner of McGrath Family Farm, on the site of the new California Organic Center in collaboration with Rodale Institute. Image courtesy of Rodale Institute

Farming for the future and salvation in the soil

By Marianne Landzettel

California’s Oxnard Plain used to be a farmer’s dream. This area of Ventura County was renowned for its extremely fertile soil, a favorable climate, and an adequate supply of water. Until it wasn’t.

Water has been Phil McGrath’s biggest worry for several years now. “The last good rainfall I can remember was in 2007,” he says.

At 70, McGrath represents the fourth generation of his family farm, cultivating some of the land his great-grandfather acquired in the late 1860s. Today, the 300-acre McGrath Family Farm consists of several organic specialty crop micro-farms, including two acres on which McGrath grows organic strawberries. Some of his out-of-season strawberries are available throughout fall.

Managing water is a constant priority. A drip irrigation system waters the roots of his soil-grown strawberries, while micro sprinklers deliver the precise amount of water that’s needed above ground. “You cannot irrigate more efficiently than this,” he says.

McGrath’s per acre water allocation is 2.3 acre-feet, which he says is just about enough. (An acre-foot of water equals about 326,000 gallons, enough water to cover an acre of land about 1-foot deep.) “The water price has gone up from $80 per acre-foot to $405,” he says. “In ten years we’ll pay $1,000 (per acre-foot), if there is still water available to buy.”

California is taking measures to conserve it. In compliance with the state’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, which went into effect in 2020, Oxnard Plain’s water district is tasking farmers with reducing their water consumption by 40% over 20 years. ‘We cannot keep doing things the way we have done in the past,” McGrath says.

In his search for solutions he has partnered with the Rodale Institute. As the satellite location for the Rodale California Organic Centre since 2019, the McGrath Family Farm is pioneering new, sustainable ways of growing strawberries. (The farm is working towards becoming Regenerative Organic Certified.)

Last year McGrath tested cover crops on his strawberry beds. He flattened the mature plants with a roller-crimper, an efficient tool that gives cover crops a second life as a medium for cash crops. Instead of using plastic for weed suppression and moisture conservation, McGrath now plants his strawberries directly into the thick matt of cover crop residue. “And we work a lot more with composting,” he says. “Our results have been really good, and in my mind, this is the only way forward.”

Compost applications and cover crops not only improve soil quality and fertility, healthy soil can also store more moisture and the mulch protects the young plants from too much heat. California suffered from prolonged extreme heat this year. “It’s 109 out there,” McGrath noted during our early September conversation. “We truly are in a climate crisis.”

To McGrath, true sustainability in fruit and vegetable production includes ensuring the well-being of everyone working on a farm. The farm has been certified organic since 1995, in part because McGrath recognized the health risks that agrochemicals pose for farm workers. It took another 10 years until methyl bromide, a pesticide that was particularly popular among strawberry growers and is prohibited in organic production, was banned in California, the state that produces 90% of US strawberries.

McGrath has been mentoring young farmers, and together with the McGrath Family Farm manager, he is setting up a food hub. He hopes it will help to provide customers, including farmworkers and other low-income earners with affordable, fresh food. The farm also supplies fruit and vegetables to local schools.

Each of those initiatives is guided by an eye on the future. McGrath comes from a family of ten and soon there will be a seventh generation entering farming. He plans to help them, along with future generations of McGraths, the best way he can — by looking after the soil.

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