The Clever Root

Fall / Winter 2015

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1 1 0 | t h e c l e v e r r o o t Taking Root with Phil McGrath Owner of McGrath Family Farms, Ventura County, California by Chelsea Kurnick TAKING ROOT NOT MANY TEN-YEAR-OLDS know how to harvest lima beans, let alone steer a tractor, but for farmer Phil McGrath, this was daily life. McGrath's is the story of the American farmer—parents have kids, those kids have kids, and the land gets divided. Since 1971, he's been farming the Cla- burg Ranch and the Helm Ranch in Camarillo, California, which together is the 300 acres they call McGrath Family Farms. As a young man, McGrath held various jobs that took him away from agriculture, but they made him appreciate farming all the more. "My dad never forced any of us to farm. It just kind of grew on me. Can I use that pun?" he jokes. When McGrath's great grandfather Dominick arrived in Southern California in 1868 and saw six-foot-tall mustard plants, he knew he had found a farmer's utopia in Ventura County's coastal plains. By 1948, the McGrath family's farmland had grown to 5,000 acres across the western Ventura County cities of Ventura, Port Hueneme, Oxnard, and Camarillo. McGrath has been selling weekly at Los Angeles farmers markets in Santa Monica and Hollywood since the 1980s, cementing McGrath Fam- ily Farm's reputation for direct-market organic fruit. "The Santa Monica Farmers Market on Wednesdays is considered a food hub. It's the center of the universe for California farmers and chefs," says McGrath, whose produce can be found on restaurant menus throughout Los Angeles and Ventura counties, including AOC, Spago Beverly Hills, Heirloom LA, The Hungry Cat, and Lure Fish House. Crop diversity is for McGrath a joy, a challenge, and a necessity. He tills more than 20 different crops, from berries to leafy greens to favas. Being certified organic, McGrath's farm can't use fumigants or GMOs. "It makes you farm a little Old World-ish. We grow a lot of legumes, for instance, because they take nitrogen out of the air and put it back into the ground." He adds, "My farm is one of the healthiest farms in the county; it has microorganisms and good bugs and bad bugs, bad soil pathogens and good soil pathogens. It has a balance, and that's what organic farming is." Some people think that we farmers can't wait to sell our property for development. My family has been farming in Ventura County for 150 years, and I hope we'll be farming for another 150 years. 1 2 3 4 5 I could never understand why people want baby vegetables — I like something with a little meat on it, with some nutrition. I like fully developed produce. I think most non-farmers kind of glamorize or romanticize it, but it's a heck of a lot of work. We've got eight billion people on this planet. I love to talk about population stabilization motiva- tions because my secret agenda is saving farmland, especially along the coast of Southern California. PHIL MCGRATH'S TOP 5 PET PEEVES Strawberries are big babies. Too much water? Waaa. Not enough water? Waaa. New fertilizer? Wa wa wa. The 5 List 3 I just love that restaurants in Los Angeles are putting our name on their menu, saying "fresh from the fields of McGrath Farms." 1 Spaghetti squash, I think it's wonder- ful—it's sweet, it's light, it looks like spaghetti! 2 Organic is about the way we farmed for the first 10,000 years, and it just so happens that it's good stewardship and really sustainable. 4 5 Chefs and farmers have a totally unique relation- ship, and I love chefs. The quirkier the better—I fit right in with them. Farming on the southern coastal Californian plains— this is paradise farming, Utopia. PHIL MCGRATH'S TOP 5 FAVES ■cr PHOTO COURTESY OF MCGRATH FAMILY FARMS

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