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Santa Barbara County’s $1.5 billion agricultural industry will take center stage later this month as part of a special daylong event designed to link farmers and ranchers with the general public.

Scheduled for Sept. 28, the inaugural Santa Barbara County Farm Day offers community members a chance to tour 13 agricultural operations -- from farms and ranches to wineries and testing labs -- that dot the Santa Maria Valley.

Mary Maranville, founder and CEO of Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture (SEEAG), the Ventura County nonprofit organizing Farm Day, hopes it will “bridge the gap” between the general public and the region’s robust agricultural heritage.

“It’s a call to action to have everyone visit a farm and meet a farmer in their own backyard,” she said. “You knew your farmers, but now you don’t. You really need to.”

Raised on a dairy farm in upstate New York, Maranville, who moved to Ventura County about two decades ago, said she was shocked after witnessing a field trip where children “didn’t have any idea about where the food came from and what the word 'agriculture' meant.”

Since founding SEEAG in 2008, Maranville estimates that the organization has connected more than 40,000 Ventura County students to local farmlands and agricultural producers. Parents, who often chaperoned the trips, were equally as shocked to learn of the region’s multibillion-dollar agricultural industry.

“I think the average person takes it for granted that this grocery store is going to be full,” she said. “They don’t know how many hands touch their food, all the resources that are needed, the time. I would ask, ‘How much time does it take to grow a carrot?’ and they just had no idea.”

In 2013, with the support of 10 growers, hundreds of Ventura residents flocked to the county’s first Farm Day. Now in its seventh year, Maranville said growers with Ventura County operations suggested hosting a similar event in the Santa Maria Valley.

“They know they have to make the general public advocates and ambassadors for what they do,” she said. “When [people] go to the grocery store, they want to buy food. But when it comes time to supporting you, helping you and making your lives easier … they’re not in your court sometimes.”

For Larry Ferini, president of Rancho Laguna Farms, Farm Day is an opportunity to reach members of the general public who are reliant on farmers but may not know much about their work.

“Farmers are a pretty friendly bunch, and they like to make friends,” he said. “Through education and exposure to what we do, we can make more friends.”

A fourth-generation family farmer, Ferini’s roots in the Santa Maria Valley stretch back to the late 1800s, when his great-grandfather Peter, a Swiss immigrant, founded a dairy outside Santa Maria. His grandfather Milo partnered with Dominick Ardantz, a family friend, in the 1930s to run a sugar beet farm that eventually grew into the Bonipak produce company.

While his father, Peter, was not a farmer, Larry credits his uncles, Milo and Patrick Ferini, and Henri Ardantz, their partner, with bringing him up in the industry.

Ferini, who founded Rancho Laguna Farms in 1990 and has been farming the Santa Maria Valley for nearly 30 years, said he’s observed a disconnect between growers and the general population despite the proximity of farms and ranches to cities along the Central Coast.

“Once upon a time, we were an agrarian society; most everybody was related to a farm,” he said. “They had a family member that farmed or worked on a farm. Twenty years ago, we were 2% of the population. Now, it’s 1%.”

Though normally closed to the public due to food safety and other regulations, Maranville said Farm Day provides growers an opportunity to open their operations and “demystify” what’s going on in hoop houses and on ranches.

She hopes to expand Farm Day up the Central Coast, into Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, and possibly across the state.

The Inaugural Santa Barbara County Farm Day is scheduled to kick off on Sept. 27, with a Santa Maria-style farm-to-table dinner at Tres Hermanas Vineyard & Winery. Tickets are $100 and available online at www.santabarbaracountyfarmday.com. A full list of tours and participating growers, as well as a map, also are accessible on the website.

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