Though many Americans are becoming more familiar with boutique-level agriculture due to the ongoing farm-to-table zeitgeist — an interest that the pandemic only sparked brighter — few of us are ever able to really visit the sort of large-scale operations that grow and distribute food across the country. That’s even true in Santa Barbara County, where agriculture is our number-one industry — more than $1.8 billion from crops in 2020 alone! — and numerous farms, particularly in the Santa Maria Valley, are critical contributors to the nation’s produce aisles.
This is one wall that the second-ever Santa Barbara County Farm Day aims to tear down. Organized by Mary Maranville, a dairy farmer’s daughter who founded Students for Eco-Education and Agriculture (SEEAG) in 2008, the September 18 event offers free tours, tastings, and giveaways at 14 farms, vineyards, packers, and other businesses both large and small. It follows the country’s inaugural Farm Day in 2019 and is modeled after a Ventura County Farm Day that Maranville started in 2013. (That one happens on November 6.)
“Even with the rich agricultural heritage of California’s Central Coast, a surprising number of consumers fail to understand the food supply chain or the rigorous best practices and regulations that all growers, including small and mid-sized growers, must adhere to,” explained Maranville, who said that the lack of knowledge became far more apparent during the pandemic, triggering “a crisis of consumer confidence” as people wondered whether food was safe to eat.
“The situation clearly demonstrated the need for consumers to better understand how their food is produced, particularly on a local and regional level, so that they can feel confident in purchasing from small and mid-sized local and regional growers,” said Maranville. “Farm Day bridges the gap between the community and growers so they ask questions that will hopefully lead to more trust and confidence in our local food supply chain.”
Alexandra Allen, who owns and operates Santa Maria’s Main Street Produce with her husband, Paul Allen, knows this disconnect firsthand. “The public really wants to know where their food is coming from, especially with the increased interest in food security as a national security issue,” she said. “Without an event like Farm Day, it’s almost impossible for people to get such an up-close and informative look at how our farmers do it, and to understand the challenges we face.”
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Another participant is Santa Maria’s Babé Farms, owned and operated by cofounder Judy Lundberg-Wafer and her son Jeff Lundberg. The specialty vegetable-focused company straddles the fence between large and small, distributing their produce nationally while also selling their produce directly to Central Coast consumers.
“While it’s true that Babé Farms is a large producer with distribution nationwide and even into Canada, it is important to us to remain grounded as a fixture in our local community,” said Lundberg, whose social media outreach led to parking-lot sales at the California Fresh Markets in Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo and El Rancho Market in Solvang. “It feels great to work with this highly regarded local retail chain to offer our specialty vegetables to the people of the Central Coast, who have been requesting a place to purchase them for quite a while.”
Those who visit Babé Farms on Farm Day will find a farmers’ market setup, with staff on hand to tell the family’s story, explain the operation, and answer questions. Bonus: “There will be a special appearance from Kelly Barretto with Amazing Grazing, who will demonstrate how she builds her famous grazing boards using Babé Farms vegetables,” said Lundberg. Then attendees can take home some veggies as well.
Allen, from Main Street Produce, will use the opportunity to share how much the industry gives back to the community, noting that 2020’s $1.8 billion total represents mostly “new” money coming into Santa Barbara from outside, not just dollars trading hands here.
“The vast majority of that money went right back into the community in the form of wages for not only farmworkers, but also for administrative employees and accountants and lawyers and crop scientists and insurance companies and housing for employees and caterers who provide meals and vendors selling the wide array of inputs and equipment we need to produce our crops,” said Allen. “I don’t think that most folks realize the importance of all of those ‘new’ dollars to our local economies, but I sure wish they would.”
Santa Barbara County Farm Day is Saturday, September 18, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Call (805) 901-0213 or see santabarbaracountyfarmday.com.