The Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County is calling for the agriculture community to build food-processing facilities based on findings from a study it commissioned.
The report, gathered by the Hatamiya Group and Applied Development Economics, estimated that the total additional revenue from crop processing would create thousands of jobs and double the value of the region’s agricultural land.
“What we need to keep in mind is that agriculture and the extended food systems it supports are anything but static,” said Harold Edwards, CEO of Limoneira, at the EDC-VC agricultural forecast event at Spanish Hills Country Club in Camarillo on Jan 21.
The facilities would address increasing consumer demand to know where their food products are grown, said Lon Hatamiya, who conducted the study. They would also help growers manage crop surpluses and reduce transportation costs.
Also proposed was the creation of a Food Hub — a center for “light processing” like washing, cutting and packaging — where food could be divided for sale as fresh produce or shipped for further processing like pureeing, canning or production of secondary fresh-food products.
Zoning ordinances currently don’t allow some of the functions that a processing plant would require, such as onsite cooking. Rather than converting existing urban industrial land for agriculture processing, the EDC-VC recommended building facilities on ag land that has been fallowed.
“We don’t want to take the non-ag industrial land and dig into that $7.2 million,” said Hatamiya, referencing the value that land currently generates. “We need to take a look at other sites throughout the county. That raises the question of where do these processing centers belong?”
About 560,000 acres of land were fallowed throughout California last year due to water restrictions. The study recommends building the facilities on 223 acres of “marginal farm land” with access to transportation or proximity to urban areas.
Water availability and wastewater treatment would also be key factors in determining where and whether to build the plants. Treatment of wastewater would need to be done onsite, Hatamiya said, and many of the technologies needed to do so on a small scale are already being used throughout the county.
Edwards asked attendees to give the idea “thoughtful consideration” and several questions were raised after the presentation.
One area of concern was the budding agritourism industry, which could be impacted by industrial activity so close to where food is grown.
“Agritourism could be potentially a big driver for Ventura County but there also has to be a balancing,” Hatamiya said. “Do we want more cars or trucks in Ventura County? That’s something you have to prioritize as a county.”
Another question raised the possibility of increasing the production of existing, underutilized facilities, which were not included in the EDC-VC analysis.
Protection of agricultural land was the top priority for attendees, though.
“Our interest is to assure the sustainability of our region’s agriculture sector, simultaneously diversifying job opportunity, improving regional food security and preserving regional quality of life as defined by a regional balance of the built and open-space boundaries,” the study said.