June 3, 2010
By Melissa H. Sayer
Source: Ventura County Star - Online Edition.
The agricultural industry in Ventura County and California is changing as consumer demands, financing and environmental views change, a panel of experts told business leaders Wednesday in Westlake Village.
The breakfast seminar was organized by the local chapter of the Association for Corporate Growth, which serves business executives and professionals in the West Valley-Ventura County-Santa Barbara areas.
The panel discussion featured Kevin Elms, chief financial officer of Dole Packaged Foods; Jim Ramirez, a senior vice president of City National Bank who specializes in agricultural lending; and Melissa Sayer, a partner in the law firm of Nordman Cormany Hair & Compton who also owns a ranch near Santa Paula.
The discussion on the state of the agricultural industry in California began with moderator Lynda Roth, who sits on the Association for Corporate Growth’s board, asking the panel about the dynamics of change.
“The constant in Ventura County agriculture is change,” said Sayer. “You can almost grow anything in Ventura County, and so demand is what drives agriculture in the county.”
Elms agreed, saying a key challenge for Dole is to keep ahead of the game when it comes to what consumers want.
“You have to be smart about seeing the trends and making the shift,” he said. “We had many more acres of peaches and apricots 10 years ago. They’ve been replaced by strawberries and other berries. You can’t sell more than what people want.”
Sayer said the high costs of land, water and labor in Ventura County also influence the types of crops grown locally. “We tend to grow crops that sell at a premium to offset those costs,” she said.
Other changes in recent years, the panel said, include better stewardship of the environment, technological advances in pest control and tracking produce from the point of harvest to the store shelf.
Sayer said the way farms are organized has also changed as a result of estate planning, risk assessment and liability issues. She said mom-and-pop farms are disappearing and being replaced with business entities working cooperatively.
“There are still family farms, but they are entity-owned,” she said. “One entity will own the land, one will operate the farm and another will do the distribution.”
Ramirez cited an increase in private equity investment in agriculture locally.
“It just speaks to the under-capitalization that’s going on in this market,” he said. “Family farms have to be of significant size just to compete in today’s market. But it’s a very innovative industry and they solve problems as they go along.”