The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Fruits and Vegetables Farmer

Fruits and Vegetables Farmer

From the Farmer's Tractor

March 25, 2012

Craig Underwood, 69, farms about 2,000 acres on his Underwood Ranches Farms and about 130 acres on his Underwood Family Farms – based in Ventura and Kern Counties, California. Underwood grows a wide variety of fresh vegetables and fruits, and offers pick-your-own produce activities as well as school tours. Underwood’s mission is to cultivate a relationship between the consumer and the farm. 

 
How did you get into farming? 

I started farming with my father in 1967 after four years at Cornell University majoring in agriculture and 3.5 years in the Navy as engineering officer on a destroyer out of San Diego.
 
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

Drip irrigation increasingly replaces sprinkler irrigation. Nutrients are applied more precisely through the drip and the amounts are better calculated for the crops. More biological and soft materials are used for the control of damaging pests and diseases. Mechanization of harvesting is increasing. GPS equipped tractors make ground preparation more efficient, and the GPS equipped application of drip tape in the beds makes its placement more precise. Pressure compensating drip tape delivers water and nutrients evenly throughout the fields and over sloping ground. Electronically guided cultivators allow for faster and more precise cultivation.

Underwood Family Farms is connecting with the consumer more through different means. In the last three years, we have started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program that delivers a box of seasonal produce directly to drop off points in different locations throughout Ventura and Los Angeles. It is harvested, packed, and delivered within 36 hours. U-pick has expanded on the farm in Moorpark and Somis, offering a wide variety of vegetables as well as blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries. Summer camp at Moorpark brings children to the farm for a five-day experience with farm animals and fruit and vegetable experiences. School tours provide an educational and fun time picking and learning about fruits, vegetables, and animals. Our farmers markets continue to grow and increase in number. The Harvest Festival in October is a fun time celebrating harvest and pumpkins. Easter has become a very popular occasion to visit the Moorpark farm as well.
 
How will farming evolve in the next five years?

That is very difficult to answer. The trends that are in place will continue. People are recognizing the value of locally grown and seasonally fresh, which is a good thing. They need to keep in mind that the food system in place is very efficient in delivering fresh produce all year. Farming has a number of challenges ahead in dealing with potential shortages of labor and water. How those are met is as of yet unknown. Never in history have we had such a plentiful and varied supply of food. That is largely dependent on the energy of fossil fuels. Any increase in the cost of oil drives up the cost of fertilizer, water, transportation, and ground preparation, which are all directly impacted. Organic production can be a heavy consumer of fossil fuels. It requires hauling large quantities of organic material to spread on the fields. Organically approved pesticides are often less effective, so require many more passes spraying the crops to protect them from disease or pests. Organic fertilizers must be applied more often, requiring more fuel.
 
What is your greatest challenge as a farmer?

The greatest challenge is complying with the myriad of regulations, which include the following: Food Safety, Air Quality, Water Quality, Hazardous Waste, Chemical Reporting, Environmental Health, County Planning Regulations, Safety, Labor Regulations (both State and Federal and posting requirements), Water Use Reporting and Supply Management. The various regulations require compliance and reporting. An increasing amount of time and resources must be devoted to these efforts, which does take away time from managing the actual farming operation. Labor supply and water availability are large worries too.
 
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

We talk to our retail customers daily and work out programs with them a year ahead. Our planning process for planting is at least a year out. Periodicals are constantly discussing trends, and we are on alert to what the consumer is telling us at our roadside markets. It is important to keep track of what the chefs are saying, the trends on cooking shows, and what is being talked about in the food sections of the newspapers.
 
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

In addition to what I have already mentioned, we have dramatically expanded our use of cover cropping on our vegetable ground. It is a practice we have followed for years in the orchards. Water is being conserved through trickle irrigation practices. Wherever possible, sediment retention basins are constructed.
 
Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

We sell through farmers markets, CSA’s, u-pick, roadside markets in Somis and Moorpark, and restaurants buy directly from us.
 
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

They are usually very interested in the farm and have questions about growing practices and food preparation. They are almost always glad to connect a person with the food they are buying. I think most people appreciate knowing a farmer.