The North Bay is what it is in part because of those once-famous orchards long-gone and because of the farms now emerging, because of generations of ranchers and growers and the efforts of individuals determined to farm sustainably and creatively. This insight came home to me strongly on a road trip last week, when I picked up some local organic oranges in Malibu.
Yes, Malibu, home to those West Coast stereotypes born of favorable surfing conditions, exclusive beachfront property and inhabitants who appear to support a thriving plastic-surgery industry. But just below the skin of this town is an environmentally progressive soul. And a few miles straight up from the Pacific Coast Highway there is an old 200-acre ranch where cell phones don’t work and where there’s no TV or internet access in the dilapidated house, the lone structural survivor of serial wildfires.
My son and I stayed there because we know the manager. By night we heard coyote howls echo in the canyons, and by day we observed orange trees that grow fruit in its natural state. This means the oranges are not all the same size nor all brightly hued. Their surfaces are imperfect. But peeling away the skin of those orbs exposes a fruit so flavorful that when I sampled it, there where it came out of the ground, I knew I was tasting food in its exhilarating natural state.
Supermarket oranges and other engineered consumables are rarely exhilarating. Products of the grocery industry in league with the bioengineering industry, these altered foods no more reflect the ag heritage of California than does Malibu Barbie reflect the social heritage of Malibu, the kick-ass community that banned expanded polystyrene foam in 2005, banned single-use plastic bag distribution in 2008 and just last month became perhaps the first U.S. city to support a statewide measure to ban single-use plastic bags (AB 1998). Dude!
But meanwhile, back to the ranch.
Only a few acres are in citrus; the rest is wild. Theresa, the manager, irrigates with well water, so these small groves are not dependent on water from Northern California aquifers. On a walking tour, she recites common and scientific names of native plants on the way to the chicken coop. Wild honeysuckle. Indian paintbrush. Canyon oaks. Sycamore.
We walk around an inert rattlesnake protruding from a small cairn of stones. “Don’t step on that,” she warns. “It might not be dead yet.” This place seems more refuge than ranch. Rabbits feed in the open until the owls come out. Coyotes walk indifferently past the house in the morning. Humming birds surround a vine near the house and occasionally, according to Theresa, fly in to visit a bouquet on the table.
The shared habitat in this rich ecosystem is part of the farmed land, something that flavors the oranges. If she were growing grapes instead of citrus, Theresa could call it terroir and stand secure of its future. But instead she worries about a dark shadow falling over her world, the encroachment of housing, accelerated by the latest agricultural silver bullet. “You know about it, right?” she asks in almost a whisper, as if saying it aloud might wake the monster. “Vertical farming.”
Vertical farming is an engineer’s dream. It takes the greenhouse concept and raises it many stories so farming operations go, in the catch phrase of its proponents, “up rather than out.” Vertical farming is depicted as tall, glass structures with crops in all the windows and presented as an urban enhancement, something that takes place only in cities. But would it accelerate development? Farms have often inadvertently stood off developers, as with Napa’s agricultural preserve. If food growing goes “up rather than out,” will the housing industry make a land grab and become unstoppable?
Vertical farming sounds like a logical arm of urban redevelopment. But it can’t replace traditional farms, especially while creative individuals are bringing agriculture back to its organic and cultural roots. Farms help shape the soul of the community—even in Malibu, where the best stuff really is more than skin deep.