Each monthly piece presented by CAFF seeks to bring you, the reader, closer to the food that you eat. One of the best ways to do this is by having samples, but since we can’t do that, this Highlight on Santa Barbara County in California will have to do! Bon Appetito!
The peace sign adorning the barn at Classic Organics farm in Santa Barbara County, hints at Helmut Klauer’s personal history as farmer: he first learned about commercial agriculture on a commune in the county. Today, he tends to his five acres in Gaviota, where he grows organic fruit and vegetable crops and utilizes ten acres for rotational purposes. In addition to these fruits of the harvest, the farm also has chickens for eggs. Helmut’s wife, Kathryn Lamat, works on the farm when she’s not too busy at her day job as an attorney. They both were drawn to the fertile soils and historical agricultural significance of the county and its bounty.
The Mediterranean climate of Santa Barbara, which gives the county its nickname as “the American Riviera,” provides for a year-round growing season. The county, characterized by the east-west dividing range of the Santa Ynez Mountains, and the cool coastal winds blowing off the Pacific, is home to a diversity of agricultural microclimates. Santa Barbara County’s history from 1830 to 1865 is known as “the Rancho Period,” and gives a clue that the land was once dominated by cattle ranches. When large ranches began to break up as the Rancho Period drew to a close, the area’s fertile soil was transitioned into orchards, vineyards, and row crops. The county is currently home to just over 1,400 farming operations whose top agricultural products include strawberries, citrus, lettuce and avocadoes on larger farms and includes smaller, diversified farms as well.
Agriculture sprouts life and grows communities. Some even argue that without agriculture there is no culture. The people of Santa Barbara have a great tradition of celebrating the local bounty and diversity of the county’s food and agricultural abundance. Founded in 1983, the Santa Barbara Certified Farmers’ Market Association  hosts seven, year-round markets’ six days a week. The Saturday morning farmers’ market in downtown Santa Barbara, founded in the 1970s, is especially popular. It draws growers from across the county and beyond, who in turn, attract thousands of customers hungry for a wide variety of fresh seasonal produce and interaction with the people who grow the food they love.
Local eating in Santa Barbara not only refers to fresh fruits and vegetables, but also includes a wealth of fresh seafood. The Santa Barbara Harbor hosts a fish market where seafood is available for purchase right off the boat—an option not to be taken for granted by eaters! Spiny lobster season, which runs from early October to mid-March, is an especially celebrated time of year. Fish market shoppers can also scoop up fresh-caught ridgeback shrimp, spot prawns, sea bass and sea urchins among the many other option of various sea catches. The chart below was created by the Institute for Fisheries Resources.
Santa Barbara County has also long been know for its local history of viticulture firmly rooted in the missionary plantings of the 18th century. The wines themselves have enjoyed a resurgence in the last 40 years with over 60 wineries and three American Viticultural Areas: the Santa Maria Valley, and the Santa Ynez, and Santa Rita Hills growing its wine grape fame. The Santa Barbara’s wine country received a publicity boost from the 2004 film Sideways, which featured local vineyards and tasting rooms, not to mention a local restaurant that serves featured Helmut’s organic lettuces! Wine and food lovers alike are often found as part of Slow Food Conviviums—groups of people engage in the preservation of food traditions. The Convivia in Santa Barbara is actively engaging the community with tours of the fish and farmers’ market.
While Slow Food Santa Barbara , works to maintain food based traditions and support local farmers, organizations like the Land Trust for Santa Barbara  are working to protect agricultural land from development. The Land Trust, a non-profit organization, has partnered with private landowners to preserve 18,500 acres of open space and agricultural land since it was founded in 1985. By negotiating conservation easements with landowners, the trust has protected historic ranches, as well as organic urban gardens, from future conversion to residential or commercial developments. This important service is imperative if other farmers are to be called to the land as Helmut was. Some estimate that the country will require 50 million new farmers in the next ten years to create the type of localized food system we need to sustain our lives and to meet the growing demand of the ever increasing population. In addition to needing more farmers, we also need more farmers with the environmental focus that Helmut has.
Helmut and Katherine recall what farming used to be like and called their farm Classic Organics because they wanted to recall what Helmut refers to as “the original vibe” of the organic movement. The original inspiration of organic farming for them was not only to cultivate healthy fruits and vegetables, but also a healthy human relationship with the earth. Helmut wants to show people that food doesn’t just come from a supermarket, it comes from a farm. Organic agriculture, he says, “is about servicing local people with local food … none of that is in the regulations.” As we walk through individual counties in the Ag Advocate, its always wonderful to see mention the progressive movements happening in our prime agricultural zones and learn of the people whom have dedicated their time and lives to growing and supporting our food system. There is no doubt that our ability, as a community, to preserve family farms in the state will determine our future vitality and community health.
By Logan Harris and Temra Costa, CAFF
Photo Courtesy of CAFF