PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE OF AGRICULTURE IN THE HIGH DESERT [Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.]By Tomoya Shimura, Daily Press, Victorville, Calif.McClatchy-Tribune Information Services
July 08--Imagine driving north on Apple Valley Road from Bear Valley Road and all you see is farmland stacked with hay.
That wasn't so long ago, when the High Desert used to be scarcely populated and by people who preferred a rural lifestyle.
Duane Penfold, agricultural instructor at Apple Valley High School since 1979, said the area had ranches and farms everywhere. The dry summer has been ideal for growing alfalfa, which remains a main agricultural product in the High Desert.
W h e n Pe n fo l d 's fa m -- ily moved to Lucerne Valley to operate an 80-acre farm in 1968, the town had farms with hundreds of acres. Jess Ranch in Apple Valley used to ship turkey all over the state, Penfold said.
But urbanization and limited water hit agriculture in the desert, and many farms and ranches either shut down or moved out. Now there are only a few commercial operations left in the major Victor Valley cities.
As the population grew in the High Desert, land owners could make more money selling off their properties for housing and shopping development than cultivating them.
Then in 1990, the city of Barstow filed a lawsuit, seeking a guaranteed amount of water from upstream users in the Victor Valley. The court's allocation of water rights limited water use in the Victor Valley.
"Water became very expensive to pump, and big operations left," Penfold said.
Agriculture is naturally declining in the High Desert, said Earl Graham, who has been running an agricultural marketing company out of Apple Valley for about 40 years.
"You can't blame a guy that's 70 years old, some developer comes up and offers him what appears to be a huge amount of money for his land," Graham said. "You can't blame him for selling out."
The recent recession hasn't helped farmers, either.
Martin Frazier has been raising hay for nearly 30 years in Apple Va l l ey a n d s t a r t e d Frazier's U Pick Pumpkin Patch to grow pumpkins for Halloween and corn for a maze.
"The economy is killing us," he said. " Everybody's selling horses. People don't have money to buy pumpkins for Halloween."
W h i l e co m m e rc i a l farms are dying or getting pushed to the outskirts, the High Desert is seeing small crop and l i ve s t o c k o p e rat i o n s popping up in backyards.
American households doing some vegetable ga rd e n i n g i n c re a s e d from about 27 million in 2005 to 31 million in 2010, according to the National Gardening Association, as people seek to get higher-quality food and save money on groceries.
Rowena McDermott, of Phelan, began growing seasonal vegetables a few years ago on her 5-acre property to provide fresh salad for her family.
Word spread among her friends, and now she delivers her produce to local residents a s a ce r t i f i e d co m -- m u n i ty- s u p p o r t e d agriculture farm. She has about 500 clients on her email list and receives an average of 30 orders a week.
She quit her job as a medical transcriptionist to focus on her farm.
"There's not a lot of money in it," said M c D e r m o t t , wh o describes herself as a lifetime gardener. "You've got to love what you do. I do this for the love of it. If I can make a little bit of money that would be nice."
Robert Whitt, a horse shower in Phelan, raises hogs and sheep and sells them directly to local residents.
He said he doesn't profit from the operation.
"We just enjoy the rural lifestyle," said Whitt, whose three children help out. "Without agriculture we can't survive. We can't exist without it. As an older generation, we have to get kids involved and continue this."
The agriculture program at Apple Valley High School currently has 370 members. The program teaches animal science, plant science and agricultural engineering.
"It surprises most people that we have such a big program here in Apple Valley," Penfold said. "I think mostly they start out in my program because they are animal lovers. And when they enroll, it's more than just that."
He said things have changed in the 33 years he's been at the school. Today many families don't have big enough properties to raise animals for fairs.
"My biggest worry is that some of the zoning will change the rural flavor," Penfold said. "There are a lot of people in Apple Valley that enjoy having animals in their backyard. I hope our leadership will continue to keep that in mind as they develop our valley."
Tomoya Shimura may be reached at (760) 955-5368 or TShimura @VVDailyPress.com. Follow Tomoya on Facebook at facebook .com/ShimuraTomoya.
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