A Conversation with Will Terry ’08

Will Terry ’08 is chief operating officer of Terry Farms, a family-owned fruit-and-vegetable farm business that has operated on 1,800 acres in Ventura County for more than a century. In 2003, the family launched a strawberry business, Terry Berries, which they sell at a roadside stand. We talked to Terry about growing strawberries, which first replaced lemons as Ventura County’s top agricultural crop in 1999. He was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch.

Can you remember when you picked your first strawberry?
I started working on Terry Farms when I was around 13, but we’ve been growing strawberries only since about 2003. That would be when I picked my first strawberry.

Ventura County has been losing farmland to development for decades. Does that impact your farm?
It affects our operation directly. There is competing interest for the land for good reasons. This is a great area for growing crops because of the temperate climate, great soil and close proximity to the ocean. However, those aspects make this a great place to live, too.

What is the greatest threat to the crop: insects, weather, something else?
More than anything else, it’s regulation. For instance, there’s the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, a treaty that has to do with greenhouse gases. For one reason or another, soil fumigation gets lumped into a category that includes refrigeration units, aerosol products and automobiles. Agriculture in general contributes to one half of 1 percent of ozone depletion. The thing that’s frustrating about international protocols is that you have people who have no stake or interest in what you’re doing making decisions that affect you. Now, what would be the hit if all of the agriculture in the area were to disappear and what would that do to the local environment? That would be an interesting study as well. But that is not one that is taking place, to my knowledge.

Do you use insecticides?
Yes. Even when something you produce is labeled organic, that does not mean it’s 100-percent free of an insecticide product. There are different thresholds as to what you can use. But there is quite a bit of regulation involved, and everything is very safe.

Are imported strawberries, from Mexico or even China, serious competitors?
Mexico is a very serious competitor for fresh market produce. Just this past year, there was a 21 percent increase in total cultivated acres of strawberries in Mexico. People who have quality operations here in the states are moving their operations to Mexico because they don’t have to deal with the regulatory environment in the U.S. Production in China only affects us on a processing-food level, such as frozen whole strawberries, juice, jam, jellies and other ingredients.

What worries you the most about the long-term viability of growing strawberries in Ventura?
Urban impact. Most of the issues we face are urban and regulatory. But the big issue that we’re currently facing is labor. It’s an extremely difficult labor environment right now. You don’t see people showing up who are interested in working on a farm. We’re working very closely with the federal government in an attempt to get a guest worker program. Farmers have been doing that for years with labor-intensive crops. Hopefully, that comes to fruition for us.

On whose table would you most like to see a bowl of Terry Farms strawberries?
Everyone who participates in the Montreal Protocol. I’d like them to enjoy a strawberry and think about the impact their decisions have on my family here in Southern California.

Will Terry can be reached at william@terryfarmsinc.com.