We live in a state that is blessed with a year-round growing season, but spring is undeniably the best time to visit many of California’s small farms. Even here bountiful SoCal, many farms are closed to the public during the winter, and the summer months can be too hot and dusty to make for a pleasant outing.
Spring, on the other hand – when goats are kidding, sheep are lambing and seeds are sprouting – is positively idyllic. As you look ahead to spring break, consider taking the kids to one of these agricultural destinations, all located within about an hour’s drive of Los Angeles. They offer family fun and a hands-on education in where our food comes from, how it can be produced more responsibly and sustainably, and how you can even grow it yourself at home.
McGrath Family Farm
The McGrath family is in its fifth generation of farming on the fertile land of the Oxnard Plain in Camarillo. You’ve probably passed right through the farm without even realizing it, as its 300 acres is split by the 101 freeway. The sustainably operated farm grows a rich variety of fruits and vegetables year-round, and you’ll probably find pretty much any type of produce on your grocery list here. The catch, of course, is that everything is only available in season. You won’t find any trucked-in tomatoes at this farm stand. Instead, you can choose from a variety of freshly picked veggies from right there in the fields.
Or you can go one step further and pick it yourself! Strawberries are ripe in spring, tomatoes in summer, and squash – including pumpkins – in fall. In addition to the farm stand and U-pick operation, McGrath hosts farm tours for private groups and schools, as well as regular hands-on farm education days to educate the public about all aspects of organic farming.
1012 W Ventura Blvd., Camarillo, 805-983-0333; www.mcgrathfamilyfarm.com
Food + Farm Lab
If you haven’t been there already, Orange County Great Park ought to be on your list of places to visit. The expansive park is home to a playground, merry-go-round and hot-air balloon ride. But the most interesting attraction is undoubtedly the Food + Farm Lab, an outdoor classroom that offers families an education in sustainable urban agriculture. This one-acre interactive garden is staffed by University of California Cooperative Extension master gardeners, who host free workshops on topics such as preserving, gardening with kids and seasonal cooking throughout the year. There are also story times and drum circles especially for little ones.
The garden is open seven days a week for self-guided tours, and showcases backyard and urban farming methods such as vertical gardening, raised beds and small fruit orchards, with informational signage about composting, beneficial versus harmful insects, fertilizers and crop rotation. Kids will appreciate the large worm-compost bin, magnifying glasses for studying plants and insects, the chicken house and hopscotch courts.
Near Sand Canyon Avenue and Marine Way, Irvine, 866-829-3829; www.ocgp.org
Chivas Skin Care and Goat Farm
This one-acre homestead run by Donna Johanson and her daughter, Lauren Johanson Jones, isn’t generally open to the public. However, special events several times a year offer visitors the opportunity to meet the charming goats, pigs, tortoises and chickens that live on the farm, as well as to browse and shop the incredible-smelling Chivas Skin Care line of goats milk bath and beauty products.
The “open farm” events are usually seasonally themed, and include a Spring Fling (April 30 this year) featuring baby goats, a fall harvest festival and a holiday boutique. Guests have the opportunity to tour the farm and soap-making facility (which smells intoxicatingly of essential oils), and may even be able to sign up for hands-on activities including DIY sugar scrub, bath salt and massage oil workshops. Young children, meanwhile, will delight in cuddling with the baby goats, visiting the potbellied pigs and gathering eggs from the chicken coop.
Visit the “Farm Events” page of the website to sign up to receive invitations to this year’s farm days. You can also schedule a class field trip or private group tour of the farm. Tours generally last about an hour, and can be customized to suit visitors’ interests and age range.
2220 Bardsdale Ave., Fillmore, 805-727-3121; www.chivasskincare.com/farm-events
This 10-acre farm in Ontario is dedicated to the practice of polyculture, which means growing diverse groupings of crops together in the same areas, rotating crops after each harvest, attracting beneficial insects and generally fostering a naturally diverse ecosystem where plants can thrive. The farm is home to an array of livestock as well, including horses, cows, goats, pigs, geese, ducks and chickens.
The folks at Amy’s are devoted to educating the community about sustainable agriculture and empowering children to build and maintain edible gardens at home, or at their schools and churches. To that end, the farm hosts school field trips, group tours by reservation, “science of farming” classes for school-age kids and “parent and me” programs for very young children. Tours of the farm last an hour to an hour and a half and include visiting and feeding the animals, as well as milking a cow. The farm also welcomes casual visitors Monday through Saturday and includes a self-serve farm stand that operates on the honor system.
7698 Eucalyptus Ave., Ontario, 844-426–9732; www.amysfarm.com
California Citrus State Historic Park
A free tour of the California Citrus State Historic Park in Riverside offers a history lesson, nature walk and juicy fruit feeding frenzy, all rolled into one! While the park is open seven days a week for self-guided tours through its acres of terraced citrus groves, avocado orchards, eucalyptus forests and Washingtonian palm trees, your best bet is to sign up for a docent-led tour, offered only on weekends. The park is also home to an impressive little museum that provides a comprehensive look at the history of citrus farming with interactive exhibits, as well as a nicely stocked gift shop.
Docent-led tours last about an hour and include an all-you-can-eat tasting of whatever fruits are in season, which could include oranges, tangerines, mandarins, kumquats, pummelos, grapefruits and more obscure citrus fruits that you’d never find in the produce section of your local supermarket. As you enjoy the scenery and stuff your face, your tour guide will teach you about the history of the citrus industry and the land, how the trees are cultivated and maintained, and the differences between the dozens of varieties of fruit grown here. Tour-goers each receive a bag so that they can collect fruit to take home over the course of the tour, so you’ll leave with a beautiful bounty of edibles both exotic and well known.
9400 Dufferin Ave., Riverside, 951-780-6222; www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=649
Tanaka Farms offers what is sometimes referred to as “agritainment,” catering largely to families with young kids by featuring activities including mini-tractor rides, a petting zoo and carnival games during seasonal events. The 30-acre farm is owned and operated by a third-generation Japanese American family and is a popular seasonal destination for Orange County residents, particularly for strawberry-picking in the spring, watermelon tours in the summer and a huge pumpkin patch where you can choose from gourds of all sizes in the fall.
Tanaka’s educational farm tours include a tractor-pulled wagon ride through the fields, where guests can hop off to pick their own fruits and veggies. If you’re in the area but don’t have time for a full-fledged farm tour, stop by the farm stand, where you’ll find organic and conventionally grown produce for sale. In an effort to offer a broad selection of fruits and vegetables, Tanaka supplements its farm-stand offerings with non-organic items from other farms. But everything is clearly labeled, making it east to stick to certified organic, locally grown goods.
5380 3/4 University Dr., Irvine, 949-653-2100; www.tanakafarms.com
Erin Mahoney Harris is a mother of two living in Santa Monica. She’s the author of “Walking LA” and “Visit California Farms,” an agritourism guidebook that will be published in June 2016. You can follow Erin on Twitter at @VisitCaliFarms.