LANCASTER – The sweet fragrance of onions permeated the air during a recent visit to Calandri Farms’ Lancaster facility on 70th Street East and Avenue K.
“If you love your stew this is the place to hang out,” Brandon Calandri said.
Calandri is a third-generation onion farmer.
His late grandfather John Calandri Sr. started onion farming in the Antelope Valley in 1958. His father, John Calandri Jr., picked up the family business and also farmed for decades before he retired.
At one point there were 29 onion farmers working about 5,000 acres in the Antelope Valley. There is a fraction of that left now.
“I’m the last one,” Calandri said.
Calandri grows white onions and red onions. You can purchase them locally in Stater Bros. Markets and Vallarta Supermarkets.
The Antelope Valley’s agricultural legacy is endangered. The blame can be attributed in part to California’s higher labor costs and a 2015 court settlement that set limits on groundwater pumping for users across the Valley.
“We face a lot of obstacles now,” Julie Kyle of Kyle & Kyle Ranches.
The Kyles lost more than half of their water through the adjudication class action suit.
Kyle, her husband Gailen, and son Jake are third- and fourth-generation farmers. The family grows alfalfa, grain hay and wheat.
Their farming roots date back to 1935 when Gailen’s family came to the Valley. Julie’s family of Basque sheepherders arrived in the Valley in the 1950s.
“We have a long history of farming and agriculture in this area,” Julie Kyle said.
Jake Kyle intends to continue with the family business, Julie Kyle said of her 28-year-old son.
“We’re going to do everything we can to continue farming. We’re not going to go easily, let’s put it that way,” Julie Kyle said.
Some longtime farmers left the Antelope Valley for other parts of the state. Some farmers left California for other states, and others retired.
“They didn’t leave because business was good, Calandri said.
Some California farmers moved their operations to Mexico where the labor and water costs are significantly less.
At one point more than 70,000 acres of alfalfa were growing in the Antelope Valley. Less than 10,000 acres remain.
There used to be a few thousand acres of fruit, cherry, and almond trees, and almonds. There are no more almonds growing in the Valley. There are some you-pick orchards in the western part of the Valley, such as Villa de Sol in Leona Valley, the largest you-pick cherry orchard in Southern California.
But agriculture in general in the Valley has been disappearing fast.
“Ag is virtually dead in the Antelope Valley. There’s just not many left,” Calandri said.
The former Gene Wheeler Farms onion facilities on Avenue H-6 near Trevor Avenue were sold to a medical marijuana company.
Calandri’s facilities on 70 th Street East and Avenue K, and another one on Avenue L are in escrow for a marijuana company.
“We’ve got plans to rent some facilities just to stay in business,” Calandri said. “Lord willing, some doors get open for us to be able to continue in the onion business.”
Calandri and his partners in SoCal Farms LLC are looking at another crop to extend the Valley’s agricultural legacy — industrial hemp.
“It’s being done with the best intentions,” Calandri said.
Hemp is used in thousands of different products. It is used as a binding agent in concrete instead of rebar. It is used in paper, clothing, and rope. Hemp can also be used to make biodegradable plastic. You can even make hemp straws.
Although hemp and marijuana are members of the cannabis family, the main difference between the two is that marijuana can contain up to 30% of the psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. Hemp contains less than 0.3% THC.
Industrial hemp also contains a relatively high percentage of cannabidiol, or CBD, which negates THC’s psychoactive effects.
Calandri and his partners in SoCal Farms, a limited liability company, will conduct a research project in collaboration with Antelope Valley College to see where the hemp market will take them.
“We’re interested in maybe doing some undergraduate student research on plants,” said Les Uhazy, AV College’s dean of Mathematics, Science and Engineering.
AV College students will have an opportunity to get involved in learning plant science through industrial hemp.
“For students it’s a great opportunity. We have as a goal to try to enhance our plant sciences program,” Uhazy said.
SoCal Farms will produce hemp derived biomass, crude oil, and isolate.
“It’s an opportunity that we need to seize because the agriculture industry in the Antelope Valley has suffered tremendously over the past years,” Calandri said.
One of the benefits of growing industrial hemp is that it takes less water to grow.
Alfalfa requires about seven-acre feet of water per year to grow. Onions take four-and-a-half acre-feet of water per year, Hemp takes about two-and-a-half to three-acre feet of water to grow.
Calandri expressed thanks to local politicians such as for their support of local agriculture.
State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, wrote Senate Bill 1409, which legalized hemp farming in California. Former Gov. Jerry Brown signed it last year. The bill became law on Jan. 1.
“I knew nothing about hemp when we started, It was the local farmers out there who reached out to me,” Wilk said.
The local farmers reached out to Wilk to help get state law in compliance with federal regulations so they could grow industrial hemp.
“It’s got many positive attributes,” Wilk said.
In addition to taking less water to grow industrial hemp can also help rejuvenate the ground and sequester carbon.
“You can use the entire plant. It’s actually used in the manufacturing of 25,000 products,” Wilk said. “It’s very versatile.”
Wilk has a “clean up” measure, Senate Bill 153, for this year’s legislative session to bring the state into compliance with the latest federal Farm Act, which legalized industrial hemp with some restrictions.
“With this hemp initiative it’s going to allow our farmers to remain in agriculture,” Wilk said.
Wilk expects to the laws to go into effect by 2021.
The future of industrial hemp in the Valley could also lead to a manufacturing mecca in the Valley that would allow families to stay and work at home, Wilk said.
“I’m really excited about this initiative,” Wilk said.
Calandri looks to plant his first crop of hemp next month. It should be harvested in August.
Calandri said they will work hand-in-hand with AV College on all aspects of the crop, including water consumption and the crop’s carbon footprint as well as the potential economic impact.
The hemp grown by SoCal Farms will be organically grown. They are also the first to receive permission from the Los Angeles County Agricultural Commissioner.
“We are meeting all federal and state regulatory requirements to be able to operate. … Which has been a challenge, it’s been about a two-year process,” Calandri said.
“I’m thankful that I’m facing the struggles that I’m facing here with the political environment that we have here but they really do try,” Calandri said.
Calandri credited city leaders such as Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, Vice Mayor Marvin Crist, and Palmdale Mayor Steve Hofbauer who want to keep the local agriculture industry viable.
“I really appreciate it,” Calandri said.
Crist said they try to help local farmers through agencies such as the Antelope Valley Air Quality Management District with grants to upgrade heavy duty equipment such as tractors with lower emissions vehicles. They also work with local farmers through the Los Angeles County Sanitation District No. 14.
“We own a lot of property with the Sanitation District and so we have them farm that land so it’s not a dust bow,” Crist said.
Crist acknowledged local farmers are going through a lot right now.
“We don’t want to lose our heritage. That’s what the Antelope Valley is about,” Crist said.
Farmers also help with the Valley’s air.
“There’s a lot of land out here that are farmed by farmers. We would have a lot more dust in the air if it wasn’t for the farmers,” Crist said.
The local farmers not only employ a lot of people they also give back to the community.
Gary Van Dam, of High Desert Dairy/Van Dam Brothers, is not only the last dairy farmer in the Antelope Valley, he’s the last one in Los Angeles County.
Back in the ’40s and ’50s there were 13 dairy farms in the Antelope Valley.
“Our fear is that with these water restrictions the dairy farm will be severely cut back on feed. We’re definitely working on different options,” Van Dam said.
Van Dam grows his own feed for the cows. They have about 4,000 acres of alfalfa.
When the Van Dams arrived in the Valley in the 1950s there was between 50,000 and 60,000 acres of alfalfa being grown. Now there are about 6,000 acres, Van Dam said.
With the water adjudication case Van Dam said they had to cut back on their water usage.
“When you’re cutting back about 50% you’re going to make changes,” Van Dam said.
But like Kyle and Calandri, Van Dam is not ready to give up.
“It’s been a tough road but it’s something we feel we need to adjust to the modern technology of watering alfalfa and being able to grow a cheaper, you know maybe Bermuda grass or something that will take less water,” Van Dam said. “We’ll always be looking at every avenue we can to be able to compete in the Valley.”
To share your opinion on this article or any other article, write a letter to the editor and email it to email@example.com or mail it to Letters to Editor, PO Box 4050, Palmdale CA 93590-40