There is a misconception by city people about those who live in the rural communities. We might imagine countryside folks live a picture of domestic bliss, eating fruit directly from the tree, running around in some fields, perhaps milking a delighted cow or gathering eggs, given to them by obliging chickens. But what are the realities of living in a rural community? Is it really that simple to survive off the land? It is, of course dependent on where you are in the world. By a stroke of luck whilst on a month long travel in California in early 2018, I found myself in one of these rural places, high up in the desert townsite of New Cuyama at the Blue Sky Center, a relatively young project with aims to regenerate the surrounding area and to ‘make Cuyama bloom again.’ Whilst there, I had the pleasure of cooking a farm-to-table feast and running a bread making class for the women of town using heritage flours. I caught up with Philip Jankowski, the executive director at the time, to ask him some questions about Blue Sky’s work and the implications that agriculture has on a community…
JG: Thanks for interviewing with me, Philip. Where and what is the Blue Sky Center?
PJ: The Blue Sky Center is what we describe as a rural, place-based organisation in the community of New Cuyama, which is a small townsite within the Greater Cuyama area nestled between the Central Valley and the Central Coast of California. Our organisation is focused on revitalising the rural community here, providing community resiliency in everything from housing to food and agriculture. We offer a lot of business advice and tourism for the town and advocacy for our area. We’re very entrepreneurial as an organisation so we do a lot of different things right now. We have a team of about 8 people and we all live and work in this small community. Here in the valley, the history is originally ranching — cattle ranching and cattle farming but now the Cuyama Valley is a massive agricultural region which grows annual road crops, so there are a lot of large farms, big corporate farms with only a few family farms remaining. We grow a lot of carrots, onions, potatoes and ship them on the global market.
JG: And how does the agricultural aspect of the valley affect the community?
PJ: It’s nuanced. Produce grown here doesn’t just go to America. A lot of it is exported and then it gets quite complicated, you know weird stuff like how we import avocados from Mexico and then export our avocados to Mexico so agriculture here is very much up to the will of free trade and doesn’t always make it back to the community. Food is one of our focus areas at Blue Sky at the moment because though it’s an agricultural area New Cuyama is what’s called a ‘food desert’ because there’s no access to affordable, healthy food to the community in a place that grows buckets of it. But agriculture is also a really good thing because there’s an amount of people who are employed either indirectly or directly by it. Even the hardware store or the market - all those businesses are supported by contractors and folks who come out here because of the pull of it and because of the money they earn. A lot of agriculture farms contract out. A big problem right now is finding people to harvest the farms, sort product and ship it so a lot of contracted workers are seasonal, they’re just here for one season and then they leave or travel somewhere else. So this causes a transitory population here.
JG: You mentioned earlier that this area used to be predominately ranching. Who lives here now?
PJ: There’s a leftover population of the oil population when Cuyama was a company town (oil industries moved to Cuyama in the 50’s but bizarrely never actually mined for oil). Others are here because it’s an affordable area to live in in California. It’s near population centres but houses are still affordable. Through our work we’ve been trying to get a better understanding of who else is here. What do people do, what are their socio economic conditions etc… but we expect about 500 people are in the town of New Cuyama and then in the wider region a couple thousand. Those are estimates of course because our census is not very accurate for rural communities and there’s under reporting of folks with no documentation and then there’s folks who don’t want to be reported, so it’s a challenge to understand your community in a comprehensive way if you don’t have accurate data. And then, of course we don’t know about migratory and transitory workers who come here to get those seasonal jobs. New Cuyama is a majority Latino community now. We’re seeing a demographic shift that will probably happen in the rest California and then across the US in the future and we’re seeing the more challenging aspects of cultural clashes and different divisions that pop up here because of this changing demographic. But we are also seeing an evolution that is positive and natural and it’s our job to bring people together to breach that culture divide, so that it’s not so scary for people who don’t want things to change.
JG: If Cuyama is a so called food desert, what do people eat?
PJ: That’s a good question but I’m not too sure. Most people do travel outside of the valley to do their shopping. Some people are very good at preserving their food or freezing to extend its shelf life and there’s a lot of people who grow a portion of what they eat. On the ranches there are some growers that are self sufficient to a certain degree. And then there’s a tonne of people with backyard chickens that you can’t have in a city. However, one of the more unfortunate aspects of Cuyama is low-income families having to make the very rational choice to buy the most calorific foods and cheap, processed food. Our supermarket here is also often marked up and more expensive because transportation is an issue, so access to affordable food is an issue. It’s not because people don’t want to eat better, but families are constrained. There is a food drop-off here, but it’s at the mercy of whoever wants to drop food off and the produce changes all the time and folks don’t always know how to prepare the things the truck leaves. There are a lot of challenges that emerge in food systems in a rural community.
JG: How does Bluesky aim to ease these challenges?
PJ: At the moment a few things. We now have a commercial catering trailer that we’re outfitting and the goal for this project is to use grant money to pilot some culinary programming, working with educators, food educators, chefs, entrepreneurs to host classes, workshops, dinners, which would be of interest to the community and help us test out some ideas around food entrepreneurship in New Cuyama. We have 4 that are coming up, your bread making workshop included. A lot of people do have a lot of different skills, particularly when it comes to food, and we’re interested in this and inspiring groups of people who have that knowledge to use our facilities and our entrepreneurial knowledge to help them. There’s no reason why we couldn’t have, for example, a bakery out here or some kind of Farmers’ market where people that product cottage food could sell their wares. Why can’t we have that kind of entrepreneurship in this community? So we’re trying to uncover those people, open up our space and find resources to get that moving. We also own 300 acres of agricultural land that we lease out. We need to make some improvements like water access, but we’re looking at what partnerships we can develop to cultivate the land to promote farming within the community. So it’s kind of attacking the food systems from all sides — communal, social and agricultural.
JG: Have there been any stand out moments for you since you’ve worked here?
PJ: There’s a few. When people ask us for opinions it shows me that they value us, not necessarily as an authority but value our perspective. I think that that demonstrates that our reputation is a positive one. But maybe more specifically there are some families that, through our efforts, have found employment and we’ve employed some people here at Bluesky. Mainly it’s a Latino population that lives here as well as the Caucasian (ex-oil and ranching) population — there’s a lot of barriers between these two groups of people but in our space people really do come together, very often literally to break bread together, and hopefully gain perspective on who they are collectively as a community. I really love thinking about that because we’re in such a polarised time that it can get really easy to get cynical about other people and where we’re heading, but we have made strides to bring people together. It’s mainly over food — dinners and events, for example. Over the last two years we’ve hosted a ‘Dia de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) event, which is a cultural celebration in Central America and Mexico. We gave the community the reigns to plan this celebration and hosted a series of events surrounding it. People came and helped put it all together and it was great, lots of celebration around loved ones who had passed. It was almost like community bereavement but then followed by a big celebration. We served a lot of Mexican food like tamales and different moles. It was awesome. We want to do that every year and build it into something that could almost be a cultural event for the town. That’s something I’m really happy happened and I hope it continues.
JG: What are the challenges in the future for Bluesky?
PJ: Us being able to continue to build trust in the community. History dictates that in such rural communities like ours are always sceptical of outsiders. It takes time in relationship building to get around those issues and we’re not out of the woods in that people are waiting to see what we accomplish. We have ambitious goals of pulling disparate issues together for the common good. As well as social issues, this whole valley is going under a crisis with water resources — California has problems with water. How do we work on this larger level as an institution to make sure that the loudest voices surrounding these issues are checked and the softest voices are heard?
JG: What are the plans for the future of Bluesky?
PJ: In the next 5 years we want to be a thriving destination town and to really see first hand how a community at this point can pull itself back together and how an institution can help facilitate that. We’re doing an art residency at the moment so we want to keep doing that and seeing what comes from it. My personal wish is that all of our buildings are occupied. There’s 6 buildings here, which could be businesses — wood shops for example or studios or welding shops. We want to continue bringing business out here.