14 . 05 . 18
Blue Sky thinking… a conversation with Philip Jankoski

From the top: Cuyama valley, photo credit: Garrett Gerstenberger. Nights at Blue Sky Center (Philip’s the guy in the hat!) photo credit: Moonrise Standard. Interview with Philip Jankoski by Julia Georgallis.

There is a perception by us city people about those who live in the rural communities. We often imagine what it would be like to live, instead of in our small on-top-of-each-other boxes and busy, concrete streets and traffic-laden roads, in the great outdoors. We imagine those 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, happily 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? I’m sure that this is totally dependent on where you are in the world. On my month long wanderings of California, I found myself in one of these rural places, high up in the desert town of New Cuyama at Blue Sky Center, a relatively young project with aims to regenerate the area, to ‘make Cuyama bloom again.’ Whilst there, TBC had the pleasure of cooking a farm-to-table feast and running a bread making class for the ladies of town using heritage flours. I caught up with Philip Jankoski, the co-founder and current CEO to ask him some questions about Blue Sky’s work and the implications that agriculture has on a community…

TBC: Thanks for interviewing with me, Philip. Where and what is Blue Sky Center?

PJ: 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 Valley  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 small business support and tourism for the town and policy 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 7 people and we all live and work in this small community. Here in the valley, the history is ranching and farming – cattle ranching and dry farming but now the Cuyama Valley is a massive agricultural region which grows annual row crops, mostly carrots, 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.

TBC: And how does the agricultural aspect of the valley affect the community?

PJ: It’s nuanced. Produce grown here doesn’t just go to feed Americans – the vast majority 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 and the other small townsites are what’s called ‘food deserts’ because there’s no access to affordable, healthy food to the community. It is a painful irony in a place that grows an abundance of food.  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 labor but a big problem right now is finding enough 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.

TBC: You mentioned earlier that this area used to be predominately ranching – Who lives here now?

PJ: There’s a leftover population from when New Cuyama was a company town founded on oil. (In 1948 wildcatters struck oil along the Russell Ranch here and then there was an oil boom for close to thirty years before the company, Atlantic Richfield Oil, left to drill in Alaska.) Others are here because it’s an affordable area to live in in California – it’s near population centres and houses are still affordable by comparison. 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 – we’re seeing the more challenging aspects of cultural clashes and different divisions that pop up here because of this changing demographic, but are also seeing an evolution that is positive and natural and its our job to bring people together to bridge that culture divide so it’s not so shocking and not so scary for people who don’t want things to change.

TBC: If Cuyama is a so called food desert, what do people eat?

PJ: That’s a good question.  Most people do travel outside of the valley to do the majority 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 caloric foods which are cheap, processed food. Our convenience market here is often 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 charitable food drop-off here, but the produce changes all the time, there’s no cold storage, the time is sometimes inconvenient for families, 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.

TBC: How does Blue Sky Center 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 funds 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.  There’s people with unique and important 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 small 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 discover those people and talents, open up our space and find resources to get that moving. We also own 300 acres of agricultural land that we lease a portion of 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 sustainable farming within the community. So it’s kind of attacking the issues of our food systems from all sides and starting small.

TBC: 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 Blue Sky. Mainly it’s a Latino Spanish 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 involved community remembrance of loved ones lost but then was followed by a big cultural, celebration. We served a lot of traditional Mexican food like tamales and atole. 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.

TBC: What are the challenges in the future for Blue Sky?

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?

TBC: What are the plans for the future of Bluesky?

PJ: In the next 5 years we want to be a thriving town and to really see first hand how a community at this point can pull itself back together and how a non-profit, community based 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. I’m not entirely sure which direction we and the community will take together but I’m excited to see what unfolds as we work together.  

My personal wish is that all of our buildings are occupied – there’s 6 buildings here, which we’d like to  continue to repurpose for small businesses, creative studios, educational spaces, and other community spaces. I’d also like to see some local appropriate agriculture producing food sustainable and creating local jobs and economic development.

Super massive thank you to Philip for talking to me and also letting me loiter at The Blue Sky Center during the Cuyama 555 residency! To visit the Blue Sky Center, get involved in their work or attend any of their events, check out their website: www.blueskycenter.org