Just on the other side of Los Padres National Forest from Santa Barbara proper, as the crow flies East, lies The Enchanted Hidden Valley of Cuyama. A place like no other, Cuyama Valley sits at the crossroads of four different counties including Santa Barbara, Ventura, Kern, and San Luis Obispo. The Valley consists of magical grasslands, including Carrizo Plains National Monument (the largest single native grassland remaining in California*); canyons filled with soaring California oaks and enchanting native wildflowers; a variety of farms and ranches; roughly 1,100 residents and three unincorporated townsites: New Cuyama, Cuyama, and Ventucopa.
New Cuyama, which sits on the edge of CA Route 166, is made up of 216 homes, a hardware store, convenience store, gas station, hotel and restaurant, several churches, and a couple of small shops. The townsite is home to just over 550 community members working across various industries.
Through the years, New Cuyama has transitioned drastically as industries have come and gone. The townsite was originally built by Atlantic Richfield Oil Company (ARCO) in the 1950s to support the company’s employees and their families, at a time when Cuyama was home to a booming oil industry. Once the oil dried up and most of the industry moved out of the Valley, the residents of Cuyama were forced to find other outlets for employment. What emerged was an agriculture based economy. In a high desert geographical location, this industry poses challenges for The Valley, which relies on a single groundwater reserve for its water supply. Over many years of heavy extraction the reserve has been left in a state of extreme depletion, creating a point of contention within the Valley and leaving many concerned about the sustainability of water supply in the years ahead.
The future of food and agriculture in the Valley is at the forefront of conversation. The community decided a broad and collaborative approach on the subject was needed for community prosperity and sustainability. In 2017, utilizing The Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan as a blueprint, the very first Cuyama Valley Food Action Task Force was developed by Blue Sky Center in partnership with Valley stakeholders. The task force was formed to identify food-related projects that advance community goals and build collaborative capacity and trust.
Over the next two years, collective action evolved into The Cuyama Valley Food Action Network (CVFAN), which contributed to the Cuyama Valley Community Action Plan. The Plan combines years of work through community surveys and bridges community perspectives with the perspectives of the Cuyama agricultural community into actionable goals for furthering economic opportunity, rural resilience, and quality of life for Cuyama Valley. Their recipe for community abundance included the critical ingredients of HUD Section 4 grant funds, Blue Sky Center, the local community, County of Santa Barbara, and Rural Community Assistance Corporation. Today the CVFAN is made up of a combination of Cuyama organizations, businesses, farms and ranches; Blue Sky Center, Condor’s Hope, Quail Springs Permaculture, Cuyama Buckhorn, Cuyama Homegrown/Juniper Hill Ranch, and Rock Front Ranch.
When the shelter in place order went into effect in March of 2020, CVFAN members, along with other Cuyama organizations and businesses, held conference calls (which continue to this day) to identify the immediate needs of the community and how best to address those needs. The Cuyama Valley Hotline, housed on Visit Cuyama, was established to provide COVID-19 resources in both Spanish and English. This site also contains the weekly Cuyama Valley Community Bulletin, listing up-to-date local business hours, offerings, and information specific to the Valley.
The focus of their action has revolved around improving access to the local food of the Valley to support the community during the pandemic. Cuyama lacks a full service grocery store, so most of the residents of the Valley commute to surrounding cities, as little as 30 minutes away and as far as an hour away, to do their grocery shopping. In response, Cuyama Buckhorn opened a small country market in their coffee shop space to provide additional household necessities and groceries for Cuyama residents. The market has since expanded its offerings with a focus on showcasing Cuyama Valley grown and produced food products, including those of Cuyama Valley Food Action Network members.
In addition to increasing food access, it was imperative to address food insecurity within the Valley. Cuyama residents were fearful of leaving Cuyama to get groceries and many residents were becoming unemployed, putting major financial stress on households. Members of the Cuyama Valley Food Action Network established The Cuyama Valley COVID-19 Relief Fund. Blue Sky Center & Cuyama Buckhorn championed the Fund to help supplement, support, and expand the Cuyama Valley School District’s school lunch program during the pandemic to ensure meals for the youth of the Valley. The Relief Fund has raised $19,984.53, which provided breakfasts and additional lunches through the end of the 2019-2020 school year. Additionally, The Fund provided breakfasts and lunches for children and young adults up to 18 years of age throughout the summer months. Today, The Relief Fund is being used to help provide resources for safe and effective learning during this unprecedented time in our education system.
Direct relief was vital, but a just and sustainable action plan is also essential for the long-term vitality of the community in the wake of the pandemic. The Cuyama Victory Gardens Project, created by Blue Sky Center’s Land Steward Sandra Uribe, helps families in New Cuyama grow their own fruits and vegetables. Since the project began in March, the garden-to-table model has grown to nine active backyard gardens in The Valley. Not only are the gardens helping to provide food security for these families, but they are also providing opportunities for immersive and intergenerational learning and introducing new and healthy foods into the diets of those involved in the project. Blue Sky Center’s hope is to expand the project to additional households throughout the year.
Most recently, The Cuyama Valley Food Action Network has partnered with The Santa Barbara County Food Action Network to strengthen the collective goals of these like-minded organizations. Together these entities strive to localize our county’s food system, leverage, highlight and provide platforms for local community champions, and offer resources for organizations spearheading important food access, sustainability and localization initiatives. The Cuyama Valley Food Action Network looks forward to introducing the amazing products coming out of our Enchanted Valley to our wider community of Santa Barbara County and beyond.