BY KARA SHOEMAKER | March 11, 2020
Whether it’s forging strategies and partnerships to strengthen local food systems, supporting small businesses and entrepreneurs, or fostering creative community engagement and tourism, the Blue Sky Center is a powerhouse when it comes to finding inclusive and innovative ways to empower rural communities in the Cuyama Valley.
Located in the northeast corner of Santa Barbara County, nestled between the Sierra Madre and Caliente mountain ranges, the Cuyama Valley is a highly productive agricultural region surrounded by rugged wilderness. Communities like the unincorporated town site of New Cuyama enjoyed a high standard of living during the oil boom of the 1950’s through 1970’s, but that declined when the valley lost the primary oil company that drove the town’s industry.
In order to create a thriving, resilient rural economy, the Blue Sky Center is taking a holistic approach as it looks to drive economic development in the area. It supports local entrepreneurs and businesses by offering incubator resources, providing access to work space, and assisting with business planning, marketing, and connection to financing. Rather than engaging the community as a program specific organization, the Center’s goal is to facilitate resources and provide safe, inviting spaces for local champions to thrive. The Blue Sky Center believes that supporting creative people leads to creative impact that is more inclusive, empowering, and sustainable than the traditional nonprofit model of aid.
“I used to be really angry at the social sector for supporting models that existed to keep organizations in a cycle of aid, and for not being able to actually empower communities. You can really see that this model is not working in rural places, this model of constantly relying on grants,” said Blue Sky Executive Director Em Johnson. “So the way we look at grant funding is as part of a bigger picture. We use grant funding to leverage initial seeding money with this entrepreneurial mindset, so that we are earning revenue which could perhaps lead to more capital investment in the future.”
The Blue Sky Center utilized a 2018 Santa Barbara Foundation grant to purchase, outfit, and create a business model for the Cuyama Kitchen/La Cocina Cuyama, a mobile commercial kitchen. The Center allows outside caterers to rent the kitchen and uses the fees to subsidize maintenance costs so that community entrepreneurs can use it for free. Because of this project, local business owners now have a place to test out their products, promote product branding and distribution of new menu items, and host restaurant pop-ups.
In addition to fostering food entrepreneurship, the Center is taking a lead role in connecting local community organizations, business leaders, small and large agricultural producers, and school districts, with the ultimate goal of increasing access to healthy, affordable food while developing a resilient local food system within the Cuyama Valley.
In 2017, the Center created the Cuyama Valley Food Action Plan using the Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan as a blueprint. The plan lead to the creation of Cuyama Valley’s first formal food action network, bringing together large organic producers and smaller farmers to address local issues relating to the food and agricultural systems. The network has since evolved to include community gatherings where farmers and ranchers discuss ways to share resources and build stabilization in their farming practices.
In 2019, Johnson joined the executive committee of the Santa Barbara County Food Action Network. She has seen growing excitement about what is happening in Cuyama Valley from people around the county, which she hopes will lead to further collaboration with like-minded groups in areas like Lompoc, Guadalupe, and Santa Ynez.
“Em Johnson embodies what it means to be all-in for your community. She not only has heart, passion and grit, but she knows how to partner – a critical blend when it comes to advocating for rural Cuyama. Em and the Blue Sky Center are pillars in the Santa Barbara County Food Action Network, and we are lucky to be working with her,” said Sigrid Wright, Executive Director Community Environmental Council and co-founder of the Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan.
“I see the Cuyama Valley as a resource to the agricultural community of the county, to demonstrate how you can build a resilient food system. We are an extremely bountiful county. I would like to showcase our resilient food system, and I think that it is a sharable and scalable model – not just for communities in our county, but throughout the region.”
To learn more about the Blue Sky Center, please visit www.blueskycenter.org.