From onetime gold rush mining towns along Highway 49 to the vineyards of wine country, California overflows with inspired examples of how the human profit motive can make a natural landscape just that much more picturesque.

Then there are regions like the Cuyama Valley.

The area is nothing if not beautifully situated, nestled just east of the Sierra Madre, with the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge to the east and the Los Padres National Forest just south. To the chagrin of landscape painters, however, Cuyama Valley had the misfortune to harbor a lot more potential wealth belowground than on its surface.

This article appears in Issue 22 of Alta Journal.

In 1949, the Richfield Oil Corporation hit a gusher north of the sleepy town of Cuyama, in what may have been the last great petroleum strike in California. Hundreds of oil wells, groaning and creaking, replaced the pasturing cows seemingly overnight. The South Cuyama Oil Field would yield more than 225 million barrels of crude over its life span. Richfield, which would later merge into the ARCO conglomerate, constructed the near-instant town of New Cuyama to better exploit its holdings, hauling in prefab homes to house its oil workers, laying out a leafy park for their Sunday picnics, and underwriting a public school for their children. The company installed an airstrip for visiting executives and built a motel to host them. It even published a boosterish local newspaper called the Cuyama Sun.

ARCO sold off its nearly spent oil field in 1990, and agricultural workers began moving into the former homes of roughnecks and drillers. Today, the biggest profits in the Cuyama Valley are still being extracted from the earth, although not nearly as deep down. Carrot fields now cover a third of the valley floor, the brilliant purple, orange, and yellow root vegetables largely hidden below the soil.

In the past seven years, New Cuyama has emerged as a leading laboratory for rural self-empowerment as well as an unlikely purveyor of some of the most Instagrammable eye candy along the northern edge of Santa Barbara County.

The transformation began a decade ago, when Richfield’s former command post became the subject of an anticorporate takeover. In 2012, a foundation launched by the Zannon family, the owners of the Santa Barbara Pistachio Company and among the region’s more successful growers, bought the land, assets, and remaining equipment to establish Blue Sky Center. The nonprofit’s goals are to catalyze economic viability, nurture new small businesses, and provide a sense of greater agency to New Cuyama’s mostly working-class residents, enabling them to draft their own agenda and implementation plans for cultural and municipal betterment in the city, the 1,164th most populous in the state.

blue sky center, emily  johnson, jack forinash, new cuyama, alta journal
Blue Sky’s director of strategy, Emily “Em” Johnson, and executive director, Jack Forinash, in New Cuyama.
Matthew Smith

Today, private pilots about to land at New Cuyama airport will see a nearby compound of postmodern bentwood-and-canvas tent cabins in the shapes of snails and papal miters, all rentable on Airbnb. The Cuyama Buckhorn, the old executive lodging, has been transformed into a resort that attracts aviators, Harley riders, and Hollywood folks with its midcentury cowpoke aesthetic. Some stay a few days to marinate in the desert sun, fill up on Heritage Grain Bowls at the resort’s restaurant, and down craft cocktails at the bar.

Visitors can also pop their heads into some of the warehouses beside the runway that house small manufacturing and restoration businesses. There, they might watch local artisans for the High Desert Print Company screen-print posters and custom T-shirts or chat with Alex Guerrero of Warrior Wagons as he fabricates exact replicas of the maple doors and back panels of a Ford Woody from the 1930s.

On a breezy morning, Emily “Em” Johnson, 32, and Jack Forinash, 37, pull up a couple of chairs around the conference table of ARCO’s former management office and sketch out a present and future for the community that’s diametrically opposed to its past.

Johnson first learned about Blue Sky Center seven years ago, when she climbed inside the nonprofit’s van to catch a ride to a music festival. She moved to New Cuyama in 2016 to take a job as Blue Sky’s chief operating officer and is now the director of strategy.

Raised in a small Missouri town, Johnson bought a one-way ticket to India after graduating from Drury University in Missouri with a degree in arts administration and piano performance; she spent the next two years helping destitute rural women become small entrepreneurs. When she returned to the United States to work for a Santa Barbara nonprofit raising funds for India’s poor communities, she found that donors were implored to come to the rescue of the weak and helpless. “I really retaliated against this model,” Johnson says. “I was seeing this savior complex.”

artisans, studios, blue sky center,  alex guerrero, warrior wagons, vintage ford woody, new cayuma, alta journal
Many artisans work in studios at Blue Sky Center, including Alex Guerrero of Warrior Wagons, who is restoring a vintage Ford Woody.
Matthew Smith

By contrast, Blue Sky Center aims to give local residents—the majority of them farmworkers—the funds and tools necessary to advance New Cuyama culturally and economically by their own lights, to strengthen bonds neighbor-to-neighbor, and to confront environmental issues like chronic drought and water allocation. “What attracts me here,” says Johnson, “and why I get so fired up and feel so purposeful about our work, is that no matter what, we always prioritize this inclusive stewardship of community building.”

As Blue Sky’s chief grant writer and chief executive, Forinash has become well versed in the challenges of pitching initiatives designed to be organic and evolving. Many donors, especially the larger ones, are used to investing in projects whose outcomes are predetermined and whose deliverables must be specified in advance. “They may say, ‘Fine, I’ll buy those pencils that you need,’ ” Forinash says. “But they won’t pay for the time it takes for a project to get to the next level. They won’t give you continuous money.”

The revitalized New Cuyama airport is arguably Blue Sky’s most powerful asset—raising both the town’s profile and its own among hobbyist pilots. For Forinash, the reclamation effort seemed borderline chimerical in its early stages.

“It was really hard to fund,” he says. “So much needed to be done. Even just getting the weeds down to conform to FAA rules seemed insurmountable.” But since its completion, the airport has become a charitable magnet: aviators accounted for 79 percent of all individual donations to Blue Sky this past fiscal year (disclosure: Alta Journal editor and publisher Will Hearst was among them). “It’s so shiny and brand-new that it’s something people can jump on,” Forinash says. “Because there’s already momentum—right? It’s easier to get interest and enthusiasm for something that is on the up.”•

Ed Leibowitz wrote about how performance venues were surviving during the pandemic for Alta Journal 15.