Award winning environmental filmmakers Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Josh Tickell are helping to make the Ojai Valley a model for countless other communities.
OJAI VALLEY GUIDE
By Ellen Sklarz December 1st 2019
In 1997, when sixteen-year-old Rebecca Harrell saw the “Veggie Van guy” pouring used frying oil into his van on the “Today Show,” his message instantly called out to her. As a young girl in Hinesburg, Vermont, child actress Rebecca had a lead role in the Christmas classic, “Prancer,” a film that had touched many people’s lives. When her career then morphed into acting in a series of horror lms, this soulful actress knew she was ready for a change. She dreamed of making meaningful movies about positive transformation. That dream would take her on an unusual journey, a love affair with a well-known environmentalist and, eventually, to a home in Ojai.
Josh Tickell (aka the “Veggie Van guy”) was originally from Tamworth, the “Country Music Capital of Australia.” Similar to Ojai, with hot, arid summers and mild winters, the small city is also known for ranching and year-round equine events.
When Josh’s family relocated to the United States, they settled in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” Once a sugar-growing region, this area along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans is now dominated by petrochemical plants. Allegedly, this stretch of riverfront has the highest cancer risk in the nation — “more than 700 times the national average” — according to NOLA.com (March 8, 2018). When asked about illness in his own family, Josh reports that his mother had lupus and nine miscarriages, with other family members afflicted by cancers.
In her 20s, former child actress Rebecca moved to Los Angeles, becoming a successful real estate agent. After she and the Veggie Van guy fortuitously met in LA, she ditched her job, sold her house and moved in with Josh — all within two months. One might say it was meant to be, except for the part where Josh urged Rebecca to sell her restored, classic, gas-guzzling ’68 VW bug and replace it with a biodiesel-fueled Golf.
About 12 years later, Rebecca Harrell Tickell and Josh Tickell have one of the most enduring, boutique environmental filmmaking companies in the country, making movies with the commitment to heal themselves and the planet. Rebecca’s quiet beauty belies her bold, fierce passion, while Josh — just as passionate — is more measured in his delivery. In their presence, the cadence of their dance is one of mutual respect and cooperation.
In 2012, they moved from Venice to a five-acre working ranch in Ojai, with a sprawling one-story house where Rebecca gave birth to their two ginger-haired children, Athena and Jedi. Their Big Picture Ranch is a bustling live-work refuge, where meetings and conference calls take place on a cozy sectional in the large, multipurpose area that had been a formal living room for previous owners. The constant, comforting hum of brainstorming, kids, snacks, calls with film agents, people coming and going is a backdrop for serious issue-based filmmaking.
In another area of the property, the “Barn” has comfortable seating and is used for screenings for up to 100 guests for both blockbuster Hollywood movies and independent films. Big Picture Ranch houses each of the Tickells’ projects, from inception to the moment the film is in the theater. Since almost all production and post- production takes place in Ojai, the Tickells employ numerous local artists, artisans, engineers, editors and camera people, putting a considerable amount of each lm’s budget into the local community.
The dynamic pair has created, produced and directed an impressive roster of environmental films, addressing climate and sustainability, regenerative farming and the future of alternative energies and fuels, along with the expansion of related technologies. “Fuel” won the 2008 Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, and “The Big Fix” was an Official Selection of the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The 2014 critically acclaimed “Pump” was followed by “Good Fortune,” the story of entrepreneur and philanthropist John Paul DeJoria, cofounder of hair-care company John Paul Mitchell Systems, and of Patrón Spirits Company. Forthcoming documentaries include “Down to Earth” and “The Revolution Generation.” An upcoming scripted feature, “Heartland” — about a war vet who ends up on a Native American reservation — stars David Arquette and Mariel Hemingway, among others. Woody Harrelson and Jason Bateman have narrated their films, and Leonardo DiCaprio is an advocate on the upcoming “Kiss the Ground.”
The Tickells agree that this body of work — along with published books, consulting with major companies and government agencies in the United States and other countries, and featured television appearances — has led them to “Kiss the Ground.” In 2017, Simon and Schuster published Josh’s “Kiss the Ground: How the Food You Eat Can Reverse Climate Change, Heal Your Body & Ultimately Save the World.” The book details his decades-long journey through farms and ranches of Europe, Asia and the Americas to learn how to regenerate soils and rebuild ecosystems, all while increasing the pro ts of farmers and ranchers. The companion documentary is still being edited, but select parts were shown at a recent well-attended Ojai town hall hosted by the couple. Their intention was to address the heated issue of pesticides used in local conventional farming.
After moving to what they thought was Shangri-La, the entire Tickell family suffered ill health in June when their property was showered with Abamectin, an insecticide neurotoxin sprayed onto a neighboring ranch by helicopter. They attributed their ill health to the spraying and, at that moment, realized that their macro global concerns had, literally, hit home.
“Ojai called us here,” they say, explaining how they were drawn to the charm of the Arcade, kids playing in Libbey Park, the idyllic mountains, and orchards sweetened by alluring aromas of springtime orange blossoms. Rebecca and Josh understand the provenance of the Ojai Valley and the hard work, challenges and pride of farmers who are — and have been — stewards of the land. The Tickells recognize that local growers are facing severe challenges, including drought, extreme temperature variations, and plunging crop prices. They also acknowledge that altering a system that relies on the use of pesticides could take years, without significant capital and community support. “That’s why we’re building a strong network of people who are deeply vested in this community,” says Josh, “to financially help growers with the transition to profitability and soil health.”
Certain pesticides and herbicides are designated with “Danger” and/or have “warning” labels. These include Abamectin, which is banned in Brazil and considered hazardous by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration Hazard Communication Standard. Rebecca and Josh’s position on the use of such toxic substances is unequivocal. They say there is no place for these chemicals in Ventura County. They believe the need for change is urgent, as evidenced in “Kiss the Ground,” which shows the results of regenerative farming — once-dead land exploding with life and new crops.
The Tickells see that a similar future is possible for Ojai. Through measured planning, they believe the valley can become a community that feeds its residents and replenishes its depleted soils. In this way, the Ojai Valley could become a model for countless other communities — an envisioned “Emerald Valley.”
“Now is the time for this transformation,” says Rebecca, “while our kids are young. They are going to be able to tell their own kids how they participated in turning the Ojai Valley into a veritable Garden of Eden.”