I take a lot of pride in my Midwestern roots, but I had my eyes opened on a road trip to meet California growers earlier this year. Say what you want about Hollywood and Mine; there are a lot of good growers out there - and they’re going through some things that will very likely hit Corn Belt agriculture sooner rather than later.
California agriculture is, in a word, dynamic. It is high stakes, high management – and highly regulated. You can make money growing almonds and broccoli and lettuce and avocados and strawberries – the list is endless - but you’d better have your game face on. This type of agriculture is not for the faint hearted.
First, consider the daunting landscape – not the beautiful irrigated fields and year-round growing season. I’m talking about the millions of consumers, from Los Angeles to San Francisco, who overnight became urban water experts; who seem to have little understanding for where their food comes from or what it takes to grow it. Sound familiar? As those cities expanded a century ago, they pushed nearby farms into the Central Valley. They prospered financially, but became disconnected to customers.
That disconnect has forced California farmers to organize and become ag-vocates for their business.
“People don’t know what it takes to grow their food,” says Joe Del Bosque, who grows cantaloupes, organic cantaloupes, asparagus and almonds near Firebaugh, CA. He is an active campaigner for ag and opens his doors to all media, no matter how busy he may be. He’s built a friendly relationship with writers at the Los Angeles Times, who often call on him when they need to find out what’s happening in agriculture. When President Obama came to California to observe the ongoing drought, Del Bosque hosted him on his farm.
He doesn’t see these actions as a choice. It’s something he does for the long-term survival of his business.
“The ones most opposed to us are the most affluent, so higher food prices won’t hurt them,” he says. “If there’s shortages they will get it somewhere else. But there’s a lot of people who can’t afford that, and they are oblivious to agriculture; they don’t know these issues could impact them. That’s one reason I’m actively advocating for agriculture.”
Based on his experiences, Del Bosque has a word of caution for his farmer colleagues in the Midwest.
“If consumers won’t sympathize with you when the fresh fruits and veg are grown right here in their back yard, they won’t do it for corn or soybean farmers who are four steps removed from the final product,” he says. “These people here are vocal and well educated. A lot of people want to see little tiny farms in and around the cities; they think that is more sustainable. We think that is short sighted because you will never be able to feed those cities and the rest of the country with that kind of agriculture.”
Farmers have come together to form coalitions, in part spurred by drastic water shortages after the drought first hit in 2009. California’s interconnected water system serves 30 million people and feeds 5.6 million acres of crops. It is the world’s largest and most controversial water system. The persistent five-year drought forced cutbacks on water allotments. There’s plenty of water in the northern part of the state, but the powerful environmental lobby pushed through laws that force that water, which might be channeled into reservoirs and stored to irrigate land, instead to flow out to the ocean so as not to harm the tiny delta smelt, an endangered bait fish.
California farmers may be frustrated, but they are also proactive. They are pushing for funding to build more water storage and have encouraged studies on engineering projects that will move water from north to south without disturbing the fish.
What’s the take-home message for Midwestern farmers?
We need to do a better job of relating to our consumer. Farmers can act like they don’t care, especially if you sell to a grain elevator and just forget about it. But people in this country are becoming more conscious of what farmers are doing, especially the millennials. They are going to be more aware of how we grow crops.
We say we’re great stewards of the land, but we have to be more than that. We have to be good operators and socially responsible. Treat our environment and our people well. Because if we don’t do it, the government will do it for us, and nobody wants that.
By working together and becoming engaged in your industry, you stand a better chance of building a better business climate for the future.