Okay, maybe not every farmer in California, but by far the vast majority of them, and absolutely each of the dozen or so that participated in the California Farm Bureau Federation’s most recent California agriculture tour.
Fellow Sacramento AdFarmer Cheryl Grocock and I recently took that tour, which brings marketers and suppliers from all over the country to California for a two-and-a-half day, on-the-farm discussion with growers. This year the focus was on growers in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.
It was an excellent illustration of the lack of a “typical” California grower; from a young, first-generation grower with more than three-dozen crops on 100 acres to a fifth-generation grower that focused on just six crops spread out over 35 square miles, the diversity – in background, in experience, in crops grown –was incredible.
But what was most interesting, especially given that diversity, was the similarity in everyone’s concerns. In fact, there were three topics common to every grower’s discussion:
If you live in California, this one is obvious. We’ve had two consecutive winters with subpar precipitation and snowpack. Another dry year will likely mean serious restrictions in the availability of water, both for residential and commercial agriculture uses.
This has been a problem in the past and will certainly be one in the future, but many growers are actively looking for ways to mitigate this problem. Alternative irrigation methods that will allow production using less water and the implementation of dry farming are just some of the methods currently being used.
One of the most interesting aspects of our conversations with growers on the tour was their perception of the value of labor. Laborers that provide harvest and pruning services are often portrayed as “unskilled” workers – interchangeable, if you will – to audiences outside of agriculture. This is not the viewpoint of growers we met.
“There’s a real art to quality harvesting,” said one strawberry grower in Santa Barbara County. The ability to harvest and pack quickly – without damaging fruit left on the plant to ripen – is very much a skill, one that only comes from years of experience.
An apple grower near Avila Beach expressed a similar sentiment about the labor required to hand-prune his farm of mixed-variety apple trees. “It’s really important to get people that know what they’re doing,” he said. There may be plenty of labor, but skilled, experienced labor is both scarce and in high demand.
Water use, labor, pesticides, residues, runoff, shipping, storage, equipment, air quality and reporting procedures were just some of the topics that growers discussed in terms of the government’s regulations. (Let me save you the suspense, they’re not big fans). Some of the anecdotes they shared we’re comical, some unbelievable, and others ridiculous, but they all illustrated just how difficult it can be to do the work necessary to feed the world. Many see overregulation as a significant threat to their ability to farm.
So what was the takeaway? I guess it’s this:
- It is becoming increasingly complex and difficult to farm commercially in California
- Farming takes both the passion to work long, thankless hours as well as the patience and calm demeanor to accept elements over which there is little control.
- And, mostly what I learned, was how much I appreciate that there are people in this world that are willing to do it, because otherwise, I just might starve.
Jake Mortensen has more than two decades of experience working in agriculture and marketing. He is a native of California’s Central Valley and lives amongst the almond orchards east of Modesto with his two young sons, half a colony of feral cats and a neighbor’s cow that occasionally visits to eat the flowers in his back yard.