Sonoma-Marin Farm News, November 2011
Story by Tim Tesconi
California’s two top farm leaders said small farmers, large farmers, conventional farmers and organic farmers all have a place in the state’s $37 billion annual farming industry and that every farmer is needed to feed a growing world population that now exceeds 7 billion people.
California agriculture secretary Karen Ross and Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said the days of arguing over the definition of a “real” farmer based on acreage or style of farming are long past. They said the growing interest in locally grown foods and the rise of the small-scale farmer are positive trends that make urban consumers more aware of agriculture and more intimately connected to their food source.
“Small is good, medium is good, large is good. We need and welcome all farmers,” said Wenger, a third generation Modesto almond and walnut farmer who was elected California Farm Bureau president in 2009. He is a respected leader who daily works on the front lines in Sacramento to keep California agriculture strong and viable.
Ross echoed that sentiment, saying she has never seen such interest in agriculture from urban consumers who, often, have a personal relationship with their local farmer at one of the state’s farmers markets. She said that interest is translating into the creation of regional food systems that bring positive energy to farming at all levels. She said the half-acre produce farm on the urban edge is not only feeding people in that community but creating agricultural awareness. And that’s a good thing.
“There is energy that I haven’t seen before and it’s something that I embrace,” said Ross, who was appointed California agriculture secretary in January by Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. “We are blessed in California to have the resources and people who produce more than 400 different crops on 81,000 farms.”
Wenger said progress is being made but there is a long way to go to reach the vast population of urban consumers who are far removed from the farm. He said even in rural counties like Stanislaus where he farms most people are not connected to agriculture.
“People who depend on our agricultural bounty three times a day don’t know how it got there,” said Wenger.
Wenger and Ross were among the speakers at Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s first ever State of Agriculture Address held on Nov. 1 at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building. There were more than 200 people at the public forum that provided the region’s agricultural producers with an overview on the key issues – and challenges – vital to farming and their future.
In addition to Wenger and Ross, the other speakers were Michael Saqui, a leading labor law attorney, Lex McCorvey, executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau and livestock rancher Joe Pozzi, president of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. The forum was designed to focus on the leading issues facing Sonoma County and California farmers and to galvanize farmers to action. Water, immigration reform, farmland preservation, relief from burgeoning regulations and nurturing the next generation of farmers and ranchers were among the issues highlighted by the farm leaders. The speakers said the future of agriculture depends on an engaged agricultural community working together.
The recurring theme throughout the State of Agriculture Address speeches seemed to be unity, communication and collaboration. The point was made that only two percent of the American population produce food and fiber for the other 98 percent, making farmers a minority. That means that farmers have to roll up their sleeves and work harder in the political and public arenas to protect their ability to making a living.
Wenger had these words of advice, “Engage, engage, engage,” referring to the need for farmers and ranchers to engage with political leaders and the state’s many boards and agencies that regulate what farmers do. He said there is tremendous value in putting a human face on agriculture and that it’s essential for farmers to let those in power know that their land and livelihoods are impacted by their actions. Wenger said the old notion of drawing a line in the sand and not budging from a rigid stance does not work in today’s world. He believes in compromise and collaboration.
“We are the minority here folks,” said Wenger, noting that a minority status demands a different strategy. “We have to outsmart them and engage with them. We in agriculture have ‘right’ on our side most of the time.”
The call for unity also was made by McCorvey, the executive director of Sonoma County Farm Bureau. He said Farm Bureau was started in 1917 as a grassroots organization and its strength lies in its membership, both in numbers and their commitment to agricultural causes.
“Collectively we are powerful, divided we are not,” said McCorvey. “Farm Bureau is at the table working on issues that impact agricultural producers. We need everyone in agriculture to pull together so we can accomplish what needs to be done to preserve and protect our farming heritage in Sonoma County.”
Farm Bureau president Pozzi said there are many, complex issues on the agricultural agenda. That’s because the land that farmers own and control is increasingly valued by the public sector for open space, wildlife and its natural resources. He said Farm Bureau remains vigilant at the county, state and national levels for threats to farming.
“We always have to be on guard to protect our interests,” said Pozzi.
McCorvey identified Sonoma County Farm Bureau’s three top issues as water, farmland protection and regulatory relief. He said Farm Bureau is working hard on all three of those issues and many other issues including farm labor, agriculture education and farm safety.
Saqui, a leading labor law attorney who has represented agricultural producers and processors in farm labor disputes and strikes, warns that the government is tightening the grip on employers hiring workers who are not legal residents.
“It’s ramping up with ICE raids and the Social Security e-verify,” said Saqui. He said it is essential that employers maintain meticulous records on their employees and take appropriate action if a worker gives a false Social Security number.
“If you can’t verify a Social Security number fire the worker – no matter how valuable that worker is to your operation – because there are sanctions and they are going to get worse,” said Saqui.