Not too far in our distant past the majority of American citizens understood their reliance on agriculture. Indeed, for the majority of our history, urban dwellers and rural communities alike felt an intimate connection with the land.
As technology, science and distribution efficiencies made our farm products more accessible, our fellow citizens felt comfortable that the abundance of food, found on the shelves of the local grocer, would always be available. This sense of comfort advanced the general populations’ distant relationship to the land – and the farmer; resulting in the farmers’ loss of identity as protector of the land and provider of sustenance for the entire nation.
The loss of that connection to agriculture has given rise to challenges that affect the ongoing viability of family farming. Vocal and well-intentioned advocates, with no experience or connection to farming, and armed with passionate beliefs (albeit, not founded in reality) in their collective expertise in land use, environmental and social equity policies are driving political decisions and regulations that impact our very existence. Today farmers need to concern themselves with more than the whims of Mother Nature and shifting demands for our commodities: now is the time to give voice to the citizen farmer.
Examples of this disconnect abound at every level of government. New rulesproposed by the federal government, such as WOTUS (Waters of the United States), a joint Rule by EPA and the Army Corps, will impede ongoing farming activities in “potential” wetlands. Here in California, the most recent, and perhaps most difficult challenge to date that agriculture faces is the proposed legislation to eliminate the agriculture exemption for payment of overtime for our labor force. This legislation, if passed, is going to force many small farmers in this State out of business. Those farmers who have the grit and the financial strength to continue farming, will face increased competition in getting their products to market. As it is, farmers in California must compete with farmers in other states and countries that already have far lower wage costs, and have no overtime pay requirements. Buyers of our farm products – big box and traditional grocery and restaurant chains – set the price they will pay, and if our farmers cannot meet these prices, buyers will purchase from other states and countries.
Locally, we are facing a number of proposed ordinances that will make farming and marketing our products more difficult. The County is considering a Community Separator expansion that will apply to over 41,000 additional acres of largely agricultural land. Language incorporated in this proposal have the very real potential to impact agriculture land values and the ability of the farmer to develop his/her property. Additionally, the County is considering a Winery Ordinance that would restrict the ability of wineries to market their product on their own land. These regulations and policies are a marked departure from previous County policies that promoted the success of agriculture and encouraged the marketing of Sonoma County agricultural products. It is hard to imagine that this policy will not bleed- over into other agriculture products in the near future.
The fact that agriculture is facing these types of regulations serves to emphasize the lack of understanding by our fellow citizens and policy makers about the important role that farming plays in the life of every American. If you care about our continued ability to farm, you need to give voice to our citizen farmer. Now is the time to raise our collective voices, proudly assume the role of citizen farmer and shape the future to ensure that farming will survive for future generations.