Commentary: Pundits miss the point in writing about agriculture


Issue Date: October 11, 2017
By Dave Kranz
Dave Kranz
California farmers can produce food more efficiently, in greater volume, with less environmental impact and higher quality, than anywhere elseā€”but opinion writers have been suggesting that large swaths of California farmland should be taken out of production.

With a steady drip, drip, drip, pundits have stepped up their ongoing efforts to undermine California agriculture. The state's farmers, ranchers and everyone who depends on them—all of us, basically—must be prepared to counter the arguments these pundits use to justify taking farmland out of production.

Since late September, California newspapers have carried editorials or commentaries that explicitly or implicitly encourage the shrinking of the state's agricultural base.

  • In a Sept. 21 editorial, the Sacramento Bee said of farmers in the western San Joaquin Valley, "Ultimately, they may need to fallow their land. The answer is not, as some farmers and politicians urge, to abandon the laws that protect endangered species."
  • Not to be outdone, the San Jose Mercury News printed a commentary the following day from a writer who advocated an end to farming on islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, describing farming in the delta as "unsustainable" and a source of "massive concentrations of carbon dioxide that drive climate change."
  • Next it was the Bee again, publishing a commentary to coincide with the annual Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Festival, from a writer who chided the region for clinging to its "agricultural past." The writer proudly described how he had overseen removal of peach orchards in the Santa Clara Valley as part of a "historic transition from farm to factory."
  • Last week, the Mercury News trotted out the hoary old specter of Big Ag (capital B, capital A, of course), in criticizing legislation intended to allow a neutral arbitrator to review water-rights cases before the state water board, saying the governor would be caving to Big Ag if he signed it.
  • Most recently, the Bee carried a commentary from an environmental group representative, who said it's "simply not fair" that California farmers use water to grow crops that will be sold outside the state, even—gasp—to people in other countries. He suggested a tax on water used to irrigate crops grown for export.

If they're saying all this in newspaper editorials and commentaries, you can bet they're saying it in the offices of elected and appointed government officials, too. That's why farmers and ranchers need to remain active and engaged in public policy.

So, how to respond to all this?

To start, farmers aren't calling for endangered-species laws to be abandoned, but to be applied reasonably. Agriculture accounts for only a small proportion of California greenhouse-gas emissions. Taxing water used to grow export crops is as impractical as it is ridiculous; what about taxing all the other products California exports?

More to the point: Any time someone recommends taking huge swaths of California farmland out of production, they should be challenged to tell us where people should farm, instead. Humans need food, and California farmers can produce it more efficiently, in greater volume, with less environmental impact and in higher quality, than anywhere else in the world.

If we take California land out of production, where should the replacement land be? And what would be the environmental impact of that?

I've been observing California farm and water issues for a long time, and I've never heard anyone in media or academia address those questions. How would the environmental footprint of global food production change—number of acres needed, amount of water needed, etc.—if California farmers are forced out of business because maintaining agriculture here becomes a low priority?

The writer who disparaged Sacramento's embrace of the farm-to-fork culture apparently considers agriculture to be part of the "old economy"—not as sexy as technology or whatever would be considered "new." But we forget that agriculture is the "always economy," because people will always need to eat. California farmers have led the way in technological innovation, and in pioneering new crops and new ways to grow them. Let's not throw that away in the chase for the latest shiny, new thing, whatever it might be.

As for the old "Big Ag" canard: Applying "Big" to any sector of the economy is just an unimaginative way to cast it as the enemy. We should demand better of our pundits—especially in a state where 95 percent of the farms are operated by families, partnerships or family corporations, and the average farm is 110 acres smaller than the national average.

By the way, it hasn't been all anti-agriculture, all the time, in the opinion sections. In late September, the Orange County Register published a commentary from Michael Shires, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University who has studied the importance of agriculture to the Central Valley economy. He pointed out how healthy, California-grown food benefits families living throughout the state.

"Dismantling the state's agriculture economy in the Central Valley would not only make America dependent on foreign producers not subject to worker, environmental and food safety regulations, but would disrupt the lives of tens of thousands of Californians and their local communities," Shires wrote.

The bottom line, he said, is that "agriculture is impossible to replace, and we shouldn't want to."

That's the message farmers, ranchers and all of us who depend on them need to reinforce with our elected officials.

(Dave Kranz edits Ag Alert and manages the California Farm Bureau Federation Communications/News Division. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.