Commentary: To advance agriculture, be creative, collaborative


Issue Date: April 17, 2019
By Rich Matteis
Rich Matteis
Food-production efficiency has allowed Americans to devote less of their incomes to purchasing food, freeing them to afford better health care, education and other benefits. But many in the public appear not to appreciate fully the safety and security agriculture provides.
Photo/Kevin Hecteman

I started my 45-year journey advocating for farmers and ranchers with the Farm Bureau following my graduation from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1974, serving as manager of both the Alameda and Santa Clara County Farm Bureaus and as a field representative for the California Farm Bureau. I returned to Farm Bureau as administrator in 2007 after spending 30 years lobbying for, managing and providing services to an array of agricultural trade associations.

As I look back on my career, I want first to extend my appreciation to all those in agriculture whom I worked with and for. I was provided so many opportunities to work for so many of the sectors and people that make up California's amazing farming, ranching and agricultural business system. It is unparalleled, and I feel privileged to have been able to advocate for all that is essential for agriculture's success.

It has never ceased to amaze me how adaptive, nimble, creative and resourceful California farmers and ranchers have been in surviving through a veritable onslaught of new regulations and programs that require intelligence, vigilance and deliberate effort to comply with. What California farmers and ranchers do to put food, fiber and ornamental products into homes in California, across the country and around the globe is nothing short of remarkable.

They should be commended and thanked daily for their efforts, but I feel farmers and ranchers do not receive the respect and appreciation they so richly deserve. There are those outside of agriculture who do provide recognition and support, but there are so many who take for granted all farmers do to make their lives easier and better.

I have given many speeches about California agriculture to non-agricultural audiences. I always talk about how farming and ranching is a great, enabling enterprise that benefits us all. Consider that when the census started being taken, nearly a third of U.S. citizens worked in farming and ranching. Today the number is less than 2% and in California, even lower than that.

The decline in the percentage of farmers is a testament to the amazing efficiencies and productivity agriculture has produced—and it is a good thing. Because we need so few people to feed and clothe our population, at costs that are so low as a percentage of income, human and financial resources are freed up for many other life-enhancing pursuits. Our food-production efficiency has enabled better health care, better education, production of many products that lessen the burdens of everyday life, the arts, environmental protection and mitigation, more leisure time—and the list goes on.

I am not sure the public fully appreciates the safety and security agriculture provides. A well-fed populace provides a much safer, more secure environment than one where food supplies lack.

There's a famous quote, "There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy." The quote was first attributed to journalist Alfred Henry Lewis in 1906 and was repeated often through the years, including during a 2000 gas-tax protest in Great Britain that resulted in food shortages. Those shortages caused broad-based panic for both fuel and food. Just consider the current unrest in Venezuela, where there is an extreme food crisis and families go hungry. Peace on earth depends in large part on full bellies.

So it's unfortunate there are many detractors who want to impede our wonderful agricultural success story. I know it often seems those in governance and many in the public create obstacles to progress in agriculture.

Shortly before I returned to Farm Bureau, a transplant from the Midwest came to manage a farm-related enterprise in California. After about six months, he summoned me to a meeting, wanting to discuss why it seemed there were so many California decision-makers who want to make lives difficult for farmers and ranchers. He said in his Midwestern state, when government did something to harm agriculture, it was done by mistake. Here, he said, it seems those in power go out of their way to further burden our food producers. As we all know, it sure feels like that sometimes.

But I do not let the challenges we face get me down. Those I know in farming and ranching display an optimism that is hard to justify, which encourages us all to double down and do more.

Walking away from the fight is not the answer. We in agriculture need to resolve to engage more in creative, collaborative ways to fight the battles that need to be fought and earn opportunities for wins wherever they present themselves. We need to put our shoulders to the same wheel, moving in the same direction, to help agriculture in California and nationally continue to deliver the benefits we have been delivering for centuries. Infighting is unacceptable—solidarity is essential.

I feel fortunate and blessed to have had the chance to work with so many talented and astute folks from the farming community and with the many leaders involved in our county Farm Bureaus and CFBF. Farm Bureau has always been special to me, even when I worked outside the organization, as I knew it was iconic in farm advocacy. My family was a "Farm Bureau family" and my earliest memories go back to attending Farm Center events in our area.

A couple of weeks before graduating from college, I talked with my parents about possible job opportunities. My mother made only one recommendation: She said I should go to work for the Farm Bureau, which I ended up doing about two months later.

Although my time as CFBF administrator is up, I will still be fighting the good fight and offering what time and talents I have to the causes important to farmers and ranchers.

May God bless you all.

(Editor's note: Rich Matteis retired as California Farm Bureau Federation administrator March 29. He remains in a consulting role as a special advisor to the organization.)

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