Saturday, April 13, 2013

A Tale of Caution

Last week I had the privilege of going to Southern California on the Kansas Farm Bureau Farm Family Trip. I have to admit that it was very nice to get on the plane when it was blowing snow and twenty-nine degrees and step off the plane to seventy-five and palm trees. I can certainly see why people migrate to warmer climates for the winter. The warm sunshine felt exceedingly good.
We were treated to a tour of California agriculture by our very gracious fellow farmers. It never ceases to amaze me how despite differences in crops all farmers and ranchers are very similar. I promise you I will never take another strawberry, avocado, leaf of lettuce, raspberry or any one of the more than one hundred crops grown around Los Angeles for granted. I got to see some of my very favorite foods in their most basic forms.
I marveled at the determination and ingenuity of the farmers we met. More than anywhere I had ever been they had to reinvent themselves and their farming operations every few years. I came away believing more than ever that farming in a way of life, because the farmers we met were still farming because they loved what they were doing. The stories I heard both gave me hope and a warning to heed.
First the warning, California farmers and ranchers face an overwhelming amount of public scrutiny. Everything they do is being watched by hundreds, if not thousands of eyes. Many, if not most, of the observers have no knowledge of agriculture and no shortage of opinions. All of these observations and opinions lead to regulations. The regulations and oversight provided by the bureaucrats in charge of them can be quite smothering.
Every drop of water, pesticide, piece of equipment, employee and plant is heavily scrutinized. Fields and facilities are regularly inspected, records are audited and red tape is regularly and liberally applied. All of this attention accepted and recognized as just part of the cost of doing business and staying in the line of work they love. Even though the price they pay for complying with this over regulation is staggering.
Then there is the problem of urban sprawl and the competition for acres. The cost of land is astronomical and along with it land rent. The encroachment of people into agriculture lands also mean that work has to be done differently and much more attention must be spent on public relations. Issues of dust, traffic, zoning and crop theft must be addressed daily.
Get the picture, California farmers and ranchers are pressured by government oversight and regulations. They are squeezed by population growth and burdened by the high cost of doing business. All of that and we have not even touched the labor issue. That will be saved for another day, but I promise I came away with a whole new take on that topic. Even with all of this I saw hope for the future.
Each of the farmers we visited spoke to us with the passion and conviction that all agriculture producers share. They love the life they have chosen and each had hope that the next generation would also be able to farm. They had a belief in the future of agriculture, even given the immense challenges they faced. They had adapted by finding higher valued crops, fine tuning their production practices and learning the importance of working and educating their neighbors.
The farmers and ranchers of California did what all of us will do in the future. We will look for new ways to produce the food America and the world need. They utilized the technology at hand and produce more food with fewer acres and less inputs. They are some of the most flexible and innovative people I have ever met. However, there is one area I think we need to learn from.
We must continue to share what we do with the public. Education must be our top priority. It is no longer enough to assume that everyone supports agriculture and we can continue to conduct business like we always have because of that trust. All of us in agriculture must stick up for ourselves, work on providing truthful, factual information and tell our story.
I enjoyed my visit to sunny Southern California, but I probably enjoyed coming home to the Flint Hills of Kansas even more. One thing I have always known, but this trip brought even closer to home. As farmers and ranchers, we all have challenges. Each region and its crops have their own set of challenges, but in the end we wouldn’t trade our farms or ranches for anything else in this world.

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