The future depends on what we do in the present.
– Mahatma Gandhi
I recently read the San Francisco Chronicle’s opinion by Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations. Grader characterizes the allocation of water in California by stating “The fight is really between sustainable food producers and family wage job creators on one side – salmon fishermen, small business owners, and family farmers – and subsidy-dependent, politically powerful industrial agribusiness on the other”.
Not surprisingly, Mr. Grader is missing the point and a few facts. What’s important is not the size of farms in California, but their production. California’s mainstream agricultural producers, big and small, are feeding the world, not Mr. Grader’s preferred boutique farms owned by the wealthy. The entire large-small debate is staged to divert us from the real issue of the day, meeting the agricultural needs of the world’s 6 billion people. Right now, California is the most productive agricultural economy in the nation. So let’s bring the discussion into proper focus, with some facts thrown in just for good measure.
Look at what Americans eat, wear, and build and who brings it to us. Production from agriculture in the U.S. has increased by an average of 5 percent each year since 1990 using about 40 percent of the land. This includes 431.1 million acres of cropland, 396.9 million acres of pasture, and 71.5 million acres of forests. In 1998, America’s total crop output was 489,976,030 metric tons with a value of $102.14 billion, certainly something worth preserving and protecting.
American agriculture grows about half of the world’s corn, 10 percent of its wheat and 20 percent of the globe’s beef, pork, and lamb. And while protecting spotted owls and other wildlife, the U.S. still manages to be the world’s largest producer of timber.
Thanks to our famous American ingenuity, increasing efficiency of agriculture, and subsidies to avoid boom and bust swings in production , food prices for American consumers have had little increase over the past 20 years. Even now, Americans spend less on food, as a proportion of their income, than any other nation in the world.
Now, dialing it back a little, let’s look at California’s contribution. It’s the largest producer and exporter of agricultural products in the U.S., generating about $97.7 billion of the state’s total sales output, 3.8 percent of jobs, 2.5 percent of labor income, and $39.6 billion (2.9 percent) of labor and property income and indirect business taxes. Of that $97.7 billion, agricultural production and processing in the beleaguered Central Valley – the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys combined – accounted for 43 percent. That’s north and south of the Delta.
All told, California has 75,000 farms and ranches — less than 4 percent of the nation’s total– yet California’s agricultural products represent almost 13 percent of the nation’s total value. Not bad when you consider this is all grown on an average farm size of 311 acres.
So, what’s the real bottom line? Were it not for Mr. Grader’s “subsidy-dependent, politically powerful industrial agribusiness”, Americans would face increased economic hardship, more displacement of resources, and the decreased overall sense of well-being that comes with that package. And, yes, California, that means us too. So before we malign, goad, vilify, and drive farmers out of existence in the guise of a faceoff between small versus big, family versus industrial, let’s take a good long look at what we’ll be getting in return.
Coming up, more on subsidies, industrial agribusiness, California water and all kinds of things.
*A joint collaboration of “A horse with no name”