Summit explores the new realities facing agriculture


Issue Date: February 16, 2011
By Kate Campbell
California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger speaks to the first California Ag Summit, held last week at UC Davis.
Photo/Kate Campbell

After scrutinizing a host of issues facing California agriculture, organizers of the first California Ag Summit narrowed the list to the three most challenging topics—water, politics and future trends. About 200 farmers, ranchers, business leaders and policy experts heard presentations last week on what these issues mean for California crop production.

Speaking to attendees at the University of California, Davis, Conference Center, summit chairman and environmental attorney Anthony Van Ruiten of Sacramento said the challenges agriculture faces "extend beyond the industry to the education of consumers about what we do. Future trends are not just influenced by demand for specific commodities or land prices, but by trends that influence consumers and what they buy, how they buy it and how that translates to the farm gate."

In addressing the topic of a changing and dynamic political process, California Farm Bureau President Paul Wenger noted that influencing the perceptions of elected officials starts with reaching out to them, bringing them to the state's farms and ranches, and showing them what goes into growing crops and caring for the land.

Referring to passage of Proposition 2, a 2008 ballot measure that addresses confinement of certain farm animals, Wenger said, "What that tells us is that the people who are very concerned about where their food comes from and the cost of that food, are the people backing political efforts to change farming practices, often without having spent much time on a farm.

"That situation creates an opening for us," Wenger continued. "It's not about who is a Democrat or who is a Republican. It's not about convenient political alliances. It's about who wants to understand the issues and constructively work toward solutions."

He said a disconnect between agriculture and elected officials and consumers creates misunderstandings and ultimately—through poorly conceived laws and regulations—drives up the cost of food for people.

Joining Wenger in a discussion of California's changing political landscape and the risks for agriculture were Arnie Riebli, an egg farmer from Sunrise Farms in Petaluma, and Modesto egg farmer Jill Benson. Benson said her family's company, JS West, and other egg producers are seeking ways to comply with Proposition 2—doing so in the face of potential criminal penalties, regulatory uncertainty and the need to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new facilities.

"The language of the proposition doesn't provide any specific guidelines for cage size and stocking densities," Benson said. "Jurisdictional responsibility also is unclear. We're working with the California Department of Food and Agriculture now to develop specific regulations, but the compliance deadline is only a few years away."

Speaking on the future of water in California, State Water Resources Control Board Chairman Charlie Hoppin provided a personal perspective on California water history.

"Although I'm considered a regulator today, when this gig is over, I will return to farming," said Hoppin, who grows rice in Yolo and Sutter counties.

He said his family arrived in California about 1849.

"They were concerned about starvation. In fact, when they arrived at the Columbia Gorge after following the Oregon Trail, most in their party had scurvy," Hoppin said. "When they got to California there wasn't any developed water. They impounded water to grow food and communities were able to survive and grow."

Hoppin pointed to major projects like the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project for much of the state's past prosperity. A growing population places greater pressure on the environment, he said.

"If agriculture and the state are going to flourish in the future, it will require innovative, original thought and a high level of cooperation," Hoppin said.

The challenge to produce enough food to feed a global population estimated to grow to more than 9 billion persons during the next 50 years will be a greater task than at any other time in human history, said Maureen Mazurek, director of corporate responsibility/sustainability for Monsanto Co.

And demand for food is just part of the challenge, she said. Farmers must at the same time manage environmental impacts and climate change, along with conserving natural resources to improve lives throughout the world.

Global futurist and author Jack Uldrich pointed to emerging technologies that will change the future of agriculture, including information technology, genomics, synthetic biology, robotics and nanotechnology.

Noting that agriculture has always been adept at applying the latest advances in technology to improve both yield and productivity, Uldrich predicted that incorporating these emerging technologies into cultural practices will require looking at the world and farming in a different way.

"Sustainability won't just be another buzzword in 2020," he said, "it will be a way of life."

In addition to the California Farm Bureau and the California Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom, members of the summit organizing committee included representatives from the law firm Best Best and Krieger, Simplot Grower Solutions, Monsanto Co., Union Bank, Ag Seeds Unlimited, Wilbur Ellis, Moss Adams LLP, the California Agricultural Leadership Foundation, California Cattlemen's Association, and Meta Research and Marketing.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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