Editor's note: The following article was written by Steve Adler, associate editor of Ag Alert, the weekly newspaper from the California Farm Bureau Federation.
Assigned the task of exploring the challenges facing California farms and how they can innovate and adapt to the changing landscape, panelists at a conference in Sacramento considered how consumer choice and public policy will affect California agriculture.
The discussion, titled "Stewardship of the land that sustains us: The future of farming in California," opened the 24th annual Envisioning California Conference presented last week by the Center for California Studies at California State University, Sacramento.
Participants included Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation; Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture; Michael Dimock, president of Roots of Change; and Mary Kimball, executive director of the Center for Land-Based Learning.
First up was Wenger, a third-generation farmer from Stanislaus County, who told attendees in the packed meeting room that he loves farming, his chosen way of life.
"As I tell my sons, we are farmers and whatever we are going to be farming in the future will depend on what the public demands," he said. "As long as we can maintain our most productive agricultural lands and have a reliable supply of water, we will continue to farm. It is in our blood, it is in our genes, it is what we do."
Wenger explained how important it is to protect California's prime agricultural lands from loss to urban development and other non-agricultural uses, which could see increased pressures from factors such as the proposed high-speed rail system through the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.
"I helped start Stanislaus Land Trust, which is now part of the Central Valley Land Trust, because it is extremely important to protect our land resources," he said, adding that the Williamson Act has been an "incredible success story" at protecting all types of agricultural land throughout the state.
Wenger said one of the primary reasons developers zero in on prime farmland is because of the availability of water, so rather than going into areas that don't currently have water supplies, they are always looking to develop on prime farmland.
He noted that as the world's population increases, one of the biggest questions facing California farmers and ranchers is whether they can produce enough to feed the world.
"Can we feed the world? Yes, we can, but do we want to feed the world? If the answer is yes, then there are certain things we have to think about. We will have increased challenges of where we are farming, reduced water, increased temperatures and things like that, which will bring the dreaded word of some, 'biotechnology,' into the discussion," he said. "And if we are not going to utilize all of the abilities and technologies that we have to adapt to fewer resources and the challenges that are before us, then maybe we don't need to feed the world. But we need to have that discussion and as a grower, I want to know."
Wenger noted that several years ago, one of his biggest concerns was whether the economics of agriculture would allow the next generation of farmers to continue.
"I don't worry about that as much anymore. The world wants what we have. When you talk about locally grown, we have a very unique situation here in California. The rest of the world wants what we grow. Even though they can grow the same crops, they can't grow it with the reliable quality that we have," he said.
In concluding, Wenger said that while it is important to conserve farmland, some of the efforts to accomplish this task focus on pristine viewsheds rather than on food production.
"At the end of the day, when we have limited resources to protect, are we going to protect the ag lands that are the most productive, or are we going to protect that land that maybe looks the best? As we talk about efficiency of production and feeding the most people with the least impact, those are discussions that we need to have," he said.
In her presentation, Kimball emphasized the need to educate more people in agricultural pursuits, not only as farmers but in supporting industries.
"We have to figure out how we are going to train these folks. It doesn't always mean college," she said. "I have so many employers who call me and say they just need a farm manager or someone who is ready to go and knows how things work. We don't have a repository right now of those kinds of people, and we have to start thinking about where we can find people who are interested in those kinds of careers and then help them get there."
Dimock said it is important for everyone to realize that the food system is the base of civilization.
"The way that we interact with the planet to feed ourselves, which is the thing that we all depend on every day in order to survive, is incredibly impactful. To be sustainable, we can't think about three, five or 10 generations, we have to think about 1,000 generations. We have to think beyond what humans everywhere think about if we are going to survive sustainably," he said.
Ross said there is a strong yearning on the part of Americans to reconnect with their food.
"Our quality of life generally comes from the fact that we don't have to worry about where our food comes from. We will not have sound public policy if we don't have consumers who understand where their food comes from, how it is produced and who is producing it," she said.