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."