Small Growers Play Big Role

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There’s a growing, disturbing gulf between farm and fork in the U.S., but the nation’s smaller growers are in the unique position to do something about it, says the chief of the California Department of Agriculture (CDFA).

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross gave the keynote address at the 25th California Small Farm Conference, which was held Sunday through Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency in Valencia, CA. Ross said smaller growers have the advantage — through farm stands, farmer’s markets, etc. — of having face-to-face contact with consumers.

“You are ambassadors in a way that many who have larger farms yearn for,” she told the audience.

The need for such increased communication between growers and consumers can be seen in recent events, said Ross. Food scarcity, a problem in much of the world, was a key driver of the Arab Spring.

In the U.S., where Ross said the average family spends just 6% of its income on food, compared to 17% to 20% in 1950, food — and, consequently, the farmer — is taken for granted. Not only is food affordable, but it’s largely safe, and most people aren’t involved with producing it.

Not only is the average grower near 60, but Ross said 30% of farmers are 75 or older. New blood is vital, she said, noting that her former boss, the chief of USDA, Tom Vilsack, said a few years ago he wanted to see 100,000 new farms in the U.S. in five years, and she thinks it will happen.

Organizers of the California Small Farm Conference agree. The conference’s theme: “Cultivating the Next Generation.”

Next year’s conference will be held March 10-12 in Fresno, CA.

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