To see something clearly, like California’s incredible agricultural bounty, sometimes you need a fresh pair of eyes. Having been here for three decades now, I got to thinking about that recently at a conference while talking with a plant pathologist. She’d been raised in the Midwest and worked in the Southeast, and though she’s been based in California for a few years now, she still finds the Golden State’s agriculture stunning.
Perhaps even more so, she said she finds the interface between agriculture and urbanization fascinating. Extraordinarily intensive farming exists hard by equally intensive — in its own way — residential development. Yet while the urbanites are so close to agriculture on a spatial level, they are mostly miles away from understanding it.
The plant pathologist said the ignorance of agriculture is especially acute along the coast, where she lives. There is little understanding that agriculture is economically important, much less that it is in fact the state’s biggest business. California agriculture experienced a nearly 3% increase in the sales value of its products in 2012, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture. The state’s 80,500 farms and ranches received a record $44.7 billion for their output last year, up from $43.3 billion in 2011 and $37.9 billion during 2010.
It’s in specialty crops that California really dominates, accounting for about half the nation’s vegetable production — and fruit too, for that matter. Three vegetable crops — strawberries, lettuce, and tomatoes — made the state’s Top 10 list, which is no mean feat when you consider a crop has to generate upwards of $1 billion in value to make the list. How can Joe and Jane Urbanite not get behind growing vegetables?
“We need to educate the coastal people,” said the pathologist, who was now really warming to the topic. “They have this negative view of the industry, and we have enough challenges as it is.”
Educating urbanites isn’t going to be easy, she conceded, noting that many of her neighbors don’t even know organic crops get sprayed, when in reality some are sprayed more than conventionally farmed crops. One key part of the strategy is to try to get to people while they are young. She said she participated in a San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau program called The Great AGventure, in which 2,000 fourth graders came to the county fairgrounds in Paso Robles to be immersed in ag.
That reminded me of some advice for growers the chief of the California Farm Bureau, Paul Wenger, a nut grower, shared with me a few years ago in an interview for a sister magazine,
American/Western Fruit Grower. “When you’re on a plane, when you’re in line at the movie theater, tell people who you are,” said Wenger. “The best thing you can do is reach out, shake hands, and tell people, ‘I’m a farmer, and this is what I do.’”