Coming Together as an Industry—Is it Even Possible?
Every year, like many, I enjoy attending my state Farm Bureau’s annual meeting. It’s a great opportunity to reconnect with old farming friends from across the state, discuss the issues agriculture is currently facing and help shape the policies that are used to define our position on critical issues. This year was no exception and the opening session was kicked off by California Farm Bureau Federation President Doug Mosebar and California Secretary of Agriculture A.G. Kawamura recounting the year’s achievements and, unfortunately, losses.
From my seat in the back this reflection seemed to have a heavier tone than usual. Granted, I can only count the number of meetings I’ve been to on my hands, while others in the room long surpassed the ability to total their attendance on their fingers and toes combined. Still, the video clips of farmers sharing their utter desperation about water shortages was gut wrenching. When a man confesses to a camera that “this is all I know; I didn’t go to college and have no education beyond what I’ve learned in farming. What else will there be for me to do?” It’s enough to literally break your heart.
Secretary Kawamura noted that since he has been in office no less then half-a-dozen of his farming friends have gone out of business, for one reason or another. He hails from one of the most urban counties in Southern California, so for six or so farmers to go under, it’s quite a staggering number. Increased input costs, loss of a marketplace, urban encroachment and not having a next generation interested in continuing the business were all reasons for this transition. The whole situation just makes folks sit back and scratch their heads.
And yet, for all our camaraderie and shared frustrations, I was struck the night before by a different sentiment. At the big event kicoff dinner, a table of Farm Bureau members was sporting shirts that said “Our county has bonafide farmers.” The dig was in reference to a state by-laws change that took place last year modifying the definition of a voting member.
The crux of the debate – which is not worth rehashing in its totality – was that agriculture has evolved far beyond strictly production farming. Many farmers are also pest control advisors or crop insurance salesmen; in this day and age, a number of folks have to wear many hats to make ends meet. In an attempt to ensure that the state accurately reflects the realities of 21st century farming, a by-laws change was enacted that now says that the voting memberships who wish to serve on a county board must either “(i.) derive a substantial portion of his or her gross income from farming operations...or (ii.) have his or her principal occupation in the faming industry in California in the year when elected.”
Many were opposed to the change, driven by fear that non-farmers – those of us not getting our hands dirty every day – would be out of touch with the realities of the industry and subsequently not capable of representing California agriculture’s issues from a personal perspective. As someone who does not derive the majority of my income from a farming operation, I take deep offense to the notion that I am incapable of telling California agriculture’s story in an articulate and compelling manner. But that’s not really my point.
What makes me even more disappointed was their need to continue stirring the pot; the need to make yet another snide remark regarding a decision that took place a year ago. The following morning, during that opening session, they were still on my mind. And even more so as President Mosebar and Secretary Kawamura spoke of our need as Farm Bureau members to unite around the issues that impact our livelihood. Who are they kidding? We can’t even get over a by-laws change, what chance do we stand coming together over water needs?
While this is just a minor incident, it is indicative of a festering disease plaguing agriculture across this state and nation. We seem incapable, much to our own demise, of joining forces for the betterment of agriculture as a whole. I’ve seen it time and time again, where agriculture trade associations find themselves on both sides of an issue. In reality, our opponents don’t really need to do much of anything; they can sit back and watch as we tear one another apart.
Pick an issue – corn for ethanol or animal feed, water rights, organic versus conventional practices – one doesn’t have to look far to find an issue where we brutalized one another in the national media. No wonder the general consumer doesn’t have a connection to 21st century farming. How could they? Who would they listen to? And what lesson are we hoping they glean from it – support this type of farmer, but not that one? Folks, we’re in trouble the day we started pitting agriculture against agriculture and expected the public to still support us.
Where does this leave us? Well, I for one try to be an optimist, but am struggling a bit on this one. Every trade association meeting I’ve attended in the past few months echoes a twinge of “us not them.” And the “us” and “them” in those conversations are all farmers. Ultimately, I suppose it will take even more crisis, greater tragedy and bigger losses for American agriculture to decide it is time to come together. During the lowest, most devastating times is when our society historically manages to rally around a single idea and see it to fruition.
But really, how sad is that. More of us will have to fail; more of the Secretary’s friends will have to go out of business; more farmers will have to lose their water and have no place else to go before we stop arguing with one another. I hope I’m around when that day happens. I can already imagine the t-shirt I’d wear for that celebration.
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