Folks who live in the Bay Area, New York metro area, and other urban metropolises may be under the impression that “local food” is the biggest force affecting agriculture right now. That’s because when media outlets in urban areas cover agriculture — if they do at all — this is the subject they tend to focus on. An example is an recent article in Business Week highlighting a handful of multi-generational farms who have shifted to direct marketing all their crops. As the article points out, direct sales to consumers and retailers is now a billion dollar market.
A billion dollars is a lot of money. But it represents just a tiny percentage of the total revenue produced by agriculture in the U.S. And while SF Gate and the New York Times are lovingly covering the explosion in farmers’ markets, CSAs and other locally grown foods, a much different story is told in the magazines that farmers read. The picture is also a rosy one, but it’s all about commodities.
The market for most commodities — which are traded globally — has exploded in the last three years with most of the new demand coming from China, India, and other countries where the middle class is growing quickly. Crops like corn and soybeans are in high demand because they are fed to pigs, cows, and chickens — meat consumption is way up as people seek to emulate the American diet. And sales of “luxury” foods like almonds, walnuts, and pistachios (as well as wine) have skyrocketed. The latter category has dramatically impacted agriculture in California.
Our state produces more of the first two nuts than any country in the world, and is on a pace to best Iran on the third. Nut crops are extremely appealing to farmers for two primary reasons: they are highly mechanized and not very perishable. In this way they are not unlike the dried corn grown by most farmers in the midwest. (Unlike corn, though, nut orchards take 5-8 years before they start producing income.) Throughout the Central Valley of California, farmers who can afford to do so have been planting thousands of acres of nuts annually since the early 2000s. Every time an acre is converted from another crop to nuts, jobs are lost. A 20 acre modern nut orchard, with a fully automated irrigation system, will provide a job for one full time employee at most.
A farm like Terra Firma that is providing locally grown food requires about five times that many people per acre. (We have a total of 20 acres of nut orchards, about 10% of our total acreage). This is the primary reason why our neighbors all around us in Winters are ignoring the booming market for locally grown food in the Bay Area — just 60 miles away — and have mostly shifted their land over to nut crops and other commodities.
The federal government gives lip service to promoting “locally grown”. Yet where it really counts — on issues such as immigration and food safety — the federal government is pushing farmers to produce commodities instead. Here in California, the legislature has decided that CalOSHA’s (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) new rules on heat safety for farmworkers and other outdoor workers aren’t strong enough. They are now getting ready to pass a draconian bill that will be almost impossible for small farms like ours to comply with. Among other things, it will require shade to be available to workers 365 days of the year, irregardless of temperature. This calls to mind a scene where TFF’s field crew is out harvesting carrots on a rainy day in January, trying to stay warm in rain gear and rubber boots, and yet has to set up a shade tent. The shade must be within 400 feet of where employees are working or the employer could face criminal charges and civil penalties.
A neighbor of mine who has grown both commodity walnuts and dried fruit for local markets for 35 years shut down his fruit dryer last month, laid off several dozen employees, and is currently ripping out his apricot and peach orchards. I asked him why. He just looked at me and said “It sure seems like that’s what they want us to do”. For him, the last straw was the new food safety rules from the FDA.
If you have occasion to communicate with your assemblymember any time soon, you might mention to them that small farmers don’t need any more obstacles to success. If they really want to support farmers who grow food to sell locally, they need to stop passing laws that push us instead towards growing commodities to sell to China.