In 1908, President Teddy Roosevelt formed the Commission on Country Life to provide recommendations on ways to preserve rural life, which he considered to be the backbone of our nation. At the time, the American economy was in transition, and children were leaving farms for the cities in record numbers. More than 100 years later, agriculture is still grappling with the consequences of this demographic shift.
For context, at the turn of the 20th century, 40 percent of Americans lived on farms and 60 percent lived in rural areas. Today, just 1 percent of the U.S. population lives on farms, with only 20 percent living in rural areas. As a result, the average American has grown increasingly disconnected from the source of their food supply, which has real world implications on the freedom farmers have to operate.
My 17 years of service to the produce industry as president and CEO of Western Growers has been marked by a steady erosion of support for farmers, particularly in California, which I believe to be the consequence of a disengaged, uninformed and largely urban populace. This prevailing physical and intellectual detachment from the farm has opened agriculture up to increasingly restrictive public policies.
There can be little debate, California farmers face the most hostile, burdensome and expensive legislative and regulatory environment in the country. Liberal legislators and activist regulators have launched an all-out attack on our livelihood, and we are losing ground. In fact, over the past 20 years, the number of farms in the state has declined by 20 percent.
Fortunately, this trend is not quite as dramatic in other Western states, with Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico experiencing double-digit growth in the number of farms over the same time period.
As a case study, in Arizona we have a generally positive business climate with politicians on both sides of the aisle working together to foster a regulatory system that insists on balance, practicality and predictability. As we see California businesses investing elsewhere, let’s hope the state’s political leaders look to Arizona for inspiration.
The positive news is, despite fewer farms and acres in California, produce farmers in the state continue to grow more food with less resources and inputs. In real dollars, California’s produce industry has grown by 66 percent during the past two decades, and now accounts for 60 percent of all fruits, vegetables and tree nuts grown in the United States.
This success is not limited to California. Five of the top six produce-producing states are in the West.
How do we account for this continued achievement, even when the cards seem to be stacked against our favor? Two words: dogged determination. Let that phrase sink in for a moment. I believe farmers possess an uncommon vigor, a certain tenacity that allows them to persevere in spite of trying circumstances, and this innate spirit will help ensure the future prosperity of the Western produce industry.
Innovation will also help secure the ongoing competitiveness and profitability of the industry. Like the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s, marked by the adoption of new technologies and methods of cultivation, we are on the verge of an AgTech Revolution that will fundamentally change how produce is grown, harvested, packaged and shipped to the consumer.
Agriculture has always embraced innovation in the service of higher productivity, yields and profits. Now, with efforts like the Western Growers Center for Innovation and Technology, the Western produce industry is unifying around technology in response to our common threats, which are largely caused by bad public policy.
I say all of this with a caveat: Regardless of how determined or innovative we are, our industry will only flourish into the next generation if we learn to work together more effectively. The challenges facing agriculture are too global, too complex for any one company or association to address on its own. Threats like labor shortages, dwindling natural resources, the flood of foreign competition, even vendor agreements that shift regulatory costs and food safety liabilities to the growers, face us all and jeopardize our collective ability to hand our businesses down to our children.
In closing, I am reminded of the Aesop fable in which an old man on the verge of death gathers his sons together and asks each of them to break a bundle of sticks. None are able. He then unties the bundle and gives each son a single stick, which they are easily able to break. This story teaches us that unity gives strength, which is the only way our industry will remain viable into the coming generations.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally printed in The Packer on August 2, 2019, as part of the publication’s 125-year anniversary special.
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