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May 18, 2016

On “Corporate Agriculture” and Other Loaded Language

George Skelton has been writing for the L.A. Times since before many of his readers first picked up a newspaper. As both a White House reporter and columnist, he has developed a reputation as one of the keener observers of California government and politics. His columns are generally insightful.

His recent column about farms and water use, however, reveals a sad willingness to parrot the talking points of environmental activist groups like Natural Resources Defense Council. Without any pretense of objective thought or skepticism, Skelton regurgitated many of the environmental activists’ rhetorical broadsides against agricultural water use. He pans Governor Jerry Brown’s executive order making previously temporary urban water conservation rules permanent. Not because Skelton believes city dwellers have a God-given right to waste water, but because he believes the Governor is giving agriculture a free pass (“But it’s basically hands off agriculture.”).

The crux of Skelton’s critique is that, “…corporate agriculture is free to plant all the water-gulping nut orchards it desires, even in a semi-desert.” And he doesn’t just vilify nut farmers. He goes after tree fruit growers, too (because they also cannot temporarily stop watering during dry years).

We’ve heard all this many times before, from environmental activists. Terms like “corporate agriculture” are loaded and meant to communicate one thing – that large farming companies are inherently bad and the enemy of both people and the environment.

No term could be more intellectually dishonest in describing the demographics of California agriculture. In fact, only 1.3 percent of all California farms are non-family held corporations. That means nearly all California farms are owned and operated by innovative, industrious and multi-generational families; people who care about the land and workers who make our state the most productive supplier of fresh produce in the country. Like millions of family-owned business in America, California’s farm families establish themselves as corporations for tax purposes. But Skelton would have you believe these farmers are no different than IBM or Citibank, because hey, they’re all “corporate.”

In the same sentence, Skelton suggests that certain permanent crops should not be grown in the San Joaquin Valley because it is a “semi-desert” (he also uses the term “semiarid” later in the column).

This is another lazy attack line from the environmental activists. The San Joaquin Valley, which has more Class 1 (the most fertile) soil than anywhere else in the world and is within one of the world’s five Mediterranean climates, is a geographical marvel, capable of producing a greater variety of crops with more efficiency and higher yields than any other region on the planet. Talk about a worthwhile use of limited water resources (which was, by the way, recognized by the original builders of the Central Valley Project).

Skelton goes on to perpetuate another myth, that agriculture uses 80 percent of California’s water. Not once, but twice… and in consecutive sentences, too.

“Agriculture slurps up 80%, much of it in the semiarid San Joaquin Valley…” and “But while agriculture devours 80% of the developed water, it accounts for only 2% of the state’s gross product…”

Where to begin?

For one, repeating the flawed 80 percent figure doesn’t make it twice as true. The California Department of Water Resources clearly states that agriculture uses 40% of the state’s managed water. Fully half of our state’s water resources are used (or “slurped,” or “devoured”) to meet environmental regulations.

While he is fond of citing the growth in acres of “thirsty” almonds, Skelton fails to acknowledge that total agricultural water use in California has not increased in nearly five decades (with an overall 43 percent increase in farm production, to boot). In the last decade alone, farmers have spent more than $3 billion in investments to upgrade to more efficient irrigation systems, increasing the amount land irrigated with low-volume irrigation by 150 percent.

The fact is California farmers are constantly seeking new ways to innovate and apply smart thinking to how they use water.

Then there is the “two percent” matter. As with most statistics, this number is useless without context. The California economy is huge and complex, made up of dozens of diverse sectors, and more resembles a large nation than it does a state like Iowa or Nebraska, with far smaller and more homogenous economies. While Skelton belittles agriculture as “only two percent” of the state’s economy, he probably doesn’t know that only two private sector industries – real estate and manufacturing – break through single digits in California’s gross domestic product, or that agriculture contributes more to our state’s diverse economy than our celebrated entertainment industry.

Taken as a country, California would be the 7th largest economy in the world, ahead of Brazil, Russia and India. Two percent of our $2.4 trillion economy is a big economic footprint, especially when you factor in the upstream and downstream jobs dependent on agriculture. The total economic impact of the industry is two or three times its direct impact. California’s agriculture economy is, by itself, larger than the entire economies of four states!

Skelton decries the use of groundwater by San Joaquin Valley farmers, stating, “So when government reduces water deliveries through the giant aqueducts, farmers feel compelled to drill deeper wells, further draining aquifers.”

It is unfortunate that Skelton chooses to dwell on the second half of this sentence, when the real story (and cause of the overdraft he disparages) is contained in the first. Over the past decade, San Joaquin Valley farmers have received an average of less than 30 percent of their federal water allocations, including nothing in 2014 and 2015 and just five percent this year, despite El Niño filling up most of our reservoirs in northern California.

Skelton blames farmers for drilling wells to replace just some of surface water regulators shunted past our aqueducts and reservoirs and sent out to the sea.

Again, sadly right out of the environmental activists’ playbook.