September 19, 2022

President’s Notes: Economics Always Wins

Rhetoric is powerful. Repeated often enough, rhetoric has the power to shape the public consciousness and, in turn, public policy.

A recent policy proposal by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Rep. David Scott, a Democrat from Georgia, illustrates a trend in rhetoric that’s been bothering me for some time.

Entitled the Small Family Farmer and Rancher Relief Act, Chairman Scott’s bill includes subsidies for small farmers and ranchers and targets the loss of small producers in the cattle industry.

With the introduction of this bill, Chairman Scott adds his voice to a growing chorus of policymakers advocating for additional fundingand resources for small-scale farming operations.

A quick search of USDA’s website pulls up nearly two dozen programs and funding opportunities specifically designed for small- and mid-sized producers. And frequently, you’ll hear U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announce actions USDA is taking “to ensure that all can benefit from our programs and services.”

To be clear: Vilsack is right to ensure that USDA services are accessible to all. Smaller operations often lack the internal staff and resources that larger operations must have. And on a much deeper level, the ugly history of discrimination that denied Black farmers from accessing USDA programs is finally being acknowledged and steps are being taken by Vilsack to try to right those wrongs.

Western Growers is rooted in family farmers.
We represent growers of all sizes, from small, beginning farmers to large, multi-generational, multi-national businesses. Indeed, many of our association services are geared toward small- and mid-sized operations that do not have the resources to bring such activities in-house.

But as policymakers promote actions they undertake to help small farming operations, there is a subtle implication that large farming companies are inherently “bad,” or undeserving of consideration in public policy. This is misguided.

Larger farming enterprises are the economic engines of rural communities across the country. Often, big agricultural operations suffer the same challenges facing their smaller counterparts, and the economic fallout of their potential failure is exponentially greater; many smaller agricultural companies depend on partners with greater scale and capability. Their fates are interconnected.

In California, the food and agriculture industry is responsible for 2.8 million jobs and $370 billion in direct economic output, much larger than the $50 billion farm gate value that is typically used to quantify the size of our industry.

None of this accounts for the fact that California produces one-fifth of the nation’s food supply, including more than 60 percent of all fruits, vegetables and tree nuts. That type of food security is priceless.

During the global financial crisis in 2007 and 2008, we heard Wall Street and Washington insiders elevate the phrase “Too big to fail” in defense of massive taxpayer bailouts for banks and investment firms. What would happen to our local economies and domestic food supply if we were to allow “Big Ag” to collapse?

Between a burdensome regulatory system and policies designed to make farming more difficult, that is precisely what it seems California intends.

This seems counterintuitive, especially in California, which is home to massive global companies like Apple, Alphabet, Disney, Meta and Visa. Here in California, we celebrate growth and success in some industry sectors, but not others.

The luster of the Golden State is wearing thin. Since 2018, 265 companies have left California for other states, with more than 40 percent splitting for Texas—including the recent high profile move of Tesla’s corporate leadership.

One of my favorite sayings is: “Economics always wins.” Regardless of political ideology, whenever policymakers (or voters, as is the case in California) attempt to reshape the economy by force of political will, whether through higher taxes, imposition of costly regulatory mandates and rules and other grand public policy designs, the laws of economics always respond in kind.

As one example, the agricultural overtime law passed in 2016 has now been fully implemented, and instead of agricultural workers earning more take home pay, many are receiving fewer hours and have seen their earnings potential decline dramatically.

Such are the unintended consequences when the government chooses winners and losers. It never goes as they intended; the laws of economics always interfere.

Even though California farmers cannot physically pick up their dirt and move it, many have already scaled back production here or elected to expand elsewhere—or a combination of both.

It is time to change the rhetoric around Big Ag. Big is not bad. In fact, being big is proof of the very qualities our political class celebrates when it happens in Silicon Valley. We achieve economies of scale to remain competitive in a global marketplace while paying our workers well, adopting new technologies, investing in the sustainability of our farms and feeding a growing worldwide population. All while being one of the last industries still predominantly comprised of family-owned and operated businesses.

That’s worth celebrating and protecting. Even if our politicians and regulatory officials can’t bring themselves to confidently acknowledge that Big Ag is good, they should at least quietly accept the reality—as they contemplate yet another legislative mandate or regulatory scheme—that whatever they impose on companies, regardless of size, economics will always win.