Aug 17, 2022
Assembly panel urged to keep farmers in California

It used to be that a California farmer couldn’t just put the farm on a truck and hit the road for another state. Advances in plant science and crop protection may be changing that, which worries Jamie Johansson to no end.

“We’re seeing that technology carry over to where farms now can grow these berry varieties, say, in the Southeast, or carrots in Georgia,” Johansson, president of the California Farm Bureau, said after testifying at an Assembly hearing in Sacramento.

“The old notions that California farms and ranches are stuck here is slowly changing, because the technology is allowing more opportunities,” he added. “We want to keep our farmers and ranchers in California, and we want to continue to be the leading producer of foods, fresh fruits and vegetables in America.”

It doesn’t help, he said, when farmers face roadblocks in the form of “a regulatory agency, or even at times a legislative bill, that doesn’t recognize now is not the time to make California farms more inefficient—whether that’s to meet a market demand or an environmental goal.”

Johansson was among the farmers and other agricultural professionals invited to testify at the Aug. 10 informational hearing of the Assembly Agriculture Committee.

“Our state’s farmers and ranchers are dealing with increasing challenges to operational success and longevity,” committee chair Assemblyman Robert Rivas, D-Hollister, said at the hearing’s outset.

Vice chair Devon Mathis, R-Porterville, said, “Frankly, we all know nationally and globally that California agriculture is No. 1, but sadly, tragically, here in California we don’t treat agriculture and what goes into agriculture as the No. 1 priority.”

Johansson’s remarks focused on water and a lack of planning for low-supply years.

“California farmers and ranchers understand drought,” he said, adding, “What we struggle with, and what creates uncertainty for us, is a failure to plan for drought.”

Johansson cited a recent University of California, Merced, report showing that 395,000 acres of California farmland were fallowed in 2021 because of a lack of water.

“The numbers we’re seeing in 2022 will be equally, if not more so, staggering, particularly if you look at our rice industry,” Johansson testified. “I farm up in Butte County, where rice is one of the primary crops, but on the west side of Sacramento Valley, two-thirds of the rice land there (is) fallowed this year because of a lack of water.”

The UC Merced report also showed that drought-induced fallowing of land cost 8,700 agricultural employees their jobs.

“One of the things we’re most proud of about our farms is our labor,” Johansson testified. “California agriculture enjoys a unique asset: a large, well-trained workforce that serves as a value multiplier to a massive capital investment made by both California farmers and investors from outside agriculture and outside California who want to invest in the success of our industry.”

That comes at a price, Johansson said.

“The employment of people in California is expensive,” he testified, noting the state’s minimum wage of $15 per hour—set to rise an additional 50 cents in January due to inflation. “Add to this an array of legally mandated benefits like workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance, healthcare for larger employers, and an array of state and federal taxes, and all employers in California—including agricultural employers—face a challenge.”

California farmers are up against imports from Mexico, where the minimum wage is $8.67 per day, and South America, where minimum wages range from $1.77 to $4.25 per hour, Johansson said.

Then there is the regulatory environment of California, Johansson noted. He said “legislation continues to threaten the availability of pesticides,” which could leave farmers “defenseless should a massive pest event present itself.”

“It’s easy to say that California agriculture is resilient,” he said after the session, “until we’re not.”

– Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau Federation

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