Policies for a pleasant future for California ag.

This piece on the future of CA is kicking my ass. I’ve been trying to make it good, but perhaps I’ll give up on that and just try to make it direct and short not short.

Basically, I see two things we should actively pursue. The labor-intensive farming of the future should be as equitable and pleasant for growers and workers as it can be. The contrast here is vassal feudalism or sharecropping; the San Joaquin Valley has seen this structure within living memory, so that isn’t an impossible alarmist threat. The other is that I think we’re going to need vigorous investment in high and low-tech biology and agronomy. That’s the science with the most promise for a unicorn-style rescue.

Given that farming will involve a lot more labor as fossil fuels and chemical pesticides become prohibitively expensive, here are the economic policies that I think can influence where we land on the spectrum ranging from feudalism to the Jeffersonian ideal of small farms populated by hippies.

Removing barriers to entry for people who want to farm.

The first of these is straight-up pathetic. Farmers need affordable health care; since they are self-employed in a hazardous business, it is expensive for them and their workers. Solving health care for Americans in general would also make non-industrial farming more viable.

Provide a retirement package to farmers. Farmers deal with large fluxes of money, and have an erratic yearly income. Further, some farmers tend to turn their money into very illiquid forms, like additional land or large machinery. A predictable retirement might ease some of the pressure to mine their soil or groundwater for short-term returns. More importantly, it would ease some of the necessity to sell land to urban development at the end of a farming career. The common quote is “my land IS my retirement”. That may be a realistic evaluation for a grower now, but not a good way to keep a stable community of small and mid-size farms around cities. We already have conservation easements, legislation and ag land trusts to address this now. I don’t know how effective they are or which measures work. Perhaps those do a better job keeping land in agriculture. But if cashing out for retirement is a reason reluctant farmers sell land for development, then I’d be happy to pay their retirement instead.

Give them money.

Food will have to be more expensive. I don’t see a way around it. Supporting more people making decent lives farming means internalizing the costs that farm workers bear for us now. Farm workers now pay for mismanagement and rent extraction with their lives, bodies and health. Paying for good management and additional hard but not crippling labor at the cash register will cost food purchasers more. I don’t know what state level economic policy enforces this. As long as race-to-the-bottom agriculture from other countries or states is readily available to compete on price, farms will go out of business before they internalize their environmental and humanitarian costs. That points directly to protectionism. (I don’t personally object to that, and the prospect of economic inefficiency!!! doesn’t offend me either.) I suppose the collapse of international trade from peak oil, or a sudden mass conversion to purchasing sustainably grown produce could also have the same effect. But those are hard tools to manipulate.

I’d also like the collective to confront and make a decision about imposing climate risks on farmers. Agriculture acts as a buffer for climate events. We assume it will be a source of water in drought, and it will inevitably be the place we put floods. This is actually a very nice function, and one the state should value and develop. Further, when we ask farmers to convert from low-input reliable field crops to higher management, locked in capital, and agronomically riskier row crops, we are asking them to live closer to possible failure. Since extreme weather perturbations will happen and hit agriculture harder than the rest, we should plan for a type of farming that can recover from them. The work on resilience favors interconnected, very diverse, distributed and redundant systems. Like, lots of farms growing lots of things. We should also think about bridging farmers through years they can’t farm, perhaps with money.

In conclusion.

Besides those things, there is the pablum of the Ag Vision action items, most of which are fine measures. But fundamentally, for California agriculture, I’d like to see lots of people farming the good soils on mid-sized farms they mostly own, paying laborers decent wages. I like this vision for lots of reasons. It sounds nice for the people involved and I want a good quality of life for our citizens. I believe it is the sturdiest of the options, with the most promise for renewing its population, recovering from shocks, responding to different types of scarcity, and protecting agrarian and environmental resources. The concept of food security is dismissed by economists, but I worry about it enough to prioritize it. We have very good farmland here, which should be gently farmed for a long time.

This will cost the public money, both to implement policies and to buy Californian food. I think farming is important enough to subsidize, although I don’t want to subsidize farming by indirect means, like water projects or crop payments. Frankly, if we want farmers to produce food and be agrarian and environmental stewards, we should pay them to do precisely that. I’m struck by the fact that a hundred years later, I am circling back to the original purposes of the 1902 Reclamation Act. It created the Bureau of Reclamation to build water projects to populate the West with homesteaded agriculture. The goal is a good one: resilient agricultural communities, weathering a lot of change, producing a lot of good food, using our extraordinary natural resources without damaging them, giving agricultural Californians a nice life. It can be done, with decisions and wealth.

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1 Comment

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One response to “Policies for a pleasant future for California ag.

  1. Calidahoan

    Essentially what you are suggesting is a more educated agricultural sector from top to bottom. We definitely need a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t and we need to do a better job of capturing the interest of the general public to become more involved in solutions.

    I’m glad you pointed out the fact that the more efficient we become the more susceptible we are to risk. I’m affraid this is something that isn’t generally considered when we talk about conservation. It’s similar to an engineer omitting the factor of safety in a design. I would hate to be driving on that bridge.