By Nate Birt

Four Specialty Crop Sustainability Insights From My California Trip

September 20, 2021

At the risk of hyperbole, literally everything about California agriculture is different from farming in any other part of the U.S. Well, maybe not everything. In fact, after spending a few days this month traveling across the mid-section of the state—including the San Francisco Bay area, Salinas Valley and the Fresno area—I’m convinced that while specialty crop growers out West face unique regulatory, weather and consumer challenges, they also share common values with row-crop, beef, pork, poultry and dairy farmers further east. A commitment to increasingly regenerative forms of agriculture is one of the most obvious through lines.

As I reflect on the environmental challenges facing specialty growers this Climate Week  (Sept. 20-26, 2021), I’m mindful of just how much scrutiny these growers face—and how hard they are working to be responsive to the needs of the earth and people who eat. Here are four things that stood out to me as I reflected on my experiences traveling more than 500 miles across California.

Insight No. 1: Consumer Proximity Means Consumer Pressure

Anyone who regularly reads Farm Journal’s The Packer or has spent any time in the fresh produce section of a grocery store in the past five years already knows what I’m talking about. Pick up a clamshell of strawberries or a 2-lb. bag of carrots and you’re likely to find details about where the product was grown and information about the farm that grew (and perhaps even packed and shipped) it.

Specialty growers are mighty close to the American eater. Their farm products often go directly from the field to the table. Yet like other farmers, those I interviewed this month for an America’s Conservation Ag Movement video project we’ll be launching this fall with Valent U.S.A. and Valent Sustainable Solutions shared concerns I’ve heard across farm country.

The specialty growers, pest control advisers and other ag professionals I met expressed worries that the average consumers believe commercial ag production puts farm workers in danger; degrade soil and water; intentionally over-use pesticides.

Although California’s specialty crop professionals acknowledge they are constantly looking for ways to improve, they also point out the economic opportunities that specialty crops are creating for farm workers; the stewardship ethic that informs every agronomic decision on the farm; and the critical role pollinators and integrated pest management play in producing food for the produce aisle.

Insight No. 2: Volatility Is A Way Of Life

Specialty crops are a marketplace of extraordinary innovation (e.g. new and more flavorful varieties of virtually every fruit grown under the sun, lettuce bred into a bowl-like shape for convenient snacking and more). Yet media accounts and social media frequently gloss over the hard realities of growing specialty crops, especially in a place like California.

Take farmland access: In some places, California land goes for $75,000 an acre. And that’s just the land, not to mention the cost of inputs or environmental improvements.

Crop insurance options are limited to nonexistent, compared to the robust insurance offerings available to row-crop farmers in the Midwest. Resilience is table stakes in a place where risk is so widespread.

Insight No. 3: Ranches Grow Fruit, Too

This insight isn’t profound but, to me, fascinating: Many agricultural operations in California prefer to be identified as ranches, not as farms. Before my trip, I had assumed the term “ranch” was the exclusive purview of cowboys and Big Sky country. That’s not at all the case.

It’s a good example of the importance of understanding the local context, meeting producers on their terms and engaging in conversation in the language most meaningful to them. As we often share here at Trust In Food, the human dimension of regenerative agriculture is frequently as important—or even more important—than the agronomic and environmental science of getting a practice or product adopted on the ground.

Change begins when we can share ideas and find common cause in ways that mutually resonate.

Insight No. 4:  Passion Is Paramount

Every single person I met on my journey with Valent across California’s specialty growing country spoke with pride about their work. Again, no surprise there. But consider: We are in the middle of what Harvard Business Review has called the Great Resignation, an unprecedented wave of millions of professionals leaving one job and moving to another—or in some cases shifting their whole career trajectory.

In the small pool of ag professionals with whom I spent time, no one said, “It’s hard, and I’m looking at getting out.” Instead, to paraphrase, nearly everyone said something like, “This is hard, we are figuring it out, and we hope people understand we are working hard to help feed their families.”

That kind of get-it-done-and-do-it-right approach is exactly the kind of ethic that is driving the next generation of regenerative agriculture, combing millennia-old stewardship practices with cutting-edge innovation to achieve extraordinary outcomes for humanity.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Specialty growers have unique needs and challenges related to the transition to regenerative agriculture, and they deserve our best ideas, products and resources as an industry. And while these differences are real, we also can’t lose track of the common bond we share—that of hearts and minds committed to helping families eat healthy food, grown with land and water in ecosystems managed in harmony with the farm and ranch businesses that steward them.

I’ll eat to that.

Image courtesy of NRCS Flickr.

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