Don Curlee

Ag At Large

Cheering for the home team is a little harder when it’s losing, but agriculture in California is a perennial winner, so why is its fan base not larger?

Even late arriving Californians have no trouble expressing pride in the redwoods, the Sierra Nevada and its peaks, Yosemite, the beaches, the Golden Gate Bridge, Disneyland, the climate, even Death Valley.

But when it comes to the state’s world-renowned and incomparable agricultural production and its ability to maintain and improve year after year the rooting and excitement simmer down to a low hum. A hot dog, some popcorn or at least a pack of seeds is more consuming than a hearty cheer for the agrarian team and a well-deserved boast.

A short vacation and business meeting in Utah this summer caused Bruce Roberts, a faculty member in the Plant Science Department at Fresno State University, to examine the question and discuss it with some of his colleagues. He found substantial pride by Utahns in their agriculture, though it is hardly diversified and mainly structured around cattle. The government and the education system there buy into that pride, supporting buildings, facilities and personnel that encourage growth and respect for agriculture.

During his visit to the Catch Valley in the lightly populated northeastern part of the state he experienced the support and pride of business people, residents and community leaders in the area’s agricultural growth and stability. He felt their intense pride in an agricultural industry worth $1.3 billion, dwarfed by California’s nation-leading farm economy of nearly $40 billion.

At Utah State University, his alma mater, and a land grant university in the same vein as the University of California, the pride had been expressed in a new, four-story state-of-the-art agriculture building. It includes roomy and modern laboratory and research facilities, office space for a vigorous Extension Service, headquarters for the state’s 4-H. Besides its beauty the building speaks to the confidence of the state’s citizens in agriculture.

He contrasted that commitment to the circumstance in Fresno County, usually California’s richest and most productive farm county. The Extension Service there recently had to give up the building and facilities it occupied for years, and move into other rented space occupied by the University of California.

“Why isn’t California’s dominance and performance in agriculture more understood and appreciated by the state’s residents?” he asks. That question leads to others. Do residents not know how much agriculture contributes to the state economy? Do they not comprehend how few places in the world can produce the volume of food and fiber emanating from California? Do they not understand how strategic the state is in providing food for a hungry world?

A partial answer to some of the questions can be found in the legislature of California. Assembly and Senate members from farm counties do understand. But they are so outnumbered by politicians from the heavily populated urban areas that they can accomplish little for strategic agriculture.

The millions represented by the crowded population centers have little opportunity to appreciate farming as an economic unit. hey have no trouble tasting and otherwise enjoying its benefits, but they are without the gut feeling it takes to be committed fans.

Roberts was visually reminded of California’s agricultural quilt diversity as his plane glided down over the quilt work of orchards, vineyards and open fields and pastures of rural Fresno County. He wondered how many on his flight felt anything approaching the pride that is part of everyday life for him.

Maybe the best that many of them find in California to be proud of are not the millions of productive acres, but the bustle and make-believe of Disneyland. To each his own.

Don Curlee is an agriculture consultant in the Valley. His column appears each Monday in The Recorder.

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