Reflection by: Editor-In-Chief Jennifer Ray
I joined food and family bloggers August 16-17 as a representative of Cal Poly’s Brock Center for Agricultural Communication on the second annual Know a California Farmer, Farm Fresh Tour. We discussed some real California agriculture issues as we met farmers and toured their farms throughout San Luis Obispo County.
I took it all in as a learning experience for this ag communications major! I think the food and family bloggers (from Fresno and the Bay Area) took it all in as well. We were anxious to learn more as we visited with both organic and conventional growers. We stopped at an orchard, two wineries, an olive oil mill, many fields and one sheep dairy.
I’ve taken some time to sum up Ten Controversial or Semi-Controversial Agriculturally-Related Topics discussed along the trip. Don’t think I didn’t throw my two cents in.
1. Crops Not Harvested vs. Gleaning
Of course, no one likes to see perfectly good food go to waste (especially the farmers who grow it), but making use of every crop grown in a commercial operation can be difficult. Unpredictable markets sometimes mean it is more economical to till crops under than to harvest them.
Caly Poly alumnus, Dan Sutton, General Manager of Pismo Oceano Vegetable Exchange (POVE) said they have partnered up with GleanSLO to help glean their fields. GleanSLO started in 2010 and has donated 80,328 pounds of produce to local food banks (as of July). (I’ve actually volunteered for GleanSLO myself. I’d like to say it was out of the pure goodness of my heart but I was also motivated by a class assignment. Nonetheless, it was a rewarding experience.) However, Dan also said that sometimes gleaning the crops in time is not an option and crops must be tilled under.
Furthermore, Dan noted that POVE also donates harvested crops to the food bank. “They can’t take everything we could offer them; they just don’t have the infrastructure,” Dan said.
Brian Talley of Talley Farms said his operation does not bring in volunteers to glean their fields. He said one challenge with that is liability. However, Talley Farms does set aside a portion of their crops harvested each week for local food banks. They also noted that tilling crops under helps replenish soil nutrients.
Conclusion: Making use of all crops grown in a commercial operation is a challenge. Farmers are conscious of this and do what they can to reduce waste and give back to their communities.
2. Conventional vs. Organic Farming
Dan Sutton of POVE took on this issue like a pro. The bloggers asked why POVE grew only conventional produce. He said, “It’s really just a choice. I don’t believe one way is better than the other.”
Another topic we discussed was the difficulty of converting conventional farmland to certified organic. One blogger mentioned there was a program in the Bay Area to help farmers make this transition, but couldn’t recall the name. I tried looking it up but only found Farmland LP, a U.S. private equity fund that acquires farmland and converts it to organic, not an assistance program. I’m not saying that the assistance program doesn’t exist by any means; I just couldn’t quickly Google it. (I’m interested to research further.)
But to me, converting a significant amount of conventional farms to organic farms would be a mistake. I knew my fellow bloggers would disagree. I thought about chiming in. Instead, I kept quiet and took notes.
What would I have said if I had chimed in? I would say that there is no way we can feed the growing population an affordable, healthy diet of all organic food. Why didn’t I just say that? Because I knew I would be met with conflicting arguments and I did not have hard-nosed facts with me to back up my statement. I still know it is true. The productivity of organic farming is lower than conventional. There are families across the U.S. (not just in California where we are surrounded by fresh fruits and vegetables all year long) that can hardly afford to buy their weekly groceries. Do you think they could shell out a few more bucks for organic produce? Do you think ‘organic’ is a priority to them? Our long growing seasons and fertile soil mean that California farmers have a duty to provide fresh, safe and affordable produce to the rest of the world.
Did you notice there were no hard statistics included in that passionate rant I just went off on? That’s why I just kept my mouth shut. That’s why Dan’s simple answer worked.
3. The Ethics of Commercial Poultry Production
This one came up at the dinner table. One of the bloggers stated their belief that poultry should not be raised on large commercial farms. I didn’t catch the details (if they were discussed) of how he or she believespoultry should be raised: cage free, organic, etc. The Know a California Farmer representative responded by saying these commercial operations make great sources of protein available at an affordable price.
The blogger happens to be a biology teacher who responded by saying Americans really don’t need as much protein in our diets as we think and we can achieve a healthy level of protein through eating nuts and beans (if one could not afford the cost of chicken and eggs raised in a more humane manner).
I kept my mouth shut here as well because—even though my instinct would be to argue that commercial production is actually a more safe and humane way to raise eggs and meat because it reduces the risk of egg contamination and the establishment of pecking orders and a million other things I learned in Dr. Spiller’s class. My animal science class also taught me there are certain amino acids only found in meat proteins. But, the bottom line is consumers have a choice. Consumers have the right to make their food decisions based on any criteria they choose.
4. Proposition 2 and Agricultural Communications
Know a California Farmer is a project of the California Agricultural Communications Coalition. Representative Sharlene Garcia (and Cal Poly alumna) explained to the tour group how the formation of Know a California Farmer was catalyzed by the passage of Proposition 2, Standards for Confining Farm Animals.
One blogger asked why.
Sharlene explained (better than I can) how the Prop 2 campaign showed the agriculture industry that it needed to have a voice and to do a better job showing consumers and voters where their food comes from and how it is produced.
I’m not going to get into detail about the great confusion that was the Prop 2 campaign, but I will say I believe more people are starting to see why agricultural communications is important and that Prop 2 is certainly a key point on that timeline. We still have a long way to go.
5. The Dirty Dozen (Pesticide Residue)
The “Dirty Dozen“, the 12 fruits and vegetables that contain the most pesticides, is a topic that came up at POVE and Talley Farms. Cal Poly alumnus, Robert Meyer of Talley Farms brought it up as he showed us the green peppers he grows.
“I see a lot of articles and stuff on TV about peppers being one of the dirty dozen… We don’t spray them at all… This is a crop that is well suited for our area,” Robert said.
One of our bloggers later reflected that, “The dirty dozen is really a big blanket statement… that gets back to my message which is ‘know your farmer.'” I could not agree more.
6. Food Safety Tactics
Although we touched on this topic a few times, the real discussion occurred at POVE. Dan said, “The last six years have changed the way we think about food safety. We’ve always been doing that… [Now] before every decision we make, we think food safety.”
Dan also reminded us to ALWAYS wash produce before consuming it.
I believe producers, manufacturers, shippers and retailers can never be too concerned about food safety because there is always a risk of contamination. I also believe those who work to ensure food safety deserve some credit. Although we may continue to hear stories of outbreaks and illnesses, it is important to keep in mind that millions more are being prevented each day. Companies have made decisions to voluntarily recall their products, such as the recent recall of one lot of Tanamura & Antle’s romaine lettuce. Even Cal Poly voluntarily recalled last year’s holiday supply of eggnog. There have been no reported illnesses in either case. Mistakes happen because we are human. The critical part is how we handle these mistakes.
7. Farm Labor Shortage
Every time this topic came up, the farmers said something along the lines of, “we need a sensible guest worker program.” There was no objection to this idea.
8. Agricultural Pricing
I think understanding the complicated system that is agricultural pricing is important in understanding food prices and having some compassion for farmers. As Dan explained to us, specialty crops do not receive government subsidies like other commodities.
I think another thing that is important to note (something I learned in both my ag marketing and ag policy classes) is that farmers only receive 19 cents of every dollar spent on food. The rest goes into the marketing channel (unless the food is purchased directly from the farmer, like at a farmer’s market).
Cal Poly alumna, Alexis Negranti of Negranti Dairy and Creamery (the only known commercial sheep milk ice cream company in the United States) is working to set up a shipping service to bring her ice cream to the East Coast. Even though she knows some people on the East Coast would be willing to pay a lot more for her unique product, she still wants to keep it affordable so a wide range of people can experience and enjoy it. I think that says something.
9. Certification vs. No Certification
Halter Ranch Vineyard is very proud of their SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Certified wine. SIP certification is a program of the Central Coast Vineyard Team and is conducted by a third-party audit. To be certified, the winery and vineyard must practice sustainability throughout their entire business system.
Brian Talley of Talley Farms and Talley Vineyards said they practice sustainability, but are not SIP Certified. The Talley Vineyards management team continues to weigh the cost of the certification process against the potential economic benefit.
It would be nice if all agricultural products were labeled to reflect how they were produced, but I understand the challenges in that. It’s another struggle for farmers to decide if labels are right for their business operation. It seems to me that labels are becoming increasingly important to a certain demographic of consumers. I would be interested to research that further.
10. Dry Farming vs. Irrigation
Recently retired farmer, Mitch Wyss at Halter Ranch Vineyard said, “I’m a big proponent of dry farming.” (As if we couldn’t tell by his T-shirt that reads, “Dry Farming, the purest expression”). Mitch said that through dry farming, farmers can make their vines last longer and conserve water. A blogger asked why more vines were not dry farmed. Mitch responded by explaining that although dry farming is ideal, it is not always possible.
The very bottom line is: Know your farmer. It’s important to understand how food is grown and why it is done in that manner. There is so much variability across the agricultural industry and Americans, especially Californians, have a wide range of food options. With knowledge, consumers and voters can make informed decisions. Communication between producers and consumers is critical. With that being said, I still think it will remain difficult or nearly impossible for our East Coast friends to connect with the actual farmers who grow some of their products (much like Californians may never get to personally know our banana farmers,) but we can at least be considerate of where our food comes from and know that it didn’t magically appear on the shelf. Food comes from a farm and a farmer.
Please share your own comments. Remember that these are my opinions and not necessarily those of the Brock Center for Agricultural Communication.