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Since the last big storm hit Santa Barbara County and flooded parts of Orcutt and Guadalupe, I have heard many comments saying that it is the farmers’ fault. It always surprises me when farmers are the first to get blamed. Are they such an easy target that people do not put any critical thinking into other possible contributing factors? What about urbanization? Poor planning and construction? Overgrown weeds, trees and shrubs in retention basins, drainage systems and riverbeds? Do we think so little of farmers that we are willing to believe city planners, contractors, maintenance workers, regulatory agencies, road developers and others are absolutely perfect in their work that they could not have possibly contributed to the situation?

Personally, I do not believe it is one reason more than any other. I think all are contributing factors.

Not to mention, this storm system was an act of God. A one in 25-year event, they say. Although I have also heard several farmers say they have never seen a storm like this in their lifetime.

Bottom line is that we, collectively as a community, were not prepared for this type of storm system. Besides, farmers were victims, too. The most recent estimate is at $35 million worth of damage to Santa Barbara County agriculture, and we are not done calculating.

My guess is that the next assumption from most people will be “farmers can afford recovery” or “insurance will cover losses.” While those statements are true, to some extent, they are also made in an effort to rationalize catastrophic impact. They are not constructive or empathetic remarks. They are minimizers. It is the equivalent of telling a friend who has been hurt “it could have been worse.”

We offer our condolences to victims whose homes have been flooded, but tell farmers, “Too bad, so sad.” Not only is this extremely unkind but narrow-minded. People are failing to realize that they will be affected by it, too.

We complain about the price of eggs, and that store shelves are emptier than normal. Perhaps, the Cardi B’s complaints about the price of lettuce being $7 will jog your memory?

From the damage I have seen in the Santa Maria Valley, most crops that came into contact with flood waters will have to be destroyed, and flooded ground cannot be replanted for a minimum of 30 to 60 days. These practices are required for prevention of pathogenic growth and the safety of our food supply.

From what I hear, Monterey County had it worse. Thousands of acres of farmland were under water.

It will be interesting to see what happens in the next couple of months when all these crops should have been sent to market. If we think it’s bad now, it has the potential to get worse.

As farmers, we will take some responsibility for flooding events. We do have a lot of ground under plastic that contributes to storm water run-off. But what you may not know is that we also have to adhere to strict state and federal regulations around the preservation of natural habitat and riparian areas that also contribute to storm water run-off.

It is partially those regulations that prohibit farmers from being able to adequately clean ditches and drainage canals to prevent flood damage to their fields and surrounding areas.

There is always more to the story than what meets the eye. We have become so quick to make judgments based on what we perceive rather than what is true.

Our entire legal system is predicated on innocence until proven guilty. Jurors must listen to all sides of the story and be presented with facts before they make a determination. Perhaps our opinions should be formed the same way.

*Also published in Noozhawk.

It has been said that the third generation takeover of a business is usually when it fails or sells. It should be no surprise when I say that the state of California has generally been unkind to businesses, especially ag businesses. Increasingly complex and overreaching regulations are forcing many family farms to shut down or sell out, not to mention, the complications that can arise when multiple generations and many members of the family are working for the business.

Most farms in our area are family-owned and operated, many within their 4th, 5th, or 6th generation of operation. What an incredible feat to keep a business successful for that many years with the uncertainty of farming! Agriculture is a very expensive, turbulent, and oftentimes stressful industry. Whether you start the business or inherit it, there’s a lot on the line.

As I reflect on this past election, I cannot help but think about what is ahead for our local farms. Farmers today are producing more food on less land, using less chemicals and less water, and leaving behind a smaller carbon footprint. Yet, the perception is that we are not doing enough to care for our land and  environmental resources. Upcoming regulation on electrification, water, wages, labor, and pesticides, among many others, will surely continue to squeeze the life out of California farming businesses. 

I fear what that may look like for our community.

Most local farmers I know, cannot imagine doing anything else. When you get them talking about an element of work they are passionate about, they light up. However, when they are talking about an element of work they are frustrated about, their demeanor completely changes. The sound of defeat is evident in their voice. It is as if they already know they are fighting a losing battle. They are warriors on the frontline of our domestic food supply, dodging and taking regulatory bullets, where some will survive, and some will not.

For the businesses that die, there is the potential for their farm ground to be leased or purchased by another local farmer. The more likely consequence however, is that if the farm ground is not converted for housing or commercial development, it will be leased or purchased by a non-local company. The reality of that outcome is that no one cares about the Santa Maria Valley more than Santa Marians. An investment group is not going to care about supporting the local football team, like the farmer who played on that high school football team. A CEO headquartered out of state isn’t going to fundraise millions of dollars to build a wing expanding our community hospital, like the farmer who wants to ensure his family and his employees receive the best possible healthcare.

Local farmers donate to the Food Bank, YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, Rape Crisis Center, Dignity Health, sports teams, 4-H and FFA, Young Farmers and Ranchers, CASA, American Cancer Society, and many other organizations that benefit our community. The more it costs them to do business, the less money that gets invested back into non-profit programs. The harder it becomes for those nonprofits to fundraise, the harder it is to serve those who need services the most.

Agriculture is the number one economic driver in our county. It is truly the backbone of our local economic success. As with the human body, a significant injury to the spine can potentially leave you paralyzed. Likewise, a significant injury to agriculture can paralyze an entire community.  Look what happened to farming in the Central Valley due to the San Francisco Bay Delta Smelt. Was it truly the Smelt's fault? No. People with good intentions tried to save a non-native fish, and the unintended consequences can still be felt throughout the region today. If you think something like this couldn’t happen locally, you might want to learn about steelhead trout in the Santa Maria River and the latest controls placed on the release of water from Twitchell Dam. While I encourage everyone to fight for the causes they believe in, I also encourage you to consider the potential impact your cause may have on our local farms, the industry, and agriculture as we know it today. 

*Also published in Noozhawk.

Where there is the ability to go above-and-beyond, farmers are doing just that.  

At Desert Premium Farms in Yuma, Arizona, we put a 10-foot distance policy in areas where it’s possible to do so, but not all farm jobs can be recalibrated for COVID-19.  In these areas of close proximity, masks are mandatory.  We’ve also given high-quality, three-ply, washable masks to employees to take home, encouraging employees to wear them to and from work, at the grocery, and during other essential errands.  

Rather than early morning meetings, we’ve transitioned to telephone check-ins at the start of each day.  We miss that in-person camaraderie, but we’re going to do everything possible to keep everyone safe.

At Main Street Produce, we believe the first step to keeping our workers healthy starts with education and providing our employees with the best information available. But our efforts don't stop there...