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.