Farm boy

Jeff vonKaenel

I haven’t met very many state agriculture secretaries; in fact, A.G. Kawamura, with whom I recently enjoyed a pleasant three-hour discussion on the many issues pressing California’s farmers, is the first one I’ve ever spoken to. Kawamura didn’t exactly fit my stereotype for what an agriculture secretary should be.

It wasn’t just the gray ponytail, or the Bachelor of Arts in comparative lit from UC Berkeley—as opposed to an ag degree from, say, Cal Poly. What truly sets Kawamura apart, especially from other state bureaucrats, is his background growing up in a farming family that tilled soil that wasn’t their own in urban Orange County.

Those experiences give Kawamura unique insight to the many challenges facing California’s farmers. He realized early on the importance of growing crops that there’s a market for. It’s pretty basic, really, even though some farmers don’t seem to get it. If there’s no market, you can’t sell your crops.

That’s important, because unlike farmers in the Midwest, who have focused primarily on planting vast acreages with “monocrops” such as corn, wheat or alfalfa, California farmers have diversified and grow so-called specialty crops, everything from asparagus to walnuts to kiwis. Discounting our huge dairy industry, specialty crops account for roughly 92 percent of California’s agricultural output, making the state the fruit-and-vegetable basket of the world.

There’s not just a lot of healthy produce for the vegetable basket—it’s a lot of economic activity. Last year, the state’s farmers generated revenue of $36.6 billion, and it’s still growing, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

As robust as that number sounds, California’s farmers are facing a number of overwhelming issues, including lack of irrigation water, increased environmental regulations, immigration, food safety, the changing American palate and, of course, the ongoing recession that has devastated the nation’s economy.

Quite literally, Kawamura has a lot on his plate. To put it in perspective, he pointed me toward a quote from Henry Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of agriculture during the Great Depression:

“When a political system fails to give large numbers of men the freedom it has promised, then they are willing to hand over their destiny to another political system. … When their normal life fails to give them anything but monotony and drabness, they are easily led to express themselves in unhealthy or cruel ways, as by mob violence. And when science fails to furnish effective leadership, men will exalt demagogues and science will have to bow down to them or keep silent.”

As we face the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, Wallace’s words ring as true today as they did 75 years ago. It’s a daunting task, helping California’s farmers navigate these troubled waters, but Kawamura insists he’s up to the challenge.

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About the Author

Jeff vonKaenel
Jeff vonKaenel is the president, CEO and majority owner of the News & Review newspapers in Sacramento, Chico and Reno.