It was a big week for agriculture on the Central Coast.
Congress came last week to get the take from local growers on the future of agriculture, plus a forum was held at which farmers got together to discuss the road ahead.
The first meeting featured Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, head of an important House ag committee. The major topic was the next federal farm bill, scheduled to kick in after current legislation expires in September. And while Peterson’s visit was touted as a “listening tour,” he had something specific to say about the federal government’s ability to finance future ag changes — “we don’t have any extra money to do this bill,” but nothing would be cut from existing legislation. Probably not what local growers needed to hear.
Those who spoke at the meeting were mostly concerned about foreign competition, and government regulations that too often prevent domestic products from being truly competitive in world markets.
Grape growers also spoke of the need for federal help in developing drought-resistant crops. Grape production is a major issue for North County, because local wines are gaining a superior reputation in global markets once dominated by European producers.
Also discussed were recent disasters, including years of drought, catastrophic wildfires, followed by devastating mudslides — all of which profoundly affected many local growers, costing them tens of millions in crop losses.
The issue of the Endangered Species Act hurting local agriculture came up, as usual, but Rep. Peterson wasn’t optimistic about solving that problem either, in part because making substantive changes to the law protecting endangered species is next to impossible from a political standpoint.
A separate meeting at the Santa Maria Fairpark drew a large crowd as well, and for most in attendance it was a first opportunity to discuss common ag problems at a meeting that didn’t involve regulators or a divisive issue.
As one might expect, the legalization of marijuana use by adults in California was a major topic, one made even more significant by the fact that Santa Barbara County is second only to Humboldt County with regard to the number of marijuana grow licenses being issued.
It seems a certainty that the marijuana business will be huge in this area, and something the ag community needs to get its collective head around.
One thing the marijuana growers may contribute is the technology of growing things in a different way. One expert explained indoor growing using light tubes can accelerate grow times by 20-30 percent. Farmers looking for ways to improve efficiency — thus enhancing profitability — take notice.
The takeaway from the forum and the congressman’s visit seems to be that growers on the Central Coast must focus on the future. Given the nature of foreign competition and what appear to be efforts to decentralize the federal government’s fundamental structure, it’s apparent agriculture methods need to change.
Actually, local growers have proved themselves reasonably skillful at adapting to change. They have to, thanks to a litany of natural disasters, a regulatory labyrinth and ever-changing local, regional, state, nation and international markets.
One local example is the meteoric rise in the grape and wineries industry in North County. Wine region folks seem to be adapting to the changes, and are working together — for the most part — to iron out disagreements about what will happen, where and when.
This is important, because agriculture is not only an integral part of our heritage, it is the leading industry on the Central Coast — and without a flourishing ag community, billions of dollars would disappear from our economy.
We’re pretty sure folks around here understand that.