on the road

on the road

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Profit and the Nature of Farming

Since Governor Brown announced mandatory reductions in urban water uses earlier this month,  he has repeatedly emphasized that agriculture has already taken a significant reduction in water availability.  He's also made the point that using water to grow food is different than using it to grown lawns (for a similar perspective, check out this NPR story).  Despite the Governor's attempts to educate the public about agriculture, many of our urban neighbors (aka, customers) have railed about "big ag" using too much water.  I've read statements on line that even suggest that profit is not an appropriate motive for farming, especially if you're exporting some of the crop you grow - I guess we should farm and ranch simply for the satisfaction of feeding our neighbors.  Unfortunately, this satisfaction doesn't pay my mortgage.

For me, this begs the question, "What do we mean by 'big ag'?"  Is this about the type of ownership?  There are extremely large farming operations (in excess of 100,000 acres) that are privately held.  There are much smaller operations that are owned by family corporations to facilitate passing the ranch to the next generation.  Perhaps ownership isn't a good (or at least the only) criteria we should consider.  Is it the size of operation?  I worked for a 3,900-acre diversified farm last year that produced lamb, wool, several types of small grains, and winegrapes.  Sounds like a large operation, right?  It is managed by the husband-and-wife owners and 4 employees and operates on very thin margins - doesn't sound like "big ag" to me.

Ultimately, those of us who farm and ranch commercially are business people.  Without profit, businesses are not sustainable.  Dave Pratt, who teaches a Ranching for Profit school, puts it this way: "Profit is to business as breathing is to life."  In other words, profit isn't the reason that I ranch, but it's crucial if I hope to continue ranching.

In the context of water use, I think the discussion of big versus small gets further complicated.  I suspect that larger farms have more financial capacity for investing in water-conserving irrigation systems.  While there are cost-share programs available for improving water conservation, the capital outlay required is still significant.  I'm curious as to whether a 1,000-acre row crop or orchard is more water efficient than 100 10-acre operations.  I don't know the answer, but it's a question we should be asking.

Additionally, our society, through non-governmental organizations, government agencies, and the market place, has told farmers that we'd rather they grow high-value crops (like trees and grapevines) than low value crops (like pasture, alfalfa, field corn and row crops) because these high-value crops are more water efficient.  Is it legitimate, then, for us to squawk when we find out that these high-value crops have export value?  How do we account for the fact that these high value crops take huge investments in development - investments that may price smaller-scale operations out of the market?  How do we account for the fact that these products must be marketed at scale to be profitable?  What happens during drought?  An alfalfa or tomato grower - or a pasture-based sheep operator like me - can fallow land if water is not available.  What would you do if your $50,000/acre investment (just in trees and infrastructure - not including land) was at risk because of lack of water?  Would you let the trees die and start over?  If I had the wherewithal, I'd probably pump water.

These considerations are similar for ranchers.  I've written extensively about how hard it's been to sell sheep in this drought.  My friend Deneane Glazier Ashcraft, who operates North Valley Farms Chèvre (a goat dairy) in Cottonwood, recently said:

"I don't know if anyone who doesn't raise livestock can understand what it is like to have to sell off animals that took decades of careful breeding to assemble.  For many shepherds and herdsmen, the herd represents their "body of work". Much thought and monetary investment has gone into creating groups of animals that work in specific grazing and feeding management scenarios. Even non-animal ag folks don't understand the attachment an accomplished herdsman has to the animals.  And there is little understanding of the cost involved in caring properly for the herd.  Many think we should be happy in the "glow"  and "satisfaction" of being part of the land and producing food for our communities.  That is what drives many of us, but we of the working classes are also dependent on the streams of modest income that result from our endeavors.  I think unless people have had the experience of the morning the truck comes to load and take away "the body of work" they can't relate.  
All of this brings me back to the uproar about mandatory urban water cutbacks and the sense that farmers are getting an unfair "pass" from water restrictions.  Since this drought began, farmers and ranchers have been coping with water cutbacks.  We've had to make hard decisions - about selling animals, letting trees die, laying off employees.  As I told someone last week, I love the lilacs that I've planted around our home.  They probably won't get much water this summer, and some of them may not survive.  That said, for me at least, there is something more fundamental to human existence about using water to produce food and fiber.  I'll willingly stop watering my yard if it means I (and my farmer and rancher colleagues) can continue to produce food and fiber.  Again, Deneane Glazier Ashcraft says it more eloquently:
"And as hard as it is for some of us to understand the other end, their pain of not being able to shower for an hour, tolerating an ugly lawn and dirty car and feeling wounded relative to handing over the "dead presidents" to some farmer at the farmer's market who they perceive as a millionaire, is as acute and painful for that individual.  It is a different frame of reference.  Therein lie the stumbling blocks to solving our problems."
If we can get beyond the finger-pointing, perhaps this drought will force us as a society to come to terms with what we want our food system to look like. 

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