What’s so special about agriculture?

By Br. Keith Douglass Warner OFM
I grew up in San Mateo County, back when it used to host a lot
of agriculture. Before computer companies created Silicon Valley,
it was world famous for its tree and fruit crops. Several factors
have slowed our county’s breakneck growth
– at least for a little while. I suggest that this would be an
excellent opportunity to ask ourselves what role we want
agriculture to play in our future.
By Br. Keith Douglass Warner OFM

I grew up in San Mateo County, back when it used to host a lot of agriculture. Before computer companies created Silicon Valley, it was world famous for its tree and fruit crops. Several factors have slowed our county’s breakneck growth – at least for a little while. I suggest that this would be an excellent opportunity to ask ourselves what role we want agriculture to play in our future.

Development pressures in California are relentless. At the same time, powerful transnational corporations shape government policies and drive down the prices that farmers receive for their bounty. When I see prime farmland bulldozed for housing, I feel heartsick. I used to get angry at farmers who “sell out,” but as I scratched beneath the surface, I am a little less sure who to blame. I do know we all have to play a role in creating solutions.

Our nation’s food and agriculture system is the result of the choices of government policy but also many millions of Americans. Farmers are frequently at the mercy of “economic rationality.” Americans have come to expect cheap and convenient food. Without realizing it, we all have made decisions that vote against farmers.

Cheap food policies mean grapes from Chile are cheaper than those grown here. Cheap food means factory farmed, corn-fed beef is cheaper than beef fed on San Benito County grass. Cheap food means manufacturers make more money with processed foods than local farmers do selling their produce. Cheap food means farmers receive less than 10 cents on every dollar of food sold. This is a crisis that threatens farmers, and all of rural California.

Before that forkful of food reaches your mouth, chances are it has traveled over 1,200 miles and passed through many economic transactions. A whole host of government subsidies drive down the price of transportation, drive down the price of foods processed by corporations, and threaten to drive out small- and medium-sized farms. Can’t we create a system that allows us to buy directly from San Benito County farmers?

I believe there is something sacred about agriculture. It’s not like other forms of economic activity. Farmers — and farmworkers – husband nature, and they put biology to work for all of us. They take seeds, rootstocks, and grass and turn them into food that you and I eat. Agriculture seems miraculous to me, and I am grateful to God that I live in a place where I can still enjoy its bounty directly. Farmers and farmworkers have a special dignity because of this, and we owe them a debt of gratitude.

If we want to ensure a future for agriculture in our county, we are going to have to act collectively. We need to help foster direct markets, provide supportive land use policies, and ensure that farmworkers can access basic housing and healthcare. At the same time, we should expect farmers to treat their workers with respect, pay them fairly, and to use environmentally sound farming practices. In future columns, I want to suggest some actions we need to take together to make sure we have agriculture in our county’s future.

Whether at the County Fair or the Harvest Fair this Sunday at St. Francis Retreat, I encourage you to thank a farmer, or a farmworker. If you’re like me, you cherish San Benito County in part because we still have agriculture here. If we don’t recognize the special contribution farming makes to our quality of life, our fields could look a lot more like San Mateo County sprawl. All it would take is for us to do nothing.

Br. Keith Douglass Warner OFM is a Franciscan Friar, artist, and doctoral candidate in the Environmental Studies Department at UC Santa Cruz. He lives in San Juan Bautista.

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