As 2012 winds down it is only natural to pause and reflect on the successes of the ag industry over the last year, and to optimistically embrace the coming new year with eager anticipation.
Two specific events stand out for 2012; the 50th anniversary in September of Rachel Carson’s best-selling book Silent Spring ; and the election defeat of Prop. 37, the GMO mandatory labeling initiative which would have been devastating for agriculture had it passed.
On the first point, I addressed Carson’s book in an earlier column  this year and resurrect it here only for the purpose of pointing out the giant strides ag has made over the past 50 years. Briefly by way of example: consumer concerns are now addressed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the federal Fungicide, Insecticide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) was revised to provide new safety measures. FIFRA provides federal control of pesticide distribution, sale and usage; other enhancements entail a rigorous registration and re-registration process for each pesticide product, including more than 120 safety, environmental and health tests to determine possible effects on consumers, wildlife and the environment. And in California, the center of our nation’s diversified farming system, these protections are repeated and verified by the California Department of Pesticide Regulation.
In the nutshell, the crop protection industry is committed to serving growers and the consuming public safely and efficiently. For proof of this, one only has to consider that since the publication of Silent Spring there’s been a fervent dedication to research and development which serves as the core pillar of the crop protection industry. Statistics from the USDA Economic Research Service show that private investment in R&D for pesticide products has grown significantly, from $42 million in 1962 to $793 million in 2010.
Turning to the defeat of Prop. 37 , it seems that California voters eventually realized over the months leading up to the Nov. 6 election, that the safeguards described above ensure that they already have the safest food in the world, that the measure was ill-conceived and poorly written and – spurred by opposing editorials from California’s major newspapers – did the right thing and struck it down.
There will be continuing efforts targeting other states in the future as labeling proponents intensify their campaign in the state of Washington, for example, but for the time being California is safe from the cumbersome and nonsensical rules that would have been imposed on food manufacturers, retailers, growers and grocers.
That said, U.S. agriculture continues to thrive in providing millions of consumers with safe and affordable food. And nowhere is this success more evident than in California, in which the Great Central Valley – 430 miles long and averaging 50 miles wide – provides a cornucopia of foodstuffs because it has some of the most fertile soils, and a rare Mediterranean climate that enjoys hot, dry summers and cool, wet winters that allow a long growing season of 225 to 300 days. It’s worth mentioning that the Sacramento Valley, part of the Great Central Valley, was the state’s first significant farming region.
Today, California produces more than 400 commodities. In the market for U.S.-grown foods, Americans buy many crops produced exclusively in California: almonds, artichokes, dates, figs, raisin grapes, kiwifruit, olives, clingstone peaches, pistachios, dried plums, pomegranates, sweet rice, raisins and walnuts.
We farm, you eat
Placed on a national scale, it is nothing short of amazing that so few do so much for so many. Twenty two million American workers produce, process, sell and trade the nation’s food and fiber. But only 4.6 million of those people live on the farms – slightly less than 2 percent of the total U.S. population
Consumers spend $547 billion for food originating on U.S. farms and ranches. Of each dollar spent on food, the farmer’s share is roughly 23 cents. The rest are for costs beyond the farm gate: wages and materials for production, processing, marketing, transportation and distribution.
On average, every hour, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, around $6 million in U.S. agricultural products – grains, oilseeds, cotton, meats, vegetables, snack foods, etc., will be consigned for shipment for export to foreign markets.
This all means more jobs and higher wages across the nation. U.S. agricultural exports generate more than $100 billion annually in business activity throughout the U.S. economy and provide jobs for nearly 1 million workers, according to a study by North Carolina State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
As we prepare to leave 2012 behind, farming continues to face challenges, but thanks to modern farming techniques America’s farmers and ranchers are producing more food on fewer acres, which leaves more open space for wildlife habitat. Precision farming practices boost crop yields and reduce waste by using satellite maps and computers to match seed, fertilizer and crop protection applications to local soil conditions.
And here’s another bright spot. Nearly 30 percent of today’s farmers and ranchers have attended college , with over half of this group obtaining degrees. A recent survey of America’s young farmers and ranchers revealed that 97.2 percent planned to farm and ranch for life. And this up and coming “brain trust” reveals that young ag professionals use computers on 83 percent of America’s farms, and nearly 75 percent of today’s young farmers have a cellular phone, and nearly one-third have access to the Internet.
Considering all these inroads – positive signs that agriculture in America continues to advance and thrive – it appears agriculture’s future is bright going into 2013. And, as I never tire of quoting signs posted by farmers throughout California’s Great Central Valley that succinctly sum up our business: “We farm, you eat.” Short and sweet, but says a lot.
From the staff at Western Plant Health Association, we wish our readers all the best during this holiday season.