Monday, October 26, 2009

Catalysts of Misunderstanding by Profood?

Part 1 of a series.

Recent conversations on twitter among #profood people have brought to attention several issues which seem to escape their understanding or ability to understand from a production ag perspective. I use the term production ag very generally. In my opinion someone is production ag if they derive more than 75% of their annual income from ag production and includes all management styles: conventional, traditional, organic, natural, grass fed, etc. Posts over the past week seem to be trying to portray that #agchat people are “against change,” “anti-environment,” “big ag,” “corporate ag” and a multitude of other labels inferring a lack interest in food safety and sustainability. I hope to take a shot at explaining what I believe are some of the issues that are being misunderstood by the #profood community and why when some issues are brought up, it leads to those in the #agchat community becoming cautious and protective.

1. Understanding the importance of economic sustainability

First, many of the farms and ranches in the United States are multi-generational, some currently in their 5th, 6th, and 7th generation of ownership and management. It is critical that the current generation be able to maintain the productive viability and economic viability in order to keep these farms and ranches in a condition to pass on to future generations. Farms and ranches are continuously adopting new management techniques and technology to maintain the health and longevity of their land. Also, the vast majority of family farmers and ranchers derive their entire income from their operations. However, over the past 30 years the trend is showing more that at least one spouse is working “off farm” in order to “keep the farm.”

Second, few farmers and ranchers have retirement plans, IRA’s or 401K’s, let alone extensive health insurance plans. Their land, cattle, equipment and other assets are what they depend on to carry them through to the end. Any net income at the end of an operating year is typically used to pay off operation loans and whatever is left is reinvested in the operation through repairs, improvements and upgrades. This is predominately why those of us in production ag are so concerned over Estate Taxes. Considering land and asset values we are “rich,” but when it comes to dollars in the bank, most of us are just getting by. Being presented with the scenario of having to split off portions of our farms and ranches in order to pay inheritance taxes makes us sick to our stomachs. Our farms and ranches are living entities and part of us, and we want to be able to keep the body whole for future generations.

It should be understandable that anytime new legislation, regulation or change is brought up that potentially threatens the economic sustainability of a farm or ranch is sparks emotional response. Our farms and ranches, crops and livestock are our lives, often times seeing more personal attention than our actual families. Therefore, comments and accusations pertaining to our livelihood are taken personally.

The bottom line is that we all manage our farms and ranches to promote sustainability of production and economic viability. These two concepts are inseparable. We are continuing to learn and adapt our management practices to positively influence the health of the land as well as provide for our families and future generations. In an ideal world we would like to guarantee that our grandchildren’s grandchildren will still be able to make a living doing what we do, on the same land.

Part 2: Understanding “skepticism” on transitioning food supply to entirely organic and/or locally produced

(Coming as soon as I have another break in the ranch work.)

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Harris Ranch vs. Cal Poly - The Rest of the Story

To borrow the phrase from my distant relative, here is the “rest of the story,” regarding Harris Ranch, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Michael Pollan.

Recent posts on twitter and in the media have demonstrated an obvious misunderstanding and inaccurate portrayal of the circumstances surrounding Michael Pollans visit to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

Some members of the “profood” movement and writers in the media are accusing Harris Ranch of being “Big Ag” controlling what is taught at Cal Poly through the threat of withdrawing funding to protect its own interest. Further, they are taking the position that colleges and universities should not accept financial contributions from industry as it “contaminates” or “slants” the education of the students.

First, the letter from David Woods and Mike Smith, from Harris Ranch (both Cal Poly alumni) was not the only letter sent Cal Poly in regards to Michael Pollan. There were a multitude of others, including myself, all Cal Poly alumni, that wrote to the school voicing our concern over the quality of education being offered, recent actions by the school to close and reduce agriculture units and the trend of abandoning courses in traditional ag. The invitation to Michael Pollan, to lecture without any alternative views being offered was the “final straw.” Those of us that are alumni of Cal Poly share a genuine concern for the direction the school is moving in terms of its agricultural education and Michael Pollan’s visit was the action that triggered the energetic response. Pollan’s visit was the “icing on the cake” that represents a trend in the educational direction of agricultural education at Cal Poly; it was the correlation of what Pollan represents and changes in what is being taught that served as the catalyst.

Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo has removed many ag units from the central campus and placed them off campus, eliminated them completely or greatly reduced them in their size. The feedlot, feedmill and meat processing unit were leveled and dorms were built in their place. The sheep unit was leveled for a baseball field. The swine unit has been reduced to three pigs and is now housing turtles, yes, turtles. And, the state of the art dairy unit has been reduced to a mere thirty cows. A campus store that once offered campus grown products, products grown and produced by students on campus facilities, now only offers popular brands and labels. Additionally, courses at Cal Poly have steadily been trending away from teaching traditional and conventional agriculture to focus on organic and “sustainable” ag, a common message of traditional ag is “bad” and access to the respective units related to animals and crop production has been diminished if not entirely eliminated.

As an alumnus, I fully support the school offering a diverse cross section of view points and do find value in teaching alternative methods of production agriculture. However, our ability to provide enough food for our country and world that is safe, wholesome, high in quality and affordable is dependent upon traditional agriculture. Recent models of “sustainable,” organic and urban farms cannot provide a supply that meets current, let alone future food demand. Recent erroneous claims in the media, movies and journals claiming that modern agriculture is responsible for everything from global warming, soil sterilization, poisoning of people and causing obesity only make it more imperative that colleges and universities teach fact and science and demonstrate class room methodology practically in the field.

It is because of healthy ag programs and research at colleges and universities that we are able to expand our understanding of how to produce food more efficiently and environmentally friendly. To simply abandon traditional practices is absurd. The face of production agriculture has entirely transformed over the past 20 years and to the benefit of the environment and the consumer. References, by the ignorant, are outdated and unfounded. Modern production agriculture utilizes conservation tillage, alternative biological compounds, plants and insects to reduce the use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides where the geographic location allows and has taken food safety to all time highs. To reject scientific and technological progress and embrace only organic production, hobby farms and urban gardens is irresponsible and short-sighted.

Further, as a past high school ag teacher, I saw several years worth of new ag teachers entering the field lacking sufficient hands-on experience to help them in effectively educating students. In speaking to them, they shared that the lack of experience was directly tied to their limited access to production agriculture while attending college. All of them wished that they had time in college to implement and practice what they learned in class out in the “field.” That is the value of having units on college campuses that are in working order and accurately reflect operations in the real world.

Additionally, many graduates from colleges and universities, seeking employment in production agriculture, are ill-prepared for the tasks and responsibilities that they face. This is due in large part to the lack and/or reduction of applied application that the students receive at the institutions of higher learning. More colleges are restricting students in the number of credits they may take during their educational stay, in order to move more students through the system more quickly. Ironic that production agriculture has shifted from quantity produced to focus on quality of product and the institutions supplying the workforce have gone from quality of education to quantity of students graduated. This transition has limited the ability of students to pursue the education that they need in order to be successful in whatever field they choose to engage. Simply put, degrees in agricultural fields cannot be successfully achieved without being able to apply classroom knowledge in the field. Ag units on campuses are the equivalent to science and writing labs for science and language majors.

Secondly, the suggestion that colleges and universities should not accept donations from private industry is ludicrous at best, especially given the current economic situation. It is through industry that Cal Poly was able to build a state of the art Dairy Unit, Poultry Unit and Feedmill. Harris Ranch is planning on being the major contributor in the construction of a new Processing Facility. Without private donations and contributions, from alumni and industry, these facilities would never have been constructed and studies in the field on agriculture would never be conducted.

Finally, Harris Ranch is a family owned business, a large and successful business yes, but family owned just the same. It is irritating to see the condemnation of successful family businesses in agriculture by elitist, self-serving, egotists that only bring shame on the “pro-food” movement. I know many of the individuals that are “pro-food” and self labeled “foodies” that understand the importance of having a diverse agricultural landscape that includes traditional, organic and niche market production in order to meet the demands of our country and our world.

Harris Ranch should be praised for their efforts in creatively addressing air and water quality issues; creating a marketing program that allows other family ranchers the opportunity to have a reliable market for their cattle and receive a premium; developing one of the first branded products available to consumers; creating one of the first traceability programs; successfully marketing their product directly to a self owned restaurant; and continuing to financially support higher education.

Just as it is important for parents to be involved in parent associations and school boards at the elementary and high school level, it is essential for the alumni of colleges and universities, involved in their fields of study, to give back and provide input, insight and financial support. Education thrives and succeeds with vibrant grass root involvement, but withers and dies when it is overrun by the government and self-serving activist movements. It is well past time for people to embrace common sense and recognize the importance of a diversified, quality education to the continued production of a readily available, safe, healthy and affordable food supply.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Klamath Dam Situation Is All Wet

Seeing as the Klamath Dam situation has been running in nearly news publication, I felt it was important to give my perspective as an actual resident that lives in a watershed that is part of the Klamath Basin. Our farm and ranch are in the Scott River Watershed which is a tributary to the Klamath, downstream of the dams. We were not invited to participate in the negotiations, even though we know that water from the Scott River will be included in the mitigation process resulting from the final decision. The Klamath Basin Total Maximum Daily Load that is currently being written by the North Coast Water Quality Control Board includes the Scott, Shasta and Trinity and clearly indicates that water from these rivers will be used to mitigate water quality issues in the Klamath.

Before the dams were built, the Klamath River flooded in the winter and spring and ran hot and low, dry in some years, during the summer and fall months. It originates in volcanic soils, with naturally occurring phosphorus content and higher water temperatures. As it flowed towards the Pacific Ocean, the Shasta, Scott and Trinity rivers entered the system and provided colder and cleaner water. However, during the summer months, these rivers also ran low and warm and sometimes, in summer months, dried up.  Historical journals from the 1800's indicate that the water in the Klamath was not even fit for survey parties horses to drink during the summer months.

Once the four dams were built, flows were managed, providing clean, green power to more than 75,000 people in Southern Oregon and Northern California. The Klamath began to run for the entire year, although lower in the late summer and fall, it has not “dried up.” Irrigation water was provided to family farmers and ranchers in the Klamath Basin who were promised that water in Federal contracts tied to the land that they homesteaded. Additionally, new enterprises were started along the Klamath, including rafting, fishing and rental cabins, not to mention an increase in property values due to the water front advantage.

Now, with the listing of the Coho salmon as threatened, several groups have pushed to have the dams removed to allow for fish passage and sued to have Total Maximum Daily Loads (TMDL’s) established and mitigated for on the Klamath.

The current situation looks like this:

1. Upper basin farmers and ranchers are split in their support of dam removal, as some have received “guarantees” post removal and others, who are not project irrigators, have not received any guarantees.

2. Mid basin farmers and ranchers are opposed to dam removal, fearing their water rights will be threatened in an effort to mitigate the poor water quality resulting in removal.

3. Tribes are split in their support of dam removal. Some are focusing only returning the river to its original state, while others recognize that the river is actually healthier now, than it was pre-dams.

4. Fishermen are split in their support for dam removal as well. Ultimately, and understandably, they want fish populations to improve to allow them to earn a living.

5. PacifiCorp needed to relicense their operating permits for running the power generation plants, which opened up the utility to demands from a multitude of interests. Under coercion, PacifiCorp decided that removing dams would be cheaper for them and their ratepayers than trying to engineer projects that would be more fish friendly, and allow passage.

6. Power consumers in Northern California have seen a 30% + increase in their rates since Pacific Corp began preparing to pay for removal. This has been especially felt by the agricultural community that utilizes pumps for irrigation in a year that has seen the value of all commodities drop.

Complete removal of the four dams in the Klamath River is a case of radical environmental groups using the Endangered Species Act, along with the Clean Water Act, to extort and coerce in order to undue progress. It will send a dangerous message and potentially set a dangerous precedent, threatening infrastructure, private property rights and affordable power. We are in a time where more water storage is needed, green power is preferred and cost effective power is needed.

It is estimated that it will cost $300 million dollars to mitigate water quality issues up to the time that the dams are removed. It is also estimated that it will cost $750 million dollars to remove the dams, followed by an estimated $500 million dollars to mitigate quality issues after the dams have been removed. This adds up to an estimated $1.5 Billion dollar price tag, not including losses to property values, agricultural production, loss in tourism and county tax revenue.

Common sense would direct us to modify the dams to allow for fish passage, maintain green power generation capabilities, and provide water to farmers and ranchers. What has happened to balance and moderation?

If the direction that extreme environmental groups and agencies at the State and Federal level are headed, unchecked by any sense of reason or oversight, is not changed, we shall surely find ourselves in a hole we are unable to climb out of.

About Me

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Jeff Fowle is a fourth generation family farmer and rancher from Etna, California. He and his wife Erin and son Kyle raise registered Angus cattle, Percheron draft horses, warmbloods, alfalfa and alfalfa-grass hay. They also start and train horses for riding, jumping, and driving. Their family run ranch has incorporated many environmentally beneficial and water efficient technologies and management strategies. Jeff attended college at Colorado State University for two years and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo for four and earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Animal Science. Following college, he worked in Washington State for a year as a herdsman for BB Cattle Company and then returned to Etna, California in 1995 to own and operate KK Bar Ranch and Siskiyou Percherons. The latter was started by his grandfather, Clarence Dudley, who devoted much of his time to the Percheron Horse Association of America, specifically to developing their youth education program.