By Dan Walters
The first few days of the coronavirus crisis revealed that the veneer of civilization may be thinner than we assumed.
Americans quickly stripped supermarket shelves of toilet paper, paper towels and other household commodities. The panicky, almost riotous, invasion of shoppers even moved one Sacramento grocery chain to hire off-duty police officers to stand by and keep order.
Several weeks later, toilet paper is still in short supply, but stores still have adequate, if not overly abundant, stocks of a much more important commodity — food. Farmers, farmworkers, truckers, food processors and grocers have continued to do their vital work, often at the personal risk of becoming infected.
What would happen were the situations to be reversed, with shelves of food empty while those with toilet paper still stocked? It would get very ugly very quickly and history tells us that the survival instinct would kick in and other commodities folks also have been stockpiling — guns and ammunition — would come into play.
That scenario, thankfully, is highly unlikely to occur, but we should be aware that the incredibly complex system that delivers foodstuffs to stores and then to our tables is feeling the strain.
The closure of restaurants, schools and other commercial purchasers of food is a heavy financial blow to everyone in the system. Farmers are plowing up fields of lettuce and other fresh produce for a lack of workers to harvest them, and customers to buy what they harvest. Dairy farmers still must milk their cows, but many are dumping what they produce due to sharply reduced demand not only for fluid milk but cheese and other dairy products too.
California is, as everyone should know, the nation’s top agricultural producer, but we have often tended to take that fact for granted. In certain circles — especially among environmental and social justice activists — farmers are dismissed as greedy despoilers. They wrongly imply that there’s no need for large-scale industrial agriculture, and that small-scale organic farmers can meet our needs.
This crisis should tell us otherwise and whenever it ends, we should emerge with a new appreciation for those who grow, harvest, process and deliver our food — and show that regard in tangible ways.
We should end the decades of bickering over water and build the new storage and conveyance projects that will give farmers what they need to maintain and enhance production as well as meet the demands of families and other water users.
We should honor the men and women who work in the fields while most of us shelter in place to avoid infection. They should be fairly paid for performing the difficult and often hazardous tasks that put food on our tables, even if it means higher retail prices.
We should, as with water, end the decades of bickering over immigration and provide undocumented immigrants — as many as three million in California alone — who work in the fields, in construction and in myriad other important industries a dignified pathway out of the shadows and into legalized status and citizenship.
Concurrently, we should make it easier and more lucrative for foreign nationals who wish to work seasonally in California agriculture to come here. It’s shameful that President Donald Trump’s administration is contemplating a reduction in guest worker wages to ease the financial burden on farmers. That sends precisely the wrong message because a shortage of reliable labor is one of agriculture’s biggest headaches.
Some say the coronavirus crisis changes everything. It should change our complacent and sometimes hostile attitudes about agriculture.