This is a potentially historic time for farm policy in our country. As discussion continues in Washington D.C. about possible seismic shifts in Farm Bill funding, there is also a major effort underway to consider genuine, substantive change to public policy affecting agriculture apart from the Farm Bill. At last count, there were more than 30 different initiatives being discussed at the national level, from feeding an ever-growing world population with fewer natural resources, to the continued development of sustainable agricultural practices, to greater reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. The world is changing, and agriculture must be there – not only with a seat at the table, but actually leading the debate.
Late last month, California State Board of Food and Agriculture president Craig McNamara and I carried that message to a meeting with a small group of graduates from the California Agricultural Leadership Program (Ag Leadership) http://www.agleaders.org/. Graduates of the Ag Leadership program (including Craig and 5 other members of the State Board of Food and Agriculture) over its 40-year history truly do represent the breadth and depth of California agricultural diversity. The rigorous two-year program exposes participants to a multitude of contemporary issues and challenges them to think critically about public policy options.
During last month’s meeting, we discussed current forces, including mainstream retailers, food service companies and food manufacturers; and a growing voice from celebrity chefs, authors, journalists, foundations, environmental groups, and public health and medical organizations. This collective voice is calling for change in agriculture in the name of healthier consumers, healthier animals and a healthier planet.
I wanted to hear an honest discussion of how California agriculture should engage stakeholders who want more of a say in defining what are acceptable agricultural systems and food products in the U.S. And, that’s exactly what happened! Those in attendance are eager to work through the current tensions between large and small farms and types of farming systems, which have been dominating the current public policy discussion. We agreed there are enormous possibilities for agriculture if we work together to build new coalitions reflecting the continuum of farms needed to meet the demands of future populations here and around the world.
At the end of the day, Craig and I were encouraged to continue this discussion in other forums throughout the state as the first step to what I believe will be a leadership role for California agriculture in the national dialogue. It also underscored the value of what the State Board of Food and Agriculture began with the launch of Ag Vision http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/agvision/, to build a coalition with farmers and ranchers, environmentalists, labor, the food access community and consumers to work together on strategies to ensure the long-term viability of the state’s agriculture and food system. It is time for an honest conversation about change, and it will occur with or without farmers and ranchers. Much better that we be there.