Ag at Large: Farming Strengthens California’s Soul

By Don Curlee | Contributed

While California’s stance on some critical national issues is being widely discussed, the voice of its farm population is being largely ignored – and that may be a good thing if it leads to some soul searching

Although farming and farm products are one of the state’s major income producers, the number of people who admit to being farmers is small, fewer than 80,000 farms among the state’s 40 million residents. In the political realm, that’s a drop in the bucket.

But farming, whether in California or the more “typical” farm states of the Midwest, seems to represent an area’s soul. It is recognized as offering tradition, permanence, decency continuity, even that recently popularized word, sustainability, whatever it means.

These are qualities that are being pushed to the side currently by spokesmen for the state as they express reactionary objection and opposition to certain national trends, policies and personnel – most of them identified with the new national administration. Those expressions and subsequent actions may represent political, even sociological opinion, but they don’t express California’s soul – nor do they strengthen it.

In a few cases, the pique – being voiced by the state’s political leaders and some in its Hollywood centered performance industry – does include issues close to the hearts of farmers.  One of them is immigration reform. California agriculture continues to benefit from an immigrant workforce, and the evolution of that labor pool has become complicated. You might say it challenges California’s soul.

The conditions and circumstances of immigrants in the agricultural workforce have been revised, updated, experimented with, and on occasion neglected, by federal officials for more than 70 years, mostly without soulful input by California farmers. The resulting mess has attracted the often-emotional attention of many, elevating it to an issue of significant national concern.

Some of the soul searching complexities include the expansion of farm-worker families. As they have grown they have become more diverse, more mobile and more a part of the state’s soul – down to the third and fourth generations. Immigrants have woven themselves into the state’s fabric, sometimes without meaning to, but just as intimately as native Californians have.

A rich family heritage is evident in the immigrant population, much the same as it is among the farm population. An appreciation of that helps farm families and immigrant families relate. It helps keep both groups aware of their souls.

On the other hand, California’s current political leadership seems to disregard much of the state’s heritage. The depth of the state’s personality is often overshadowed by its focus on the irritating and discomforting issues of the present.

The state’s urban centers are intensely populated by transplants from other states and nations, creating an immigration issue far different from the kind that permeates its rural areas. That urban element is likely to have little or no connection with California’s real soul, but it can and often does influence issues that command widespread attention and identify the state.

Farm interests all the way from families that retire from business careers and break new ground with a few acres of pasture, a small orchard or vineyard or a field of beautiful flowers all the way to a 100-year-old equipment manufacturer with hundreds of farmer/customers provide depth for California’s soul. 

Like the redwoods, the deserts, gleaming beaches, towering peaks, powerful rivers and fertile valleys, agriculture is a primary element of California’s soul. Of all its citizens, elected representatives and policymakers should be protectors of the state’s soul. If they can just find it they might want to do some soul searching.