Sunday, January 6, 2008

The "Real" Farmer John(s, and Chris)

So far, so good.

Thanks to Holly King, over at the Great Valley Center, we were hooked up with a few central valley farmers, but not the ones that most would think of as epitomizing "sustainable". I feel that the purpose of this project, of making a documentary film, and of life itself, is to learn. And without exposing yourself to views you don't already agree with, you're not really going to get anywhere with that. So thank you Holly for an interesting start to the tour!

First was a phone conversation with Chris Woolf, of Woolf Enterprises. Woolf Enterprises is a family-owned farm and processing operation. They farm, according to one Internet source (I can't find a Woolf Enterprises website), almonds, cotton, tomatoes, and more on 20,000 acres. Not exactly what one thinks of when one is talking about a "family farm". They grow conventionally (not organic certified or otherwise), and Chris insists they are "sustainable" in that they have been growing food on the same land for over 30 years. Plus, he says, they have doubled their production since the 70s, using less water (because of drip irrigation and proper timing of applications).

I tried to be open minded, listening to Chris defensively explain their sustainability efforts: efficiencies from using GPS navigated tractors to make "the straightest" rows possible; converting their processing arrangements over to their own local facilities instead of having to truck tomatoes up to the Sacramento area. But I can't help but think: this is what sustainability means to you? 30 years might be longer than I've been alive, but surely it is not longer than we've had the energy from fossil fuels (about 200 years). Those same fossil fuels that run that GPS system, that GPS tractor, that tomato processing facility, those big trucks all farmers seem to own, not to mention the nitrogen fertilizer that Chris admits he must use. So how can a large scale operation like his survive an energy descent scenario?

I asked Chris, straight up, where the costs would go, assuming the price of oil (currently around $100/barrel, compared with $11/barrel during the Clinton years) doesn't let up? I couldn't get him to admit, there is nowhere for the price to go but to the consumer! So, I know we all think almonds are too expensive as they are. But just wait a couple years and they'll truly be a "yuppies only" item. Unfortunately, Chris did not want to be interviewed on camera or in person, so you have to take my word when I say he seemed like a nice enough guy, but perhaps a little reticent to see the long term physical realities of his business.

Second was John Duarte, of Duarte Nursery. Duarte claims on its website to be "the largest permanent crops nursery in the United States". What would it take to state that claim? How about over 12 million grapevines sold in one year? Now you know how Charles Shaw can be so cheap...economies of scale, working to keep us winos happy!

Seriously, John let us record (just audio) of our talk, and for that he deserves some respect. John was a realist, and (like the other fellows of his ilk) a pretty staunch capitalist. Well why not? Everyone has to make a living, right? And, as John pointed out, without making enough money, a farmer would likely sell his land to developers, and that's not too "sustainable". Plus, he thinks that the growing, dynamic companies in CA ag are those that pay their workers decent wages and care about the sustainability of their land.

He also mentioned that a failure of CA ag is that of marketing itself to the consumer. The "CA GROWN" label is not given the respect that it could be. To John, conventional ag must create more stories to tell its consumers, so that those stories can engage the consumer to ask important questions and create pressure to adopt more sustainable practices. Since he didn't sign a waiver, wanting to wait to see what we would use of the interview, I can't just post the audio. But there were many interesting points, and at least one good joke, regarding the story- telling and value-building role of marketing:

"I tell my wife, an entree is gonna cost us $15, plus another dollar for every adjective on the menu."

My favorite of the three, possibly, was John Diener. We met up with this John at his local Denny's, at the confluence of the I-5 and Highway 198. It was a great meal, great conversation, and even better napkin drawings (John has an ag science and economics background, and it came across in his incessant doodling of numbers, diagrams, and figures while we spoke). John farms an unknown (but no doubt substantial) acreage in the central valley, growing tree crops, vegetables, and cotton. The most interesting part of our conversation was probably about the global economic realities of cotton, which are most grim. Even with the government subsidies of local (U.S) cotton production, a large scale cotton grower has a hard time making serious money in the industry, when competing with growers paying their pickers cents a day in other parts of the world. This brought up an interesting issue, relevant in all aspects of production, food-related or otherwise:

Is the replacement of human labor by machines a good thing? What if those machines were powered by some source of "green" energy? A cotton harvesting machine can harvest the equivalent of 1,000 people, according to John Diener. In demanding "sustainability", are we effectively advocating for the tough hand picking of cotton by poor people in the third world?

John was very interested in sustaining ground water, quality and quantity. He has been researching various methods to remove salts from the soil, along with planting certain crops that can grow in more or less salty environments. He says that without the forward thinking engineers who created the Central Valley Water Project, the groundwater table would have sunk to un-usable levels long ago. It is only through his (in his mind, modest) water allocation from the CVWP that he can maintain the "sustainability" of his water usage. I understand what he means; if all the area's farmers took water from the ground, it wouldn't be long before farming would be untenable on the land.

But how does importing water from hundreds of miles (and entirely different and dependent ecosystems) qualify as "sustainable"? I can't site the exact facts, but a survey of historically irrigation-based civilizations (as in, large movements of water for purposes of agriculture) shows that it doesn't often turn out well. Dams silt up; land becomes salinated; production leads to desert. Egypt, I have heard, is the only example to escape this fate, and that was largely due to a lack of dams on the Nile. California, by contrast, has 1,427 dams.

Water, even admittedly on the part of the large scale farmers who most benefit from it (some would say they are cheating the state by getting it too cheaply, but we must eat, no?), is the elephant in sustainability's room. Read Marc Reisner's "Cadillac Desert" for a brief--well, as brief as you can for such as subject--background into CA's water wars. And then think: 20 years later, and not much has changed.

Can it?


J-lo said...

the promotional short looked great - it got me excited to see where this ambitious project will head....the questions you pose in this last post are intense and forward thinking, although occasionally verged towards a techno-phobia. why are you sceptical of a tractor using GPS?
keep up the good work...

Antonio said...

It's not that I'm skeptical of GPS technology, or any technology in itself.

It's more that, to me, a claim of "sustainability" based on incorporating an even more energy-intensive system (like satellites--not too basic as technologies go) doesn't convince me.

I think the ideas these big guys operate from--that economies of scale, mechanization and the attempted transcendence of nature's "inefficient" realities (i.e. straight lines of monocrop which would never exist or survive in "nature")--haven't been proven to provide us with sustenance over the long term.

So I question them. Not dismiss, but question.