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Death by a thousand cuts — when is enough enough?

California agriculture is the most regulated agriculture in the nation, if not the world, yet it continues to produce food and fiber without equal.

This raises the question: Does this regulatory morass inhibit California agriculture? No question it raises the cost of farming. Do some of the regulations like pesticide use reporting really make farming safer for people and the environment? I think most farmers would say yes. For certain, California producers can verify every ounce of crop protection chemistry applied to every acre. No other state can do that.

However, the ever-present question is: When is enough regulation enough? When do regulations become so onerous, numerous and burdensome that they threaten the most productive agriculture in the world?

Richard Quandt, president of the Grower-Shipper Association in Guadalupe, Calif., raises some interesting points about regulations in California agriculture in this editorial piece entitled “Death by a Thousand Cuts.”

Californians value their agricultural heritage and support farmers. The platform of virtually every elected official is to preserve agriculture and open space. Americans take pride in their ability to grow their own fields, and through exports help “feed the world.” The percentage of per capita income we pay for food is among the lowest of any industrialized country, while the quality and variety of our food is of the highest standard. Moreover, our source of food is safe and secure. We are not at the mercy of foreign cartels, nor do we need to worry about tainted produce imported from the Far East.

The success of California agriculture, however, is threatened by a thousand cuts. These cuts are “regulations and mandates” foisted upon farmers which lead to declines in productivity and increased costs. Every year, the legislature, as well as public agencies, enacts new policies that cut into farming practices.

Looking at each new policy in isolation — the impact at first glance appears modest. However, the cumulative impact of those mandates over a long time period is undermining the agricultural economy.

Overlapping and inconsistent mandates from different regulatory agencies are being imposed year after year without considering the overall burden being placed upon agriculture.

I am fearful agriculture is being seriously wounded by these regulatory cuts. They are sapping the entrepreneurial spirit of farming families to continue growing produce in our state.

Here are examples of recent mandates being imposed on farmers:

The Regional Water Quality Control Board requires farmers to manage and monitor their irrigation practices of water leaving their land as a condition of granting a “waiver”. The Air Resources Board requires farmers to change diesel engines to power irrigation pumps and trucks to newer tier engines with lower emissions. US Fish and Wildlife Service prosecutes if farming practices kill a salamander, red-legged frog or other protected species. The Department of Pesticide Regulation restricts the use of pre-plant soil fumigants reducing yields for several important specialty crops. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board is empowered to write private collective bargaining agreements when employers and farm labor organizations negotiate to an impasse. The Department of Homeland Security suddenly determines that the mere receipt of a Social Security mismatch letter constitutes “knowledge” the employee is unauthorized to work. The Army Corps of Engineers does not allow farmers to mechanically clean debris from creeks to protect against flooding from winter rains. Cal-OSHA issues mandatory $750 fines to farmers when toilet paper is not on a suitable holder. The county agricultural commissioner is required to issue mandatory fines instead of simple warnings because pesticide use reports are incomplete or turned in late.

All of these mandates have a negative economic impact. Pressure is building on farmers to move farming operations to other countries where labor is plentiful, environmental concerns relaxed and economic development is welcomed. This exodus has already happened with many other consumer items. However if we lose agriculture in California, we also lose our ability to feed ourselves. If this happens we will have only ourselves to blame.

A self-inflicted wound, exacerbated by a thousand cuts, is undermining the agricultural economy of this state. To turn the tide Californians need to start recognizing the value of those who grow our food. We need to purchase California-grown products. We also need to stop supporting policies that weaken the position of California’s farmers in a burgeoning and competitive global market.


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