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Urbanization among farm `megatrends' in California

WCPA speaker says the urbanization of California will continue to take agricultural land and water away from the state's No. 1 industry, according to one of the state's agricultural leaders.

However, Walt Payne, president and CEO of Blue Diamond Growers of California, Sacramento, said the state's agriculture will survive through crop specialization far removed from price-taking commodity crops, precision agriculture, contract farming, even greater mechanization and biotechnology.

Payne detailed eight "megatrends" he envisions for California agriculture at the annual gathering of the Western Crop Protection Association in Squaw Valley, Calif.

Prime California farmland is disappearing at the rate of 44,000 to 72,000 acres annually, depending on which agency is doing the counting. That will continue, Payne predicted.

This is not only pushing farming on to more marginal land, but urbanization will continue to make it more cumbersome to farm from urban pressures over the use of pesticides, farming noise and dust.

"The loss of land is only the tip of the iceberg of urbanization," he said. Increasing people migrating into farming areas will effect day-to-day operations of farms, he predicted.

The solutions to urbanization are difficult and complex, and Payne was not optimistic that the tide can be turned. One of the dilemmas is that farmers want to have the choice of farming or selling out without government interference.

California's long history of water wars - Mono Lake, Owens Valley, Hetch Ketchy - is now adding a chapter on the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, the focus of Cal Fed, an controversial and troubled effort to solve the state's biggest water dilemma.

"There will be no Biblical loaves and fishes without massive changes" in the operation of the Delta, said Payne.

Without new water supplies, water wars will continue as competing urban, industrial and agricultural interests battle over available and dwindling current supplies. Cal Fed has spawned several lawsuits lately as the solutions so far have fallen short of expectations.

Water use efficiencies Lost in water wars are the huge gains in agricultural water use efficiencies. He cited his own almond industry as an example where average yields have gone from 1,000 to 3,000 pounds without any more water use.

Globalization of food sources will continue and with it will come lower prices for major commodities as well as some processed foods like canned fruit as well as fresh market crops now available year-round.

"Specialization will continue," he said. With the concentration of high value, often-contracted crops, Payne said California producers would have greater pricing influence than they could have with basic commodities.

The megatrend of consolidation in the retail food chain has kept inflation down, but it also has economically depressed prices to farmers in an otherwise booming U.S. economy.

Labor shortages Labor will continue in short supply. Agricultural guest worker legislation continues to be introduced, accompanied of late by guest worker programs for the high tech industry. This is giving more credence to the farmers' labor needs, but Payne is not optimistic agriculture will get its guest work program it has long advocated.

Farmers adopting precision agriculture technology - growing more with the same or fewer inputs - will separate the winners from the losers in the future, he predicted.

Agricultural biotech will survive the current controversies, Payne said. "It is a revolution that will happen," he said. Acceptance will come when consumers realize biotechnology can solve the food supply problems of the future as well as provide medicinal and nutritional benefits to people worldwide.

"GMOs are slowly gaining acceptance," after a bumbling first generation introduction, said Payne.

It also will continue to benefit farmers, he said, citing the $100 per acre savings self-pollinating almond would provide producers.

Blue Diamond, said Payne, has looked into involving itself in the biotech arena, but decided to pass because the large almond cooperative "could not capitalize on it."

"However, I have no doubt biotechnology will succeed," he added.

In detailing the megatrends he sees in California agriculture, Payne says he hopes the industry can "better capitalize" on the future by understanding what is ahead.

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