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Wakeup call got California rice on the right track

It took a self-imposed wakeup call back in the 1990s to get the California rice industry in the right mindset to deal with the political and social upheaval occurring in The Golden State. According to George Soares, a lawyer, farmer and dairyman from Hanford, Calif., a few rice states east of California could learn from the example.

Soares, addressing the USA Rice Outlook Conference, in Las Vegas, says California’s changing demographics in the 1980s and 1990s were at times almost imperceptible. “You don’t notice it if you’re there every day, but if you’re away for a while, you do. It’s like watching a child grow. We didn’t see the changes in California for a long, long time. But we see them now.”

The changes weren’t necessarily for the better, Soares noted. “California today is in a state of perpetual bankruptcy to the tune of $5 billion to $6 billion in debt. We’re overpopulated, with 37 million people, and we’re expected to reach 45 million people in 2020. Over 600,000 people come in every year whether we want them or not. And undocumented workers — we have 2 million of them.”

Then there’s the cost of doing business in the state. “Government fees to grow an acre of citrus in Texas are $30 an acre. In California, it’s $350 an acre and it’s going up. We’re the No. 1 agricultural state in the Union and we’re trapped in an urban state.”

The political climate is schizophrenic to say the least. “California is really two states comprised of the coastline — who decides who get elected — and the agricultural region. The coast is a blue state. Liberal Democrats control our legislature. Fifty miles east we’re a red state. The blue is moving into the red, so we’re becoming a purple state.”

An example of the slow, but no less dramatic, change has occurred in Los Angeles, Soares said. “In 1950, Los Angeles was the No. 1 agricultural area in California. Today, 56 years later, Los Angeles has a population density of 44,000 people per square mile, or one person per square foot. By comparison, Louisiana has a population density of 101 person per square mile.”

A Los Angeles resident today is hardly cognizant of modern agriculture, notes Soares. Nonetheless, the rice industry enjoys a degree of favored status among area politicians.

“The reason is because in 1990, we did a reality check and determined we were upside down politically and on the policy front as well. We were burning rice straw with the state capital not that many miles away and legislators could actually smell the smoke in their own building. But we thought it was our right to burn rice straw.”

It took some doing, but the rice industry phased out rice straw burning on its own, without the help of the government. “There are still rice industry leaders who are being harassed about it, as though we really had a choice. But the state was changing. We had to be proactive, take the blow and keep going.

“We got ourselves out of politics and got ourselves into relationships. We checked our personal politics at the door. We engaged in a lot of straight talk. We told the truth. You can’t be in denial and manage change at the same time.

“We were eventually able to relate through education, taking rice legislators out to rice country. After we stopped burning our rice straw, we started flooding our fields and with that came millions of birds. Those L.A. legislators love to see the birds.

“We repackaged ourselves and it’s had some benefits. It took leadership. It took an analysis of our history and insight into our future. It was expensive, but today, California rice is the environmental commodity.”

Soares says it won’t be long before other agricultural regions east of California will experience similar challenges.

“Urbanization means environmental issues are more and more at the forefront. So the question is, are you next?

“I think (other rice states) are a couple of borders and a couple of decades away. If you want to be what you want you want to be, you must manage the change, or you’ll have your own L.A. to deal with. Manage the change or it will manage you.”


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