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California farmers face global pressures

The Central Valley is the most agriculturally productive place in the nation, producing billions of dollars in annual sales from hundreds of crops — everything from almonds and pistachios to peaches, plums, salad greens, dairy and livestock.

Yet this incredible bounty has largely bypassed many of the region's residents: Poverty rates in the Central Valley are among the highest in the state.

That paradox — of abundance and scarcity living side-by-side — was a theme that emerged repeatedly Tuesday (April 9), as University of California experts and leaders from around the globe gathered to talk about how to feed a growing and hungry world in the face of climate change and increased demands on natural resources.

Many of the speakers made the point that science and technology can drive solutions — but only if they are harnessed to the political and moral will to enact change.

“When it comes to food, we live in a shockingly unequal world,” said Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland. “One billion people are undernourished — many have barely one meal a day. In wealthy countries, we have so much food that obesity has become an epidemic.”

Glenda Humiston, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's California state director for rural development, pointed out that the inequalities are as much local as they are global — California's top three farm producing counties are also in the top when it comes to rates of poverty.

“Does farming have to have that kind of poverty?” she wondered aloud.

The economics of farming, however, are increasingly complex. Several farmers on a panel discussing California issues made the point that global markets now dictate the price they get for their crops, which in turn decides whether they are profitable enough to stay in business.

“Farmers are making rational decisions in an economy where their decisions are based on China's economy,” said Paul Muller, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, a small organic farm that has carved out a successful niche at local farmers markets and in community supported agriculture. “A lot of farms survive by producing a single crop.”

He left conventional farming after recognizing the direction things were going. Full Belly Farm evolved as an answer to the question, “How do you value rural people and a rural economy,” he said.

Today Muller's 400-acre farm is focused on regional marketing and produces 80 different crops, with sheep and chickens integrated into the farm system.

He said he is selling more than just food: His customer base is willing to “pay us for stewardship” of the land.

Other panelists said that Muller's model could go only so far in addressing global needs to produce more food, and at an affordable price.

“If the price of organic food is double or triple the cost, it's not feasible,” said Komal Ahmad, a recent UC Berkeley graduate who has launched an online nonprofit that uses cell phone geo-locating technology and social networks to connect groups and organizations with excess food to the soup kitchens and homeless shelters that need it.

The other model that seems to be thriving — and paying its workers a living wage — is on the opposite end of the Full Belly Farm spectrum.

Stuart Woolf, president and CEO of Woolf Farming & Processing, said his large family-owned farm over the last two decades has moved away from labor-intensive row crops to more water-intensive, but higher-value tree nuts.

“We wanted crops where California had a global competitive advantage,” Woolf said. That kind of business savvy has allowed him to pay his workers well and be in a position to supply large international companies like snack-maker Frito Lay.

“We all serve different markets," Woolf said. "I think there's an opportunity for all of us to do well.”