Friday, April 29, 2005 | Lamenting the loss of farmland has become a popular pastime in California. As residential, commercial, environmental and public uses gobble up acreage, it is hard to ignore that the farmland inventory across the state is shrinking. We are fortunate in San Diego County to be producing high-valued crops such as nursery crops and avocados that stave off temptation to sell the land beneath them. However, the reality of rising water prices and foreign competition may take its toll here. Ideas on ways to save farmland are numerous and creative, but there is only one method that will work. It’s not about protecting farmland; it’s about protecting the farmer.

Farmland was just a chunk of ground until someone decided to improve it and farm it. And it stays farmland only as long as someone chooses to keep farming. It is a universal truth in the agriculture community that folks become farmers because of a personal attraction to the crops, an affinity for the lifestyle and their independent character. But at some point the reality hits that an individual can only keep farming if they make a profit. Farming is not an altruistic effort; it is a business.

Foreign imports are making it tough to produce cut flowers, just as they are making it difficult to produce clothing domestically. Low commodity prices are hitting orange growers hard, as well as manufacturers. Mandated increases in the minimum wage could shake out some strawberry growers and landscapers. Environmental regulations are making nurserymen rethink their operations, no different than the changes being made by local contractors and builders.

Although farmers will fight hard to protect their chosen profession, it is important to acknowledge that the public acceptance of new laws, tougher regulations, increases in the cost of doing business and shopping choices from worldwide sources can have a big impact on local farming. The business of farming is not exempt from the fact that increases in the cost of doing business or depressed prices for goods sold can mean a bottom line that doesn’t support the enterprise.

Many good people are working on concepts to preserve farmland in our community, state and nation. Their motive is sincere, but their approach needs expansion. Saving the farmland is fine, but the business of farming must be preserved with equal vigor.

Will farmland be saved? The answer we all want to hear is a resounding “yes.” Farmland is an important part of the fabric of San Diego County. It is part of the ambiance, it improves the environment, it gives us locally grown crops, it creates beautiful view sheds, it makes an important contribution to the economy, and it provides a hedge against urban expansion. But we can never forget that it will only be farmland as long as a farmer is standing on it. Without the farmer it will become just land once again, and likely be put to another use.

Eric Larson is executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau.

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