A man for all seasons

An interview with A.G. Kawamura, California’s agriculture secretary

Natural disasters are just one of many adversities farmers face. Here, A.G. Kawamura (left) surveys flood damage to farmer Tom Gamble’s fields.

Natural disasters are just one of many adversities farmers face. Here, A.G. Kawamura (left) surveys flood damage to farmer Tom Gamble’s fields.

Photo Courtesy of california Department of Food and Agriculture

Jeff vonKaenel is on the board of directors of Fresh Producers, which is organizing a pilot program to get community-supported agriculture boxes distributed by area high-school students at the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
VonKaenel is also in conversations with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the California secretary of agriculture about helping them advertise local agricultural products in SN&R and other alternative weeklies.

Few bureaucrats possess the depth and breadth of experience secretary A.G. Kawamura brings to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Kawamura grew up in Orange County, where his third-generation farming family continues to grow green beans, strawberries and other specialty crops. As both a major producer and shipper, he’s learned the business from the bottom up, from field to market to table. Combine that with a Bachelor of Arts in comparative lit from UC Berkeley, a commitment to public service and a ponytail, and you gain some sense of Kawamura’s unique perspective.

Since being appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003, Kawamura has overseen the state’s 88,000 farms and ranches, which collectively generate $36.6 billion per year and at least another $100 billion in related income. SN&R’s president and CEO sat down with Kawamura to discuss the state of California’s agriculture just before Thanksgiving. What follows is an edited version of their conversation, which ranged from the significant obstacles facing today’s farmers, the differences between local and imported produce, and big agriculture’s bad rap. If you think you know what a man who grew up farming thinks about such issues, keep reading. Kawamura’s observations are illuminating.

Going into 2010, what, in your view, is the state of California agriculture?

There are clearly four major areas that I see that you could look at agriculture here in the future, this year and next, that are enormous pitfalls for agriculture, things that could shut down a farmer’s operation today or tomorrow. [One], suddenly if the water doesn’t show up or if it doesn’t rain, or if they turn off the supply, you don’t get your crops off. Two, if you don’t have a legal labor force, and somehow someone shows up and decides to take your labor supply away right when you need to harvest, that shuts you down. Three, people forget pressures from disease, pressures from insects, and you might lose a crop, like they did on the East Coast this year with tomatoes because of basically the same disease that took down the potato-famine folks. The insects can shut you down because they can eat your crop or damage the crop enough so that you can’t sell it. You might be caught in quarantine and suddenly the trading partners, the other states in our country, or other countries, they don’t want to see you moving that product because it might have a dangerous pest or disease on it. Those kinds of things can shut you down tomorrow.

The last thing I should mention is different kinds of climate patterns which can really put you out of business pretty quick. If it’s the age-old hail storm on the cherry crop, well, we know about that one. If it’s enormous swings [in temperature], even though the average temperature might not be showing a record spike, but you have one high day of a heat when your plants need to pollinate, and suddenly your whole crop didn’t pollinate because it got 112 degrees or 114 degrees for one day. Those are the things that happen. It’s just an unusual pattern in weather, but extremes can shut us down very easily. If that’s where climate change is headed in the future, that gives everybody a little pause.

In terms of developing California agriculture, you’ve talked about having to change the market before you can change the farming.

That’s right, going first back to that previous question—where you try as hard as you can to make sure that the infrastructure allows you to get the crop off in the first place is sound and in place, the next challenge you have is making sure that you can pick your crop and market it effectively and efficiently. Just thinking you can grow a crop of cauliflower or broccoli or melons or strawberries or whatever it is, if you don’t have a strong marketing plan in place, you can ruin your own marketplace by having too much product and dumping it on the marketplace and causing a collapse.

You really want to try and create a very solid connection between what you are producing and matching it up to what you know you can sell day in and day out, or season after season. You can expand or contract as you see the need to, as opposed to just suddenly thinking that if you can just make that dollar on that box of blueberries, well let’s plant 10,000 boxes of them. A lot of times, people jump into these markets ahead of what they really can efficiently market, and what they do is end up ruining the market for everybody else.

When I talked to one of the marketing associations, one of the things they talked about was the superiority of California crops compared to imports, but they say they can’t compete with the imports coming in because it’s hard for the consumer to differentiate between an avocado from Chile or an avocado from California.

I would argue all day long that the most superior quality is if you can pick something off a tree or cut it out of the ground and eat it within that next hour. That’s very, very good quality. Shelf life for these different products is also going to determine quality. Something’s that been on a boat for 14 days and then stored in a refrigerator for seven days, and finally it’s on the supermarket shelf, it might look pretty good and it might actually be very good in terms of the fact that it’s edible, especially if there’s no other product around. But if you’re able to know that your source is fresher, there’s just an assurance the product is going to have better quality.

Now, at the same time, it depends on the conditions of the crop that is harvested. I could have, let’s say, a fruit that was harvested and immediately put into a good cold storage and treated well and the heat was taken out of it right after harvest. It might be seven days old by the time I get it, but I’ll tell you that product might be a hell of a lot better in quality than the product that didn’t get cooled, sat outside in the hot sun for six, seven, eight hours the day it was harvested, eventually got cooled around midnight and eventually got to the market place as a two- or three-day-old crop. Green beans are a perfect example of this. You can’t even look at shelf life unless you understand where it was harvested, how it was handled.

Third generation and still going strong. Kawamura surveys one of his family’s own fields in Orange County.

Photo Courtesy of california Department of Food and Agriculture

When talking to the people involved in farming, they often they say that they’re misunderstood, that there’s a lot of misperceptions about farming and farmers and the agriculture business.

I think the notion that ‘big is bad,’ which springs from big agriculture, I don’t even know what that term means anymore. You have so many companies around the country that are family-run businesses that have grown, because they’ve been successful in delivering excellent, incredible products, and yet for many people for some reason they would say, “Oh, they’re too big”; that’s big agriculture, they don’t like it.

Now, if you’re an agriculture company that’s traded on Wall Street and that somehow you believe that there’s something bad about that, well, you know you would have to ask, how does the company operate? What’s its mission? How does it treat its employees? If it’s successful, it’s probably treating its employees pretty darn well. If it’s been out there a long, long time, it’s probably doing something right, and yet we have this distrust of big agriculture that’s been driven by a lot of people.

I have a hard time with that because it’s seems like just a convenient way of biting the hand that feeds. You look at the fact that there’s a great amount of commonality in any production system, big or small. You know that basically you’ve got to get a crop in the ground, on time, and do the right things to get it to maturity and get it harvested and get it sent to wherever you’re going to send it. How you get that done certainly lends itself to efficiencies in a bigger, factory-driven system where there’s more consistency, a breakdown of different modules within the farming practices, from harvest to cleaning, trimming, packing. That makes it cheaper to produce certain kinds of foods, certain kinds of products. How does that equate to suddenly being good or bad?

I think it’s a great indulgence to have so many choices with the abundance we have that you start to get an opinion that your choice is better than the other choices, and then suddenly that choice becomes an opinion that is driven into a policy that becomes a political football. Before you know it, you’ve got a bunch of people with opinions about food and opinions about agriculture, and they’re pushing them into the political process and the policy arena.

That luxury of abundance that we have, don’t ever think that is a privilege that’s just been granted, it’s something that’s hard-earned. And it’s interesting that the minute you don’t really have the kind of choices we have is the minute you stop arguing, because you’re just concerned about getting food on the plate, which is the challenge for about 2 billion people on the planet right now, just having food on the plate, not arguing about what kind of food it should be.

So a major part of the misperception you’re talking about is the criticism of large agricultural businesses?

It’s not everybody—it’s become convenient for some folks to demonize some aspects of our food system. It serves an agenda, it serves a marketing process, it serves a strong opinion, a very honest opinion. Is it better than the way we used to do it? I would tell you that it’s no secret that over the course of 10,000 years of agricultural cultivation, of agriculture in human societies, that there have been enormous mistakes made. Just because we suddenly realized that we could harness horsepower with plows, that you could plow up the whole Midwest and turn it over, and then recognize that—oops!—when you abandon that acreage you end up with a dust bowl.

I look at some of the ways we were looking at pest control and the idea that you kill everything out there because it’s easier to do it that way. But that leaves a void and in that void a lot of the time, the insects that come back are the bad ones. So people keep on learning that, “Oh no, let’s use a better kind of material that goes after just the pests you want,” “Let’s use beneficials,” or “Let’s use integrated pest management,” “Let’s use this idea of organic processes that do just the same thing as conventional agriculture.”

So there’s a tremendous market for materials and tools that, even for organic growers, are called pesticides, although everybody thinks organic means they don’t use pesticides. They are not allowed to use synthetic petroleum-based pesticides and other certain chemically based pesticides, but they certainly can and do and need to use certain other kinds of chemically driven products—whether it’s sulfur, whether it’s an oil, derivatives of other plants, extracts.

What I’m saying is that the different practices that agriculture employs today get better, they continue to get better because you’re trying to make sure that your resource base, which is your ground, the water that you’re going to have to use, the plant stock, you want to keep all your options open, because, sure enough, Mother Nature is going to throw some tough things at us there; she always has and she always will. For the people who don’t seem to get that, that’s where I think it’s difficult because they think it’s so easy to selectively favor one farm system over the other. I’m in favor of many different kinds of farm systems, leaving us the biggest chance to try to survive the challenges of the future.

So, you have 13 months left as secretary, what do you hope your legacy here is?

Well, No. 1 is that I do hope and I do continue to struggle, I think, with a belief that came from my mother that you leave a campsite better than they way you found it when you showed up. In a reasonably sane world, so many of the employees that work here at the [Department of Food and Agriculture] would be considered national heroes for what they do in their lifetimes in terms of preserving, saving and protecting the food system, the life systems here in our state. Yet people don’t have any idea that that goes on. My biggest concern is to leave our department in good shape, stronger than it was before we got here, and able to do the job that it really needs to do, which is to protect the life systems in the states so we can get harvests off. If the department of agriculture can’t get the job done, it impacts everybody in the state.