The Other Breadbasket

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Dr. Kermit Jones & Alexis Pendergraft

When people think of America’s breadbasket, they often picture corn and wheat fields in the Midwest.   But what many don’t realize is that California’s Central Valley also plays a vital role in supplying our country’s agricultural output.  While only using 1% of U.S. farmland by territory, California’s Central Valley produces 8% of the nation’s agricultural output (by value) and a quarter of our country’s food. More than 250 different crops, valued at over $17 billion annually, are grown in the 20,000 square miles that comprise the region.  And surprisingly, between 500,000 to 800,000 farmworkers, between one-third to one-half of all of America’s farmworkers, reside in California.  Simply put, California agricultural industry contributes an outsized share to our country’s GDP, employment, and, through its exports, serves as one of America’s many economic ambassadors to the world. 

Two core components of our state’s agricultural success are its continued access to a large pool of hardworking, dedicated farmworkers and a stream of ever-improving farming sector technology.

Our continued access to a large labor pool is heavily dependent upon the right immigration policies. Such policies can help farmers in California’s Central Valley address critical agricultural labor issues. The H-2A program does allow U.S. farm owners to bring foreign workers to the United States to fill temporary agricultural jobs.  But the program regulatory requirements are burdensome, impractical, and do not address the specific needs of many Northern California farmers.  For such guest worker programs to strike the right balance between supplying labor to U.S. farm markets and labor costs, the federal government must take into account the facts on the ground that farmers face, and the higher agricultural costs passed on to consumers in times when many people are suffering financial strain.

Another vital component of California’s agricultural industry is its use of constantly improving farming and seed technology.  California farmers take advantage of advanced speed breeding, data analytics and robot-mounted sensors to increases crop yields and detect diseases before they are able to spread to other plants.  Many of these same farmers also use different mapping tools to decide when and where to plant and harvest their crops. In short, innovative farming technology can address many the economic issues on California farms.

In conclusion, as the world’s population continues to grow, farmers must produce more food to avoid the types of food security issues that can lead to regional instability. A strong Sacramento Valley farming sector will increase jobs in the local economy, allow us to engage other countries through trade, and enhance border security by improving the economic conditions in trade-partnering countries and lowering the risk of cross border flight.

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