Eric Larson, Executive Director, San Diego County Farm Bureau
Related Story: A Challenging Year For San Diego Growers
CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. It's Thursday, December†22nd. Our top story on Midday Edition, San Diegans may not realize it most of the time, but agriculture is big business in our county. It's a 1.6 budget deficit industry. What affects San Diego growers also affects the health of our economy. 2011 has been an interesting and challenging year for San Diego agriculture. Joining us is my guest, Eric Larson, he's executive director of the San Diego County farm bureau. Welcome to the show.
LARSON: Thank you for inviting me.
CAVANAUGH: Now, overall, how would you describe the year in agriculture in San Diego?
LARSON: Well, we had a record-breaking year in 2010. And we think 2011 will be pretty good too. Farmers have overcome a lot of the economic challenges everybody else is facing. We're hopeful it wasa I pretty good year. Product moved, there were good crop, and we had record prices on avocados.
CAVANAUGH: Let's break down some of the major issues that growers are dealing with in the county. NO.†1, I believe, is the rising price of water. Why is quart so expensive for agriculture in San Diego?
LARSON: Well, a couple of things happen. One, is we're a long ways away from the sources. Our water comes from the Colorado river or it comes from northern California. It's very expensive to transport at those distances. At the same time, Californians have done a very good job of conserving water. So the system isn't operation at full capacity. If it's not operation at full capacity, each unit of water that passes through the system carries a disproportionate amount of the cost. So it drives the price up. And for farmer, that's really been a very difficult situation.
CAVANAUGH: So water conservation increases the price of water for growers? Why is that?
LARSON: Well, the system is designed to operate at full efficiency. So as San Diegans, we've done a good job of conserving water. As Southern Californians, we've done a good job of conserving water. So the agencies are not selling as much water as their infrastructure is designed to carry. Whether the pipe is full or empty, it still has to be maintained and paid for. So the price of water has been rising.
CAVANAUGH: Does it make a difference if it's a wet year or dry year for growers?
LARSON: Yeah, for growers it makes a huge difference. If we have a wet year, every time it rains, they're not irrigating.
LARSON: So it's a huge savings that comes to them. So when we get those wet years, or at least have a normal year, that's huge for the farmers.
CAVANAUGH: But does it affect the price of water is what I mean.
LARSON: Well, it's kind of funny, people say if it's a wet year, the price of water goes up, if it's a dry year, the price of water goes up. In either case, the agencies have less water to sell. If it's a dry year, they don't have enough to put through the system. If it's a wet year, people aren't buying. So over the years, we have had wet years followed by dry year, and we have had drought, and we've seen a consistent upward curve of the price of water. There's been nothing to mediate that at all
CAVANAUGH: How are the high water costs affecting growers in San Diego County?
LARSON: Particularly the growers of tree fruit. Their margins are narrow to start with, and they have to get immense production from their trees to make a profit. But they don't control the price of the product they sell. When you sell a perishable product like agriculture crops, you're a price taker not a price maker. But if your costs are creeping up and your sales price isn't going up, you're getting squeezed. So when the price of water goes up, it comes right out of the farmers' profit. And the indications of that are pretty stark. We've lost just in one year over 5,000†acres of avocados here in San Diego County directly attributable to the price of water
CAVANAUGH: Does that mean growers are simply not planting that acreage?
LARSON: They're simply turning the water off. It was acreage that was already planted. And the farmers have finally said the price of water is so high, I have no opportunity to make a profit. And they're turning the water off at the meters and letting the trees die.
CAVANAUGH: You say you can see evidence of that when you drive by some farms in Valley Center.
LARSON: If you drive up interstate 15, the avocado highway, if you look to the hillsides, you will see these gray skeletons at the tops of the mountains. Those are the groves that have been abandoned, and all that's left is the stark silhouettes of the trees reaching to the sky.
CAVANAUGH: Now, this water crunch, this high price of water is bringing some growers to the tipping point. What does that mean?
LARSON: The tipping point means that we're at that point where if we even get small incremental increases, more and more growers will will make that decision to discontinue water in their groves upon will so we have had a certain number that have already abandoned those groves. Probably the less productive groves. But as the water price goes up, we'll start losing some of the more productive groves as well
CAVANAUGH: Can San Diego growers have the option of changing crops to produce things that are not so water intensive?
LARSON: There's a big move to do that. We recently pulled our members of the farm bureau, and there was a great indication that growers are looking for alternative crops to use. The trouble is, and we just really focus on avocados. That's the pinch point here right now. If you drive drive on a price like interstate 15, you'll see the avocados are very steep rocky slopes. That might be the highest and best use of that land ever. There's not a lot of crops that are going to grow in the same conditions.
CAVANAUGH: What's the answer to this as you see it?
LARSON: Well, the NO.†1 answer is that growers have to produce more fruit per acre. Whatever their input of whatever is, they have to get a greater return. And there's a lot of research on that right now. Growers are working very hard to intensify the production and produce more pounds per acre. Another thing is looking at root stalks that can handle salty water so we can use reclaimed water on the trees. And another is maybe we can get agencies like the metropolitan water district to introduce different water pricing.
CAVANAUGH: Another problem for San Diego growers this year was farm laborer shortages. Why is there a shortage of farm workers?
LARSON: There are not as many workers coming across the border as there used to be. We've really changed things in this country from a security standpoint. And there used to be a fairly regular flow 've workers back and forth across the border. And that's been pretty much shut off. And so without that flow of laborer coming to this country, growers have not been able to pick their crops at the peek time when they really need to get to market.
CAVANAUGH: That's called the market window, right? So they're missing their market windows?
LARSON: Yeah, the market window, because we're in a world market, there's a certain window when San Diegans have the best opportunity to sell into the marketplace. If there's not enough laborer, you can't get your avocados picked or fruit picked during that market window, and then you miss it. The price starts to fall when the laborer finally becomes available. And of that's an unfortunate situation
CAVANAUGH: What are San Diego growers doing to cope with this? Are they implementing any new strategies? Or are they just producing less?
LARSON: Well, they may plant less acreage because of this. Absolutely. Because of the lack of laborer. Some of them are trying to work within the confines of existing guest worker programs, but they're very, very difficult to manage: What we're mostly do suggest trying to press or federal officials to actually institute some type of immigration reform so we can have a guest worker program for people to travel here, harvest crops, then travel back home. We don't have that now. So we're entirely dependent on the laborer force we have here. And it's proving to be inadequate.
CAVANAUGH: How are growers staying in business? What you've been telling us are really some bad problems that San Diego growers are facing. Has the rising cost of food been helping them?
LARSON: Well, it has been good. But when we see all these reports of the rising cost of food across the country, it's pretty heavy to the commodities. Things like wheat, soy bean, rice, corn. Not so much the specialty crops we produce here in San Diego County. So there are challenges. Farmers here are very, very efficient, but it's not to all say it's all a down side. If we were having this conversation in the 1940s or '50s or 60, there would be a different set of challenges. But we're still a very progressive agricultural county and state. So the farmers work very hard to overcome these issues
CAVANAUGH: And avocado growers saw the price go through the roof this year, right?
LARSON: We hoped for something similar to that in 2012. But you just can't predict. You never know until you're ready to go to market.
CAVANAUGH: We did a series earlier this year about the trend toward localizing food sources. More people starting their own, small farming operations. Is that changing agriculture in San Diego?
LARSON: We're definitely seeing a trend of that. We're seeing a lot of people deciding to go out and take maybe ten acres and grow for the local market. We have 40 farmers' markets in San Diego County. If you're growing the right crop that isn't overproduced, there's a ready place to go and sell your products. Plus the restaurants and the institutional buyers like school districts really want local products. And we're doing everything we can to hook the farmers up with those buyers. 3 million consumers in San Diego County, we really want to pay attention to them and take advantage of this trend toward local
CAVANAUGH: So basically you're saying the farm bureau is welcoming this new trend?
LARSON: Oh, absolutely. If it's the next new thing, what we want to do as an organization, we really want to make sure there's opportunities for current farmers and also opportunities for new farmers to come in. The average age of a farmer in this county is over 60. We really want to create opportunities for young folks to get into farming.
CAVANAUGH: Do they start growing things that are not traditionally grown in San Diego County?
LARSON: They could grow a wide variety of things. We always tell people look around and see what's not being produced locally or talk to buyers and see what it is they're looking for. We're seeing trends. We're growing blue berries in San Diego County now which we didn't used to do. We're growing a lot of microgreen, edible flours. And people are finding that there's an open market for those.
CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Mike is calling from Bonsall, and we have time for a quick comment. What's yours?
NEW SPEAKER: Well, first I'm glad to be on your show. And Eric Larson is incredibly knowledgeable and personable man who's been at the helm upon of our farm bureau for a long time. And we are thankful for his efforts. The other half of efforts for avocado farmers that are halfering us is our federal government's efforts to open our markets to imports. You could go back 20†years and see getting $0.60 a pound for 48s, which is a designation of the size of the fruit. We've gotten $0.60 a pound in recent years because Chile, and Mexico, and others can subsidize their growers. So we're not competing on Ia a level playing field. We want to have continuity of supply in the United States. We can't supply avocados all year long. We have a season.
NEW SPEAKER: So that's too big of a subject for this program.
CAVANAUGH: Well, I'm sorry Mike, we can't, because we're up against time. And I am sorry about that. But please do comment on our website, KPBS.org. The comments are read and very much appreciated. I want to go to Mike's point of the fact that San Diego growers are basically competing with international suppliers of citrus and avocado.
LARSON: It is a global market. And that's the reality. And that's just the national policy. And it really rankles us as he mated, growers in other countries have tremendous advantages that we don't have. They're not subject to the same regulations, the laborer is much more expensive, water is less expensive. And and some of those farmers are subsidized. Maybe even subsidized by programs supported by the United States government. We used to have a massive cut flour industry? The city of Encinitas. It's gone because it was much more economical to grow those flours in places like Ecuador. And the majority of the avocados consumed in this country are now grown off-shore. Unless federal policies change, that's going to continue to be the reality.
CAVANAUGH: I want to sneak? One last subject before we have to end. And that is we continue to have exotic insects introduced into San Diego. Can you tell us why? And are they really dangerous pests?
LARSON: Well, are it's really simple. It's the traveling public. People will travel outside the county of San Diego, outside the state or outside the country, and they'll purchase agricultural products then bring them back here. Whether it's innocent or criminal smuggling to bring those products back, they come with insects that we don't have here. So we have no natural predators for those. So the insects then escape, then they become established here. And they become a real problem for farmers. Farmers have to then combat the insects most at risk of our organic farmers because they don't have the same tools as traditional farmers. And as a community, we don't want to see the organic growers go away, but when the insects get into our community, we use a lot more pesticides. That doesn't serve anybody
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Any pest you're keeping your eye on?
LARSON: We have an called the Asian citrus sillate. Likely someone smuggled a tree into San Diego from Mexico, and it brought this insect pest with it. It's new reaching clear up to into the Ventura area. The ibsect is not so troublesome, but it can vector a disease, and once the trees have the disease, are the trees will die. And there's no cure for that. The only cure is to tear that tree out. So we're very concerned about the pest right now.
CAVANAUGH: You're given us a real good overview. Thank you so much.
LARSON: Thank you. I really enjoyed it.