Sunday, September 22, 2019     Volume: 20, Issue: 29

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on April 9th, 2019, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 20, Issue 6 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 20, Issue 6

Taking root: There's a disconnect between food producers and the general public, and some locals are working to re-establish that relationship


It was only about 10 a.m. on April 5 and the air in Santa Maria was already feeling balmy. The warm morning sun poked through the clouds and shone heavily on portions of Allan Hancock College's student garden. The lot smelled of freshly cut grass and echoed with the incessant chirps of busy birds and crunching gravel as a few students dug holes that would soon be home to fruit trees.

It's not a huge plot of land, and although it sits directly across the street from Hancock's campus, the garden still feels removed, remote, and peaceful. It's Erin Krier's comfort zone, and like many farmers, the Hancock ag professor prefers the solitude of working in the fields.

Allan Hancock College agriculture professor Erin Krier works with students to plant citrus trees in the school’s orchard on a the last Friday in March.

But in the past few years, Krier has noticed a worrying trend: Farmers aren't sharing their stories, and when agriculture-related controversies erupt, they aren't defending their practices.

That hesitancy to speak up can lead to one-sided news stories and ultimately to the spread of misinformation about agriculture. Then, Krier said, real policies and laws are passed based on those falsities, usually by politicians who don't really know much about agriculture.

Fewer individuals in the U.S. have a direct hand in the agricultural industry now than ever before, and according to data collected by the American Farm Bureau Federation, farm and ranch families make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population. That means fewer members of the general public are exposed to the world of agriculture, so fewer understand where the nation's food comes from and everything that goes into producing it.

The disconnect between the realities of agriculture and public perception has created a need for knowledgeable and passionate people willing to speak on behalf of real farmers and ranchers.

So in the fall of 2018, Krier started Hancock's Young Farmers and Ranchers Club, which is dedicated to teaching students and community members more about the agricultural industry and the legislation that affects it. Through her club, students host discussion panels and attend various community events, where they set up informational booths and teach others about the local farming and ranching scene, while disproving common misconceptions.

The club's close partnership with the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau gives participating students an opportunity to learn about the local agriculture industry directly from its leaders, Krier said. Along with real-world work experience, students are able to make lasting connections with future employers, attain internships, apply for jobs, and learn to provide the kind of advocacy that the agriculture industry is becoming increasingly desperate for.

"We kind of need to bridge that gap between the grower and the public and the politicians," Krier said. "There's this big gap, and we need people who are smart and enthusiastic like these guys are."

Learning to represent 

In mid-March, the Young Farmers and Ranchers Club went on a three-day trip to Sacramento, where they toured the capitol building, met with agriculture industry leaders and representatives, and learned about the laws and legislative processes that impact local farmers and ranchers.

Before the trip, Krier said the Young Farmers and Ranchers Club hosted a panel discussion at one of its meetings, where local farmers talked about issues they're facing and the message they hoped club members would bring to Sacramento.

Jorge Coronel is an ag business student in his second year at Allan Hancock College. Coronel, who attends nearly every Young Farmers and Ranchers Club event, said it’s getting increasingly difficult for the younger generation to become farmers because of stringent regulations. He’s learning more about those regulations and the legislative process through the club in hopes of one day becoming a farmer despite the odds.

"And that was a really valuable conversation to have, so we're going to continue that," Krier said. "This month we're having a couple of panel speakers from the industry talk to us about some of the issues that are current and relevant to them."

Next year, Krier plans to host similar panels but with local politicians.

The trip to Sacramento was a wonderful and educational experience, but Krier said everyone seemed a little starstruck by the big names they came in contact with, including Secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture Karen Ross, and the officials who run Blue Diamond Almonds. It was intimidating, and Krier said she hopes that with increased exposure to local city council members and county supervisors, students will become more comfortable advocating for the needs of local farmers in a formal setting.

Hancock's Young Farmers and Ranchers aren't alone in their efforts. At Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the Brock Center for Agricultural Communication is working toward similar solutions.

The center was founded more than 30 years ago with an endowment from Jim and Martha Brock, according to Karen Cannon, an assistant professor at Cal Poly and director of the center. Cannon said Jim was a well-respected leader in produce production, and throughout his years as a grower, he noticed a divide between people working in agriculture and the general public.

He assumed that divide would only get worse with time, and he helped start the Brock Center in an effort to improve communications with the community.

Students who work in the Brock Center take courses that give them in-depth knowledge of a number of agricultural and food production practices, Cannon said. Those courses are then paired with journalism and communication skills.

Cannon said Cal Poly students can major in ag communications, and much of the degree revolves around translating the complex tech and science jargon of agriculture into something everyone can understand. That, she said, can sometimes be the biggest challenge. 

A chronic problem

It's not just the misquotes and misrepresentations sometimes printed in the local press that have made many farmers and ranchers wary of getting involved in public discourse, but for Peter Adam, those issues are definitely part of it.

Throughout the late '90s and early 2000s, long before Adam was Santa Barbara County's 4th District supervisor, he, his brothers, and his father spent several years in litigation with the county and federal government over alleged Clean Water Act violations. In a lawsuit, the county claimed that several acres of the family's Santa Maria Valley farm, Adam Bros. Family Farms, were situated on environmentally sensitive wetlands, and that the business was operating there without the necessary permits.

For years, the Adam family was unable to farm a vast portion of their land, and eventually they responded with their own lawsuit, which alleged that the county had violated civil rights statutes in its handling of the case. In 2004, a jury ruled that the county and some of its staffers acted fraudulently, and awarded Adam Bros. with $6.7 million in punitive and actual damages.

Jonathan Sanchez is in his third year at Hancock and is majoring in plant science. He thought the Young Farmers and Ranchers Club trip to Sacramento was eye opening. He found it touching that so many busy politicians, farmers, and ag advocates took the time to meet with members of the club.

An appellate court later ruled that while the facts and findings of the case stood, the damages were not owed, and Adam said his family never collected the money.

It was a frustrating time for the family, and Adam said it was only made more so by the media frenzy that surrounded it. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency used local reporters to communicate with and threaten his family through various articles, Adam said, and the news media seemed to go along with it.

Nearly two decades later he still remembers one particularly maddening story. In a quote included in the story, he was attempting to bring home his opinion that the county and federal government were overreaching. He called the entities' actions "zealous." The reporter quoted him as saying "jealous."

It could have been an honest mistake, but Adam had already pegged the reporter as an "environmental advocate" who he believes was trying to twist the story into one about a class struggle rather than what it represented to him: unnecessary and unlawful government oversight.

He didn't try to reach out to the outlet for a correction, and he didn't try to fight it. He'd seen this before—a quote in a story attributed to him that, while it more or less made sense, was wrong—and he felt like there was no real recourse he could take.

He refused to talk to that reporter any further, and he said that if he weren't currently a politician, he probably wouldn't talk to reporters now.

"I have come to the conclusion that I cannot explain [agriculture] adequately, and I don't know how to move forward," Adam told the Sun. "But it seems like every time someone does try to put out some information, it's either misreceived, misinterpreted, misused, or something."

If it's not a reporter making a mistake, then Adam said it's members of the general public refusing to let go of their preconceived notions about agriculture.

"I can tell people all kinds of stuff and if it doesn't fit the narrative, they're not going to believe it," Adam said. "So it kind of begs the question: Why the hell should I waste my time?" 

Why so quiet?

For Supervisor Adam, the real issue comes down to the complexities of agriculture versus the public's ever shortening attention span.

There are other issues, too, of course. Farmers and ranchers spend massive amounts of time out in the fields working alone or with small groups, and Adam said that's how they like it. They typically aren't the kind of outgoing folks who make great interviews or take kindly to strangers. Farmers and ranchers don't have a lot of free time to spend with anyone, let alone reporters. Throw in America's growing mistrust of the media, and an interview becomes less than likely.

But chief among the reasons, Adam said, is that farming is just too difficult to explain in the amount of time people are willing to listen.

Take, for example, Adam's quick explanation as to why he was unable to plant one week this season because of the rain:

"For lettuce we would prefer to have direct seed because the head lettuce plant, you know, iceberg lettuce, it likes to have a taproot, and if you don't have a taproot, it turns into a fibrous root system if you transplant it. You know how the trays all have a hole in the bottom of them for the water to drain out? Well there's a phenomenon called air pruning. It happens when the root grows because the taproot it comes with wants to grow out of the bottom of that, because it doesn't want to be contained in that cell.

"So it grows out of the bottom and then there's no more soil. So it gets air pruned and then it makes a fibrous root system inside ... it's called apical dominance ... .

"That tap root does not grow back. That has forever been changed to a fibrous root.

"OK, so to get back to the planning schedule, you would rather have that tap root, so that requires you to have direct seed. So if you don't make that direct seed date, you have to have a transplant in its place. But to make that harvest date, or that given direct seed date, you have to drop it in the nursery two weeks before that direct seed date.

"So if you want to buy the insurance for the direct seed date, you drop in the nursery two weeks ahead of time and then if you get to drop it in the field with the direct seed, you throw those plants away, and if you don't, it's going to be another two to four weeks before you can put those transplants in the ground and if it's raining, then you're screwed. You will have nothing. There's no harvest that week."

Didn't follow? You're not alone, and that's exactly Adam's point.

Trying to explain food production is like trying to describe brain surgery, he said, and he's not sure why so many people are so worried about how agriculture works, yet no one seems to care enough about brain surgery to have it explained in the same excruciating detail.

"You don't need to know that stuff," Adam said. "I think people have been sold this idea that if they don't understand what we're doing, we're hiding something ... . Nobody is trying to hide anything. You can't understand in the time you're willing to commit."

Yet some locals, including Claire Wineman, have long worked to translate the arcane details of farming into succinct terms that reporters and the community can understand.

As president of the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, Wineman often advocates on behalf of the farmers and ranchers who pay membership dues. That involves a lot of interviews with the press, public comments at city council and county meetings, and a lot of summarizing the main points of issues that, in reality, take time to truly understand.

It's challenging work, and Wineman said she has to stay constantly up to date on a huge variety of topics. There are several resources locally that help her do that, but diving into public debates over controversial agricultural issues is still not always a positive experience.

Wineman said she's been misquoted by reporters a number of times, statements she's never made have been attributed to her, and those falsified statements and her real quotes have both been used against her as personal attacks. That, she said, is not the kind of atmosphere that makes people want to speak up for what they believe in.

And yet, the common misconceptions about agriculture are proving to be a real problem, partly because actual legislation is sometimes passed based on unfounded beliefs.

People, Wineman said, don't seem to understand how stringent the regulations over agriculture are in California. She noted Santa Maria's ongoing saga with H-2A, a program that allows farmers to bring vetted nonimmigrant workers into the U.S. to provide much-needed agricultural labor for a limited time.

The temporary guest workers are paid and provided with necessities, including housing, which became a public issue in March 2018, when the Santa Maria City Council suddenly passed an emergency ordinance prohibiting property owners from housing more than six H-2A guest workers in units located in single-family and medium-density residential zoning districts.

City officials said the ordinance was an attempt to preserve residential housing for long-term residents, but the council let the ordinance expire a month later. Council members then spent the following year holding meetings to learn more about the H-2A program. Some of those meetings were almost entirely dedicated to discussing the many requirements farmers have to meet in order to use the H-2A program, and city officials still haven't made a final decision.

Wineman said she's not sure that many other industries face that level of scrutiny. 

Growing into the future

While Cannon, of the Cal Poly Brock Center for Agricultural Communication, said she understands how frustrating it can be to feel misunderstood or ignored by the public, it's important for people to know how their food is made and where it's coming from. Farmers and ranchers have been burned by the public, she said, but the public has been burned by unsafe food conditions and deadly foodborne illnesses, too.

Hancock student Katie Tonascia, majoring in agricultural business and science, said a recent trip to Sacramento was empowering and inspiring. Much of what she and her fellow students learned from state legislators can be applied locally, Tonascia said.

So it's important for both sides to share their stories. The challenge, she said, is telling those stories in a concise way that will get people in this clickbait era to stick around.

That's what ag communications students learn to do, Cannon said.

It's what the Young Farmers and Ranchers Club members are working on, as well.

Teri Bontrager, executive director of the Santa Barbara County Farm Bureau, has long been a local advocate of agriculture. 

While she is happy to speak on behalf of her members, Bontrager said there's only so much general information she can relay.

It's always better to hear from the real farmers, to hear their real struggles and triumphs. Still, she said, a majority of U.S. farmers are reaching their 60s, and most are tired of answering the same questions, defending the same practices, and all the attacks and outrage that come with.

That's why Bontrager is working closely with Hancock's Young Farmers and Ranchers Club, helping to mentor students who are eager to stand up for their industry, ready to learn more, and willing to fight for their rights. In Bontrager's eyes, they're the only real solution out there.

"I totally understand [farmers'] frustrations," Bontrager said. "So that's why we're here to help grow a new crop of leaders and spokespeople."

Contact Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash at

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