Are specialty crops really beneficial for California agriculture?

California’s Food and Agriculture Secretary, A.G. Kawamura, is encouraging farmers to attend a three month long boot camp for global marketing. Over six sessions, small to medium sized producers will learn the ins and outs of exporting their specialty crops. In a press release last week, Kawamura claimed “Exports are a vital component of our farm economy.” I think he has that backwards. The truth is, the exploitation of farms is vital to California’s export economy and what’s really good for California farmers is at odds with the needs of global commodity traders. State dollars shouldn’t be spent on training small farmers to expand in a global market, just to siphon capital away from local businesses and communities. Those funds would be better spent on providing the tools necessary to fulfill the distribution needs of local food economies.

When one thinks of the meaning of “specialty crops,” images of exotic fruits and niche markets might come to mind. In actuality, ‘specialty crops’ is a USDA designation for any fruit, vegetable, herb or plant grown in the U.S. that is not one of the five “program crops” directly subsidized by the federal government. Basically, if you run a traditional, diversified small farm you are a specialty crop producer. In fact, sixty percent of farmers in the country grow specialty crops and the value of those yields is equal to the combined value of all subsidized crops. California is the largest specialty crop producer in the nation by far.

Considering that many times more land is dedicated to commodity crops in this country, it tells you how questionable it is to rely on subsidies to regulate fair market values. Subsidizing a crop means you get more of it. The basic law of supply and demand demonstrates the fallacy of “price supports” through cash subsidies. Unfortunately, what Secretaries Kawamura at the state and Vilsack at the federal levels are doing through sponsoring events such as CalAgX is laying the groundwork for the full scale subsidization of the specialty crop market. And where go the prices of “specialty crops” goes the competitiveness of local food economies which rely on the reimbursement of local farmers above parity. All the while the majority of state and federal agricultural funding is geared toward enticing farmers in sustainable foodsheds away from supplying their regional markets and making their operators debt-slaves to global agribusiness, the embers of economic and food insecurity for California are being stoked.   

But, cui bono? Who benefits from such an arrangement? A cursory look at the official website for the California Agricultural Export Training Program gives the ponzi scheme away. Here one reads, “This training program is funded by the California Centers for International Trade Development through the Specialty Crop Block Grant program of the United States Department of Agriculture, and is presented in cooperation with the California Department of Food and Agriculture.” The CCIT is the offspring of the California Community Colleges Economic and Workforce Development program whose investors include many trans-national corporate interests from transportation, technology, energy, manufacturing, news media, entertainment and healthcare as well as a plethora of federal and state agencies of commerce.

According to their industry partners’ web page, in 2009 “EWD leveraged close to $50,000,000 in funding for business and industry.” (Take note of how farmers are lumped into the category of industry). Combine this leverage with the USDA’s multi-billion dollar allotment in the 2008 Farm Bill to invest in specialty crops for the nation’s school lunch program and the misappropriation of federal funds intended to help expand farmers markets and CSAs, and California is trying its darnedest to compete with what’s in its own best social and economic interests. It’s now becoming clear to me why Cathleen Galgiani, chairwoman of the California State Assembly Committee on Agriculture has been pushing legislation for the largest  infrastructure project in California’s history. Afterall, high speed rail only has the potential to divert state funds which, if better spent, could support local food distribution networks, land grant programs for urban and school gardens, and cover the costs of municipal food bills. Has Assemblywoman Galgiana even considered the ecological impact sure to directly affect farmers within the proposed corridor? But I digress.

“With more than $10 billion in exports, California’s international markets support jobs, farm families and rural communities,” says Kawamura. This couldn’t be further from the truth. More jobs would be created with the creation of more farms. Higher, more dependable farm incomes would provide capital that could be used to create business opportunities within the community. Farm families, their communities, and the cities they feed deserve economic freedom. Their produce must sell at true market value – that is, the value set by competitive action of local producers not the deflated value caused by government assistance. If California invested as much time and money into Urban-Rural Roundtables as it does appeasing international trading partners, it would find itself far more prosperous and fiscally secure than it is today.