By Cory Lunde, Western Growers
It’s been a tough several years for California farmers and ranchers. Four, and now perhaps five, years of drought have made it increasingly challenging, and more expensive, for the farming community to maintain business as usual. On top of decreased water deliveries that led to hundreds of thousands of acres of fallowed farmland and direct economic impacts estimated at $1.8 billion, California farmers were also repeatedly criticized in 2015 for the amount of water needed to grow the food and farm products that Californians – and the world – rely on every day.
Yet, despite the historically dry conditions and the increased scrutiny about the natural resources necessary to grow and raise our food supply, I couldn’t be more optimistic about the future of farming and ranching in the Golden State. Condemnation of California agriculture has quieted – perhaps because we are finally experiencing some much needed precipitation in some portions of the state, but also because Californians are experiencing an increased level of awareness and appreciation about the realities of water use on the farm.
Cultivate California, a public outreach program that launched in December 2015, is focused on highlighting how farmers and ranchers use water efficiently and responsibly and emphasizing the importance of providing farmers with a sustainable water supply to ensure they can continue to produce the vegetables, fruits, nuts, dairy, meat and fiber products that feed and clothe our families.
Western Growers – an organization that represents local and regional family farmers who grow fresh produce in California and other Western states – is a proud supporter of Cultivate California. We believe that sharing this information is critical to raising consumers’ understanding about the interconnectivity between farming and food, as well as the importance of innovation in farming.
This latter point is something Western Growers is championing via its new endeavor, the Center for Innovation & Technology, or CIT. The CIT is a technology incubator headquartered in Salinas, Calif., and designed to connect technology entrepreneurs with farmers and ranchers in order to develop groundbreaking, creative solutions to the biggest challenges facing agriculture. Chief among those challenges is how agriculture can respond in an era of dwindling resources.
Currently 10 startups have taken up residence at the CIT, but this is just the beginning. The CIT will support these companies as they develop their ideas, with the goal of ultimately assisting them as they build themselves into viable companies down the line. Access to the agriculture industry provided through the CIT is unprecedented in California, and tenants are already benefiting from regular face time with the farming and ranching organizations that will ultimately become their customers.
All of agriculture is being asked to do more while relying on fewer inputs. Can we use less water, apply fewer pesticides and get by with less labor, yet still grow enough – or better, grow more – to feed the nation and world? These are questions worth asking, and through the CIT and programs like Cultivate California, we think we are on the right track to finding the answers.