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Allan Garcia
Owner, Living Farms

Profile produced by J. Greenberg

 

In the eighth episode of our series, we took stock of the Valley's natural resources, and met Allan Garcia, an organic rice grower whose farm is a living experiment that blurs the line between agriculture and conservation. Allan's farm sits on 1,000 acres of the Nature Conservancy's Cosumnes River Preserve -- and in the off-season, he floods his fields to create what he calls a "bed and breakfast" for thousands of migrating waterfowl.

Rick Cooper, Manager, Cosumnes River Preserve: "It's been enlightening to me to work with an organic rice farmer, seeing the creativity and the skill that he uses. He's constantly thinking of how to work things both to the economic benefit of his operation, and at the same time bring in an improved habitat in the area for wildlife."

Allan has long played a leadership role in the agriculture community. And through his ability to find common ground between farmers and environmentalists, he's helped enact progressive ag legislation on both the state and national level. He even briefed President Clinton on the accomplishments of the Valley's agricultural-environmental partnerships.

Such partnerships led to a key provision in the 2002 Farm Bill that quantifies the benefits of environmentally friendly farming techniques -- and pays farmers not just for their crops, but for their stewardship of the land.

Allan says this holistic approach to farming is essential in the new economy, and that it's never too soon to start taking the "long view." The future for Allan's farm is his college-going daughter Raquel, and she's ready to follow in her father's footsteps. She leaves no doubt that the future is in good hands:

Raquel Garcia: "To come back to here and just smell the fresh air, to hear the sounds of all the waterfowl, it just makes... It almost brings a tear to my eye. It is the most wonderful experience to be involved in, and I love it so much."


How did you first get into farming?

I'm a third generation California farmer. My grandfather came from Spain with a dream -- a dream of generations, a dream to work our own land. And that's basically our goal and after three generations we own our own farm land in California. Its still the goal for me, is I would like to pass that tradition on to my children.

This farm you have on the Cosumnes River isn't your first; can you tell us a little bit about the farm you have up in Corning?

Yeah, we have a farm up in Corning, and basically my father was quite a conservationist. He loved wildlife and animals and I think it's a gene that goes out through our family and I picked that up, I think that I'm the most wildlife oriented member of my family and that's going on to my children. So we have this farm that my dad started purchasing and it went to us and now it's owned by me and my brother and so what we were able to do with shortage of resources -- water was really expensive, land was very expensive -- we tried to get as much use out of that land as possible. And so we ended up building tail water return ponds for water quality so that we can reuse that water; it was worth a lot of money to us, so we kept recycling it. So we developed tail water return ponds and what we found out was they provided ideal wetlands habitat. So we started integrating our brood habitat with pond habitat.

There was a major farm crisis in the eighties. We really got hit hard; our water costs went from $3 an acre foot to today now $30 an acre foot. So we were continually pressured to develop ways to keep the farm profitable, so I got into organic farming. Some friends of mine -- the Lundbergs -- had started a small organic and processing business in rice. So they became over the course of a few years the premiere organic rice company in the world. I started with them early on. My brother and I shared 30 acres. So 15 acres, I started on myself with the Lundbergs. Today we grow 600 acres with them on the preserve. And so we slowly built our experience and our capital. You've seen the equipment here, the investment we have here. That's equity, that's what we've been able to do reinvesting our profits from organic farming back into the business. And so eventually we got to own some of our own land. And most farmers only own about 20% of the land that they farm. Because it's such a capital investment that there isn't that much land ownership. We own about 500 acres out of the 2000 that we farm. It wasn't just one generation it took several generations to get to this point.

What was your first experience in the policy-making arena? Were you a reluctant advocate or did you feel comfortable in the spotlight?

That's a good question. I think I'm really nervous up until I'm actually going through the process. I just feel that its such important work that it overshadows everything else. Some basic things have got to be shared with the public: that if you're okay and you're able to do that... Actually I think communication skills rank higher than any other skill for a modern California farmer. If we can't tell our story, no one else is going to tell it for us and we learned that early on. I think it's very important, an area most farmers should get involved in and so should their children.

Basically we were going to lose our farm because water costs we escalating so high. So all this huge policy that was national policy was having an effect on my family way back in Corning on our Corning farm. It was a very immense big machine and we didn't know how we fit in it and how we would be impacted. And so I was digging for knowledge; what did I need that my father didn't pass on to me to survive in 21st century California? So I started becoming involved in action groups. I joined what is now called the California Association of Family Farmers. They're a parent organization and they took me in very willingly because there weren't a lot mainstream farmers that were interested in these issues such as environment, what's happening to the family farm, rule type issues.
They were great advocates of it. They didn't have a lot of followers that were farmers so they plugged me wherever they could. If they wanted someone with leadership experience in agriculture, they brought me to the forefront for that so I became the spokesman for a number of bills. The sustainable agriculture research and education program at UC Davis was started by a bill that was sponsored by Senator Petras and the California Association of Family Farmers. I worked very closely on the policy group with that and also in communications and building partnerships with diverse groups to back that up.

When you first got into environmentally friendly farming, did the other farmers around you scratch their heads and wonder why you were taking that approach?

Yeah, they scratched their heads and they thought that I was harmless: "Boy, what a nut, one of those enviorowhackos!" I think the reason that I crossed over was that I went to school up in Chico, I went to college there during the 60s; a lot of new ideas were floating around. I had an ag background but also a conservation background with my father. We always had duck hunting on our lands as part of how we managed our property.

So I think it was a process of assessing the past and the future and where we were out in the 50's -- and organic farming actually became part of the whole social movement of the 60's. People say that nothing good came out the 60's, but what came out of the 60's was the emphasis on organic farming, natural farming, organic foods. When I started with the Lundbergs it was a $300 million a year business in the United States. Today it's a nine billion dollar industry in this country. I evolved well. And I've evolved with the changes in consciousness of America so that my business could also evolve along and change and provide the kind of benefits that society is asking of farmers today.

In the past we were the stewards of the environment. We were a rural culture. Everybody had an uncle or a brother or a grandfather still on the farm and when they were asked a question on the environment they asked Uncle George and he'd say, "Things are looking good on the farm." We lost that stewardship during the Dust Bowl, the 30's. It was an awesome experience to anybody interested in land management. And so out of that experience came a different way of thinking. My father used to use cover crops in commercial rice. We spread manure on it; we were actually organic farmers up until the 60's when the green revolution took place. That was generated by research, our university system, by everything.

Actually, it was the old war: we took the technology of World War II. I had friends who came home...in Willows where I was born was where the aerial applicators started. We have the oldest ongoing aerial applicator service in the world at the Willows airport. It was these guys that came home from the war. Once they saw Paris, it was hard for them to get back on the farm and they started integrating their technology. They adapted their airplanes to the first aerial seeding of rice in Willows. All of a sudden an entire industry developed out of that industry. Some of the chemicals developed during World War II became part of our pesticides. Rachel Carlson talks about that. Some of that technology was good and some of it wasn't. What we need to do is assess what is the appropriate technology to put in the ground. Today, in this world of bioengineering, at no time in history has this been such a critical issue: where do we put our dollars in research? Where do want the agricultural system in the United States to go? We're really at a crossroads here, I think that organic farming, sustainable agriculture, conservation, should get a fair hearing on the future.

How did you come to farm on the Cosumnes River, and how has your process evolved since you've been here?

You know, I'm a rice grower, I got involved in leadership, and we had a lot of really tough issues that we had to deal with environmentally. We use a lot of water, cover a lot of land in California, our drainage goes right through the capital city. And so there were some issues of air quality and water quality that the industry had to address. So we looked at our problems. We looked at what we might do, and we decided we wanted to open a dialogue with our critics which was then the environmental community. And so I got put in the position -- probably drew the short straw and got put in the position -- of being one of the people to tell our story to the environmental community. And actually, I found out we had a lot more common values than anybody could ever believe. I developed a lot of good personal relationships with many of the leaders of environmental and government agencies that manage our resources. And we found a lot of common ground, and out of that experience of actually working with some of the agencies, we decided we wanted to put a demonstration farm on the ground that took all the ideas we were playing around with -- and it was interesting. We'd see one farming practice on one farm and we thought, "That's good." And we'd see another farming practice on another farm, maybe in another part of the state, and we tried to put as many of these creative practices down on one spot so that everybody had a chance to share in developing the practices and also in seeing how it evolved, changing it, using it as our open air experiment. And so that's how I got involved. I got involved because of my leadership background and working with these agencies on behalf of the industry and then actually thinking, "Hey, we could go farther than this. Let's push the edge and see how close, or how far we can integrate environmental benefits and agricultural systems." And it just happened when we looked and we did a resource summary on this farm, we found this farm was very conducive to organic rice growing. And all together among all the partners we decided, we're going to try and organic farm on federal lands. And it was quite a risk all the way across. We all put our credibility on the line -- our careers! My money! Everybody else's careers, and so it was a great gamble and it's been quite… It's been ten years -- a decade. It took us two years of planning, and organizing, acquiring the properties, developing them, and putting the sustainable system in placed. And so, I think at this point we're a mature project; we're starting to get feedback from independent agencies on what we've been able to accomplish, and that feedback has been very, very positive, and has had a very positive effect on policy makers that were thinking about taking a risk, and trying to move ag policy in the direction of environmental issues and addressing them. And I think we gave them a lot...by having this project on the ground and all these groups working as a partnership. I think it gave them a little bit of bravery to move forward, and we've had a great effect all the way across the board. Everybody involved in this project has done great work for their agencies and who they represent. And in turn all the different groups that we work with, they put all their best people out here: the most creative, lots of resources. We have had people and governments from all over the world come and visit us as a place that everybody feels safe out here. Everybody feels a part of it, whether you're from the general community that just come out on a field day, and you may buy the rice that's out here as part of your diet: you're a partner. And the people -- the agency guys that have put their credibility on the line and become a part of this -- are partners. So it's really a partnership approach, and I think we're setting a new standard on how to really get together, form plans, take care of our humanized environments here in California, make 'em so that we can accomplish multiple goals and move forward and actually have a landscape that we would be proud to allow our children to inherit.

You've made partners out of people who traditionally would be considered adversaries. What is your secret?

I think the real secret is communications, and taking the risk to actually meet with somebody that is a potential adversary and taking the risk to honestly put your cards on the table, and what your needs are, and what you're willing to share, and what's critical. And all of a sudden I think, in that open partnership kind of environment, all of a sudden you start to see resources in your adversaries. That...wait a minute -- this isn't an adversary; this is a potential asset. And I think what it really has been for me is the whole concept of holistic resource management, holistic planning. That is the basis. People are sitting at the table; are you willing to give in order to take?

You know, I like to say that in the big picture of things, we used to have a dollar for the environment, we used to have a dollar for the farmer, and we used to have a dollar for the community. Well, in today's economic scene, we only have one dollar. That dollar has got to fulfill multiple benefits. You cannot fulfill a goal for community that takes something away from business. You can't fulfill a goal for business that takes something away from the environment. We can move forward, actually accomplishing multiple goals with the same dollar. And if you really look and study the landscape and the natural resources and the units of management on the surface of the earth we now call watersheds, we're learning from those natural systems. And the earth itself manages the watershed, which is the basic environmental units as we understand them, in a way where the resource serves many needs, and that's really where we learned the holistic resource management principles, was from the study of natural systems. And then "Where do we fit into that natural system?" is the basis of holistic resource planning.

And so basically we spent two years on this landscape dealing with all the potential stakeholders here: community, environment, business. And developed a plan together, in a holistic way, so all of our goals could be accomplished with the same action and the same dollar. And that's how we've moved forward and that's really the success -- why we're successful because it was like a paradigm of thinking we were stuck in, and we changed. And we are in a different paradigm. When you sit down and start thinking holistically...and that is the major problem with resource management in California: those that will not sit at the table and move forward in a holistic management approach to resources, issues. They're the people we need to get to. They're the ones that we don't want as part of this process, really. I mean there are some ways of thinking out there that are very, very contradictory to actually how the natural resources cycles themselves work. We can't do any restoration in California if we don't do it in a way that integrates our aspirations into how the natural systems already work.

Could you briefly lay out the new plan the rice industry has come up with, and what the benefits will be?

It was interesting that, when we decided as rice growers to start working with the environmental community...environmental organizations were making a lot of money fundraising in order to actually oppose a lot of what the farmers were doing. And so, early on when we decided we were going to open a dialogue with our critics in the environmental community, when we started meeting with these people, we actually found out -- Mark Riesner was one of the great facilitators of this whole movement, of getting people to at least sit down at the table that were in conflict over the same resource. And so what we found out sitting at the table was that we had a lot more common values than we thought.

And so moving forward, we gained a lot of attention from government. Some friends in government actually put me on a panel with President Clinton and Secretary of Agriculture Glickman, back in the 80s. The 90s, actually; the early 90s. And I was able to represent the CA rice growers and brief the President of the United States on what we've been doing with these partnerships. I coined it as the "Bed and Breakfast for Ducks." It was very well-received in government. It was actually seen as one of the possible directions to take agriculture in America, and it started feeding on itself actually. I mean, a lot of people started seeing this… The environmental actually started raising money from the public, filling their coffers, running their organizations, off of partnership projects dealing and working with farmers on solving multiple goals. And so I think there was a great paradigm shift in this, and we got the attention of leaders.

And so where we're at today is we have a program that is now starting to be administered by the United States Department of Agriculture through the Natural Resource Conservation Service, that will actually... First thing they did is they came in and they quantified the benefits to the environment that can be accomplished by farmers if they're given the right incentives. And what they did is they actually measured and quantified the value in dollars of what these values were to society, and then they went on and developed a program to actually fund farmers so that they would start getting paid not only for the crops and the food production and the fiber production, but actually for the actual stewardship of the resources. And when the Natural Resources Conservation Service first started up, one of the first things they did is they authorized a study to go around the entire world and to look and see how other civilizations had managed their resources. And what they found was the surface of the earth is littered with the relics of civilizations that failed at actually managing their resources sustainably. And that study and that thinking actually began this whole movement in the United States in agriculture conservation. And farmers then -- my father looked at some of that stuff and became involved in the Soil Conservation Service, and started getting involved in some of their programs to help enhance soil fertility and water quality.

And so basically I followed in that tradition and I've seen this movement evolve drastically in the last few years, especially now that security is a basic issue in everybody's minds in this country. And one of the issues of security of course is food security. We're realizing, maybe the global economy isn't where we really want to get our food supply; we need to manage our own natural resources in a much better way with our food production system, and actually grow the food in a way that Americas want their food grown. Not in the way that the global economy or the corporations that run the global economy are telling people they want their food produced. And so there's a grassroots movement that started out of the 60's with the Back to the Earth movement. Those people are all retired. They're policy makers! They ran this country and now they're retiring, they realize someday...we're going to die, and they're looking at food and health issues as really high up on their family values system now. And so many, many families now are spending more money, and what they're doing, it's really a social movement in that they're using the cash register at the local supermarket as a ballot box and they're voting for the ag system that they want for the future and they want for their children. And that, my friend, is the most powerful ballot box in the world. And that is what everybody can participate in. We could all become farmers in these kind of farming operations in the future.

What are your hopes for the future of farming in the valley and the future generations growing up here?

Well, I'd like to introduce you to the future for me. It's my daughter Raquel, and it's most definitely a holistic farming plan. It really isn't anything unless you consider succession. You consider the quality of life you want to see. You consider what you want the landscape to be. You want to consider your impacts on the environment and on the economy, and then you want to set up so that what ever good you've accomplished can be carried on by the future generation. And so succession is a key element of this holistic planning process. And so by Raquel taking on some of the family values, who knows where the next generation's going to take this? I'm excited about it! And I think that the next generation…we're going to deliver them opportunities and a landscape that they'll be proud of. That's the goal. Because I'll tell you what. The land don't lie out there. It tells a story. We lie! The land don't lie, and it's going to tell the story. Raquel's generation is going to be able to tell whether we did a good job as the stewards of America's natural resources. And they'll be able to pick over the bones of us, and pick out what was good, and what wasn't, and carry on. And I think that we are just beginning this new shift towards private industry now getting into managing our resources for environmental goals. And I think it's a whole new ballgame; it's a whole new way of looking at our economy, and I think it's a great future to try to offer our children.




TRANSCRIPT:

The complete text of New Valley Episode 110 -- Movers & Shakers...

 


Presentation also made possible by a grant from
the Great Valley Center

 

New Valley Official Site