NEW VALLEY 203:
The Green Machine

 

New Valley is brought to you by Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo: the next stage.

We respect and protect our region's natural beauty and precious resources through responsible community planning and development. We are Del Webb: the nation's leading developer of resort-lifestyle communities, and home to more than 11,000 active adults in Northern California.

New Valley is also made possible in part by the Great Valley Center.

 

Kevin Starr, State Librarian/Historian: "Agriculture is at the core of the DNA code of the Central Valley."

For a century and a half, it's been the backbone of our economy -- and more importantly, it has defined who we are. The Valley has fed California, America, and the world.

Kent Bradford, Director, Seed Biotechnology Center, UC Davis: "California's agriculture is very unique. As you may know, we produce either 100% or a very large fraction of many, many commodities."

So why are so many Valley farmers struggling? Some farms have succumbed to urban sprawl...

Kevin Starr: "The paving over of the Central Valley represents a threat to the whole culture and way of life that we have in this state."

Others can't access or afford the resources they need...

Carol Whiteside, President, Great Valley Center: "The farmers are insecure about the water supply in the future."

Global competition...strict regulations...stagnant prices. It often seems there are more reasons to get out of farming than to stay in.

Bill Pauli, President, CA Farm Bureau Federation: "There is a reason for some pessimism about whether or not we can maintain a long-term, viable agriculture in the Valley."

Yes, times are tough...but so are Valley farmers.

In this episode of New Valley, we'll discover innovations in science and spirit are keeping many Valley farmers competitive -- and prosperous.

Neal Van Alfen, Dean, UC Davis School of Agriculture: "If you look down the Central Valley...where agriculture is so important, I think we need to ask ourselves, 'What if it weren't there? What would be there in its place?'"

Join us for a look at what it takes to keep the "Green Machine" running.


The Central Valley has long been known as the "Breadbasket of the World" -- what better place to hold the first ever Ministerial Conference on Agriculture? USDA Secretary Ann Veneman -- herself a Valley native -- presided over the three-day convention that brought delegates from over 100 nations to Sacramento.

Ann Veneman, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture: "This is a forum about a shared vision and finding ways to achieve results, ways to apply science-based solutions to real world problems."

Ministers from Afghanistan to Zambia came to learn how the latest breakthroughs in agricultural science and technology could help fight hunger around the world.

Friederich Wacker, German Agricultural Minister-Counselor: "We are interested in the transfer of technology to the developing countries, and so far we have a lot in common with the U.S."

Many of those new technologies were developed or refined right here in the Central Valley, home to many of the world's top agricultural companies and institutions. Foremost among them is the University of California at Davis, originally founded in 1908 as the "University Farm."

Dr. Eduardo Blumwald, Professor, UC Davis: "The University of California in Davis is one of the biggest agricultural campuses in the United States, and has such amount of talent and facilities and synergy."

Dr. Eduardo Blumwald recently won the prestigious Humboldt prize for his work developing a tomato that would grow in salt-tainted soil.

The Imperial Valley, the San Joaquin Valley are seeing really big increments of sodium content in the soil. But also the water.

Blumwald modified a single gene in his tomato plants, which allowed them to store more salt in their leaves -- without absorbing it into their fruit.

This is going to have a big impact, and the reason is that we are going to be able not only to use marginal lands, but also use marginal water.

Kent Bradford: "Our faculty here for many years have been pursuing plant transformation -- that is, the ability to transfer genes into crops and plants -- see how they function, see what benefits they might have."

Researchers hope this technology will lead to plants that can grow in a number of harsh environments, to help eliminate hunger around the world. But many nations have been reluctant to embrace these new genetically modified crops. Indeed, even in the face of famine, Zambia made headlines by refusing a U.S. aid shipment of genetically modified corn. Drina Nyirenda received her Ph.D. at UC Davis -- but helped lead the fight against GMOs in her homeland.

Drina Nyirenda, Executive Director, Program Against Malnutrition: "We need more scientific research done, which can conclusively tell us which ones are harmful and which is not harmful. And then people can make an informed choice."

The controversy over GMOs brought protestors to the Ministerial Conference, to let the delegates know that although the Valley is a hotbed of agricultural research, there's another essential side that they shouldn't overlook.

Doreen Stabinsky, Science Advisor, Greenpeace: "The Central Valley is also this sort of wonderful breeding ground for organic agriculture, for sustainable agriculture. There's all kinds of alternatives to genetic engineering that you find throughout the Valley."

Given the history and importance of agriculture in our region, it's not surprising that Valley farmers employ techniques that run the gamut from the latest technology to the oldest methods known.

And our research reflects that as well. Scientists at UC Davis work both ends of the technological spectrum.

Rick Roush, Director, Integrated Pest Management, UC Davis: "California has led the development of integrated pest management over the last 50 years. Our program has been working on this now for 23 years -- reducing pesticide use, improving the profitability of farming, reducing the environmental impact of pesticides, and improving the health of farmworkers."

Pheromone laced traps and lures keep pests like the peach twig bore and coddling moths from breeding, offering cheap and eco-friendly protection to orchards and fields. But farmers aren't the only ones to benefit from the program's work...

Rick Roush: "The website is heavily used. Often not by farmers but by urban dwellers who are looking for things to do to control ants, or other pests they might have around the home and garden. And we get some 17,000 hits a day."

Agricultural research often has unintended consequences. A perfect example is the development of the tomato harvester in the 1960s. Before the agricultural engineers at UC Davis could employ their invention, they needed to tap the skills of the University's plant breeders and geneticists.

Neal Van Alfen: "They needed to develop a tomato variety that would ripen all at the same time, then to develop a tomato that also could withstand harvesting by mechanically. It's ironic because it became kind of a poster child for all that was wrong with agricultural research: taking away jobs from laborers. If you look back on it now, it really was far ahead of its time, because the issues today in farm labor are the ergonomics, the issues of how do we protect the health of the farm worker. And this of course is a tremendous success story."

 

Only time will tell what the next great innovation in agriculture will be. But change is inevitable -- and to be successful tomorrow, the next generation of farmers must start adapting today...

 

Bernell Harlan, Owner, Harlan & Dumars, Inc.: "A lot of times I've seen years when you did everything right…and everything turned out wrong. And thank goodness those years don't come along that often."

The Harlan Family has seen its share of good times and bad over the last six generations. Bernell Harlan's great-grandfather built this house and ranch in the mid 1800s. From keeping the ranch afloat after the Depression, to expanding the operation in the 1950s Bernell Harlan credits his late father, Bernell Sr., with keeping this tomato farm successful for so many years. If it wasn't for this legacy, Bernell doubts he could be farming today.

Bernell Harlan: "Farming is awfully hard to get into. I mean, if the farm isn't given to you or if you don't have an enormous amount of capital, it's just almost impossible to get into farming."

The torch was passed from generation to generation, and now this farmer has handed it off once more to his son Blake.

Bernell Harlan: "My son -- he's the best farmer we've had. He just seems to do everything right. He does have better equipment, but he shows very judgment and that's an important aspect."

While Bernell works on the equipment, Blake manages the business. He says the role of the farmer is much more complicated in today's society, and he's grateful his son has the know-how to compete.

Bernell Harlan: "He has a degree in business and, you know, that is such an advantage to what I had."

The Harlan family ranch sits on 5,000 acres in Yolo County. Keeping it running is no easy task in the face of foreign competition and regulatory constraints imposed on growers.

Blake Harlan, Owner, Harlan & Dumars, Inc.: "There's a lot of countries that can produce cheaply -- namely with cheaper labor and some of the other cheaper land. And for us to be able to compete against those countries is a challenge.

Understanding the crops isn't enough anymore. The 21st century farmer needs to be a jack of many trades.

Blake Harlan: "We need to do a better job all the time of proving to people that we have the expertise and knowledge to be good stewards and produce the safest food there is."

Today, marketing skills are required, along with an understanding of the global marketplace and the latest scientific research.

Blake Harlan: "Two percent or less of the population is engaged in agriculture directly, and it's a tough case to make that people need to buy domestic products as compared to imports."

As Harlan sees it, his role -- and the role of all farmers -- is to bridge the gap between the agricultural community and the rest of the population.

Blake Harlan: "This business is simply marketing, and we need to market our crops and get a fair return for us. And that's going to determine whether we're successful in the future or not."

Controlling costs is essential, and the Harlans accomplish this in part by mechanizing their operation to reduce labor costs. Work that used to take a crew of 20 now requires only four sorters.

Bernell Harlan: "The machinery is much better but the margins are so small now that all you need is a bad year and it can actually put you under. And there's quite a few farmers in our area that have just elected to stop."

But after 150 years, the Harlan clan say they're in the farming business for the long haul. But for many farmers, the temptation to sell their land for urban development is hard to resist as the land becomes more valuable than the crops grown on it.

John Gamper, Director of Taxation and Land Use, CA Farm Bureau: "I think over the next 10 to 20 years we're going to see tens of thousands of acres come out of production, going into urbanization."

John Gamper is the Director of Taxation and Land Use with the California Farm Bureau Federation. He says right now the state is in its fifth year of a deep agricultural recession. Many farmers are losing money, and barely hanging on.

John Gamper: "We need more efficient use of our land resources, smarter growth policies, and again encouraging tax policies and other policies by California that can make California agriculture more profitable."

Fortunately, the location of the Harlan ranch is far enough away from the cities of Davis and Woodland that they don't yet feel threatened by urban encroachment.

Blake Harlan: "I think it's years to come, and I hope I'm not faced with that. It's a big problem. statewide."

But what is affecting this farmer and father of three are the day-to-day challenges it takes to stay on top of this ever-changing business.

Blake Harlan: "It's a very, very constantly changing business and the business that I'm in today is… You know we're still selling those basic products -- but we're doing it unlike we've ever done it before."

 

Just as generations change, so do farming techniques and approaches. One marginal facet of the industry in the 1990s is turning into a cash cow...

 

Brian Leahy, President, CA Certified Organic Farmers: "The first year I grew organic, the local newspaper said it was a Communist conspiracy to overthrow the American food chain. And it was a joke for the rest of ag. And now many of the largest agricultural producers in the world, in California, have organic production."

The movement that was once seen by some as a plot by the "Red Menace" is now one of the fastest growing segments in the U.S. agricultural complex. In the 90s, organic acreage doubled, and California was among the top organic-producing states.

Once seen as a movement driven by the ecology and operated on small farms, recent gains in the organic community now show a trend driven by profits.

The Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education Program at UC Davis provides leadership and support for farmers, researchers, educators, and other ag related agencies in California. They've been tracking the growth of organic ag since 1987.

Sean Swezey, Director of SAREP: "The year SAREP was established, the organic farming industry, its total retail sales were in the neighborhood of possibly $70 to $80 million nationally. Those sales today are $14 billion. We have had literally, in the last 10 years, an increase of 20% per year in the growth of the sales of organic commodities to the consumer."

Often when we hear the term "organic," we think "row crop." But one of the fastest growing facets of the organic community is dairy. A Time magazine report points to a national increase in dairy cows from 13,000 to 49,000 between 1999 and 2001. Riding this upward trend is Fresno dairyman Mark McAfee, manager of Organic Pastures Dairy Company.

Mark McAfee: "It's not about making massive amounts of production at low prices. It's about what's good for the cow, what's good for the environment, what's good for the farmer, what's good for the consumers -- and in our case, what is nutritionally correct. So it's an entirely different philosophy."

Mark McAfee: "Conventional dairy systems need all the support we can give them. It's a tough time right now, and we support all California farmers 100%. But the difficulty they have is the fact that they put a product together -- a wonderful product together -- and they send it off in a truck and they never have contact with the consumers, ever. And they are isolated from that brand identification, that ability to interact and have the consumers love them, and care for them, and have a relationship with the consumer."

McAfee points to his role as a certified organic dairyman as a major benefit to his success, emphasizing the added nutritional values of his products not seen in conventional dairy products.

Mark McAfee: "This is raw milk. It's not any way, shape, or form processed. It's never pasteurized, never homogenized, never touched by man. It's just chilled immediately, filtered through a cotton filter, and put into a glass bottle. It's always kept cold so it doesn't break the cold chain."

Mark McAfee: "It's the only commercially raw, fresh, unprocessed butter available in the United States today, which is kind of interesting. As you can see, a beautiful yellow color, and that comes from the carotene, the Vitamin A, and all the stuff that comes from green grass pasture versus grain- or dry-fed cows."

This is where McAfee has focused his interests as an organic dairyman: his 400 acres of pasture. It's still dark when his cows start cueing up for the first of two milkings of the day.

And this is McAfee's innovative pride and joy: a mobile milking barn. It goes to where the cows are, and milking time is the only time his stock is off the pasture. The rest of the time, they graze.

Mark McAfee: "Instead of having the cows go to a barn, the barn goes to the cows. And by doing so, we were able to avoid a lot of the regulations and permit process for wastewater management, and for confinement facility management, and lagoons, and all that kind of stuff in California."

Sean Swezey: "There are two factors that seem to be influencing the rise in the consumption of organic commodities. One: environmental friendliness, but also the benignness of the product to the consumer, and the perceived increase in the value, the quality, or the health values of the commodity."

Some major retailers have taken notice of the ballooning popularity of the "organic" brand, and are now adding their own organic products into the mix. This creates some sticking points in terms of philosophical approach.

Sean Swezey: "The organic community is struggling with the issue of the 'massification' of retail markets, and this is going to be an ongoing struggle in terms of the commitment to the organic ideal and the organic philosophy versus practice-oriented types of operations. They must have a similar standard. They have the same rule, and then the marketing strategies and the niche strategies of the different commitments to that. The principles and the philosophies can vary, depending upon on your market."

Brian Leahy: "All of agriculture has been a history of new innovations that the early adapters tend to make some money, and then everyone else climbs on board and that advantage disappears."

But Mark McAfee sees organic pastures and his "mobile milker" as much more than just innovation -- and says it takes a lot more than just innovation to make a go of organic farming.

Mark McAfee: "Organic farmers, you have to find your own way. It's based on your soil types, your water availability, your micro-niche system, your climate, your environment, your market. You have to create it yourself. That makes the farmer an integral part of the value of his product. I see the future as a good thing. I see it as, the fit will survive; it will be competitive. And so it is an exciting opportunity, and that is why you see it growing."

 

Innovation and creativity seem to be the key elements in the agricultural future of the Central Valley. And the creative focus seems to be taking some interesting and environmentally important turns...

 

Steve Bash of Fair Oaks hasn't been to a gas station since 1999 and that's because he had what he described as an "epiphany" at the pump.

Steve Bash, Biodiesel Enthusiast: "I was looking at the pump one day, and I saw this MTBE sign telling me about the toxins. And rather than go into the usual blaming other people mode that I might have gone into, I thought, 'What can I do about it?'"

And what Bash did was radical. He stopped using gasoline altogether. He feeds his automobiles with something called biodiesel. It's a clean-burning, renewable fuel produced from any vegetable oil crop like sunflowers. And if you get stuck in traffic behind him, you'll smell French fries instead of exhaust.

Steve Bash: "I'd heard about this guy who wrote this book called From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, and I learned how to make biodiesel fuel."

"This has been going for about 15 or 20 minutes…"

As you see in Bash's home video, he concocts a brew in his own garage.

"It's now stirring. The vegetable oil is now stirring…"

Bash collects discarded vegetable oil from fast-food restaurants and thins it with alcohol to power his diesel engine. And it only works in diesel-powered vehicles. Bash says it costs just 52 cents a gallon -- plus some labor.

Steve Bash: "The biodiesel vehicle has arrived…"

Biodiesel isn't something just anyone can or should create at home. But the idea of switching from fossil fuels, like gasoline, to a variety of cleaner, renewable energy sources is gaining momentum in California, thanks in part to the phase out of the toxic MTBE gasoline additive, and tighter clean air standards.

Neil Koehler is director of the California Renewable Fuels Partnership, a unique coalition of government, agriculture, and environmentalists. Koehler says the renewable fuels are key to the health of the growing Central Valley.

Neil Koehler, Director, CA Renewable Fuels Partnership: "We have obviously a very serious air quality problem, and we have an economic development problem in the Central Valley of California, where farmers are desperate for new economic opportunities."

But some forward-thinking farmers like former Secretary of State Bill Jones, a second-generation Fresno rancher, are turning problems into opportunities. He bought this bankrupt grain storage facility in Madera and plans to turn it into California's first large-scale ethanol production facility.

Bill Jones, Rancher/Former Secretary of State: "Really, what it is, is cooking corn and extracting ethanol, or alcohol. Gasoline is then added to the alcohol to make it ethanol."

It's a fuel that's 30 cents cheaper per gallon than gasoline -- and it helps clear the air.

Bill Jones: "We have the first greenhouse gas reduction bill that's been passed in California last year. Ethanol has been clearly stated to be the best solution to reducing the greenhouse gasses."

And according to one study an ethanol plant will boost the Valley's sagging economy in a number of ways, including:

  1. Providing jobs
  2. Increasing corn prices
  3. And producing a high value feed for the huge dairy industry

Ethanol production is one concept where farmers and some environmental groups, like the Planning and Conservation League, actually see eye-to-eye -- provided several things occur.

Fred Keeley, Executive Director, Planning and Conservation League: "We would like to see the creation of a domestic supply here in California, and we would like to see that those products which are used to convert to ethanol are in fact environmentally sound."

Turning corn into ethanol is one way the agriculture industry is solving environmental problems. Grower John Diener is doing it another way. Like Steve Bash, he's on the biodiesel bandwagon.

John Diener, Farmer: "On our farm, we're using the biodiesel for our diesel-operated vehicles. We have some pick-ups and some tractors, and various stationary engines."

Diener, makes his own fuel right on his San Joaquin Valley farm. He's producing it from crops he grows, such as sunflowers and canola. It's part of a larger project to improve the environment. Diener came up with a system that manages irrigation water on salt-sensitive, high value crops. He then reuses the drainage water to irrigate salt-tolerant crops like canola. Diener says innovation on the farm is a must

John Diener: "My family, being here since 1929, we've had to be inventive and creative to stay in business for that whole time. We want to pass it on to the next generation."

And like rancher, Bill Jones, Diener wants to be part of the solution, rather than the problem. As does Steve Bash, the self-described sustainable energy enthusiast. All three are getting the word out that solutions to the Valley's most serious problems are cropping up in unique ways.

 

As the Central Valley looks forward in terms of our agricultural heritage, it appears that agriculture down the road will have more to do with innovation and creativity than planting and sowing. Farmers are planting crops that produce fuel and improve the environment. They're packaging products that are designed specifically to improve our health. The future of the Central Valley is being handed off to a new generation of farmer who is changing the agricultural landscape.

Next time on New Valley we take stock of our landscape and the assets it provides. Are we paying enough attention to the valuable cultural and historical assets that define us. Has the burgeoning growth in the valley put historic landmarks at risk? Will our cash strapped and politically confused government be able to maintain these important icons of our history and development? Please watch for New Valley: Lost & Found.


For more information about New Valley -- including transcripts, expanded interviews, and more -- log onto our website at newvalley.org. We welcome your comments and questions about our series. Send e-mail to newvalley@kvie.org.

To order a copy of this program for $14.95 plus shipping and handling, call (888) 814-3923. Or visit us online at www.newvalley.org.

 

New Valley is brought to you by Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo: the next stage.

We respect and protect our region's natural beauty and precious resources through responsible community planning and development. We are Del Webb: the nation's leading developer of resort-lifestyle communities, and home to more than 11,000 active adults in Northern California.

New Valley is also made possible in part by the Great Valley Center.