Wouldn’t it be great to discover a new crop for California farmers that already had significant consumer demand? It would be even better of such a crop could be produced with virtually no inputs and no additional acreage or water. But why stop there? What if the new crop was impervious to all types of weather and needed no infrastructure beyond what most farms already have in place? What if the next generation of farm kids, or young adults aspiring to agriculture were already well-versed in its cultural practices? All this would seem too good to be true. This crop not only exists; it is being produced every day on every farm in California.
The crop I’m speaking of isn’t a fruit or vegetable; it’s neither food nor fiber. It is a story. A true story. The story of what it takes to make California agriculture work day after day and year after year. The general public has a hunger for understanding agriculture. Not all of them, of course. But enough to make books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and movies like Food, Inc. into blockbusters. California agriculture is perhaps the most productive, yet most complex, agricultural economy in history. No single individual can claim to grasp it in its entirety, and it is decidedly different from the bulk of American agricultural production in the Midwest. Yet this huge network of farms and ranches is not well understood by consumers or policymakers. Who will feed their hunger for the story?
The opportunity is there for California farmers to meet this market demand, just as we would for any other crop. There are more ways to meet this demand than ever before. Websites, blogs, and social media all offer a distribution channel for getting our story to market. Farmers who sell directly to consumers have the most potential to gain, but everybody sells to somebody. Food service buyers like to be able to highlight their sources, and chefs absolutely love it. Knowing the story of a farm can help ease tension along the urban-rural boundaries, or create goodwill with local officials or regulators. The demand is there and the market is ours of we want it.
Consumers want our story, and like produce, that story is at its best when it is when it is freshest. But there are plenty of “story-products” out there; processed according to the tastes of particular market segments, packaged in a city far from the fields and orchards where they originate. These might be more palatable or easily digested by certain consumers, or enriched with ingredients that somebody else thinks they ought to have. Maybe they’re just packaged really well. Farm fresh stories might not always be as pretty, but they will always be tastier than press releases and policy papers. We can get it to market fresh, or somebody else will get it to them processed.
The choice is simple. Someone will write the story of California agriculture. I’ll write my chapter.