By Luis Alvarado
California is home to the some of the most progressive farmers in the world. Despite enormous odds and pressures – drought; climate change; rising land, gas and energy costs; wildfires; labor shortages; regulatory burdens; relentless attacks from pests and disease – the state’s farmers soldier on, providing fresh fruit, produce and dairy products to the nation.
They are able to do this for a number of reasons. First, they are incredibly hardworking, persistent and hopeful. As Will Rogers once said, “The farmer must be an optimist or he wouldn’t still be a farmer.”
It has also been said that our society has neglected a fundamental truth – a good farmer is a craftsman of the highest order, an artist. More than most people, farmers are intimately in touch with the land, weather and nature; in many respects, they are the original environmentalists because without sustainable practices, they would no longer be able to farm.
While farmers are of these things – hardworking artists and environmentalists, there is more to the story. California farmers are also incredibly inventive and innovative. Historically, California farmers have led the way in water conservation, pesticide reduction, food safety practices and responsible land management. Much of this has come from private and public sector research.
Now, more than ever, California farmers are relying on research to help them and our society continue to thrive in the face of so many daunting obstacles.
To deal with labor shortages, farmers are working to develop robotics and mechanical harvesting. They are using drones to detect and monitor their crops and soil so they can more precisely apply water and pesticides. To ensure food safety, they are employing a wide range of technology to track their crops from farm to the table.
Some of the most exciting areas in agricultural research are centered on precision breeding and vertical farming.
With precision breeding, botanists and other plant scientists are able to select the best aspects and traits of a specific crop and select genes to develop a new plant that can thrive with less water and be more resistant to pests and disease – resulting in a more sustainable crop. Precision breeding is different than genetic modification (GMO) because it simply takes the best traits within specific plant varieties. Rather than trial and error in traditional plant breeding, researchers can more quickly and precisely develop new varietals. This will become especially important as farmers confront the challenges of climate change.
Another exciting area of research is “vertical farming.” Rather than farming open fields, researchers are seeking ways to farm crops on walls and other vertical surfaces.
In addition to reducing threats from soil disease and pests, vertical farming could be a promising way to make small scale agriculture in an urban environment. Imagine farmers being able to grow food in big cities. Not only would it bring fresh and local produce to restaurants and farmers markets, but it also could help make it easier to get healthy food into low-income minority neighborhoods where there are no grocery stores. Vertical farming, still in its infancy, represents a promising new approach to growing food and eliminating urban “food deserts.” We should remember that the key to continued growth of this type of new innovative farming technique will be through the use of technology developed within this state.
It is encouraging that California farmers and university researchers are exploring ways to ensure a growing urban population – regardless of ethnicity or socio-economic status – will continue to enjoy the freshest, safest and most nutritious food on the planet.
Luis Alvarado is President of Familias Unidas de California. This organization provides awareness and seeks to improve wellness in the Latino community, by focusing on issues of poverty, immigration reform, health care, and quality education.