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Fewer farmers fighting to survive
Percentage of farmers in the American labor force today is about 1 percent, a figure that has shrunk since the 19th century:
• 1900: 38 percent
• 1920: 27 percent
• 1940: 18 percent
• 1960: 8 percent
• 1980: 3 percent
• 2000: 2 percent
Farmers, who deal with issues involving endangered species, may feel like one.
As the number of people who work in agriculture declines, fewer state and federal lawmakers understand farmers and represent them, said Sutter County almond grower Mat Conant.
"Pretty soon we'll be such a small minority nobody will listen to us," Conant said.
Agriculture needs to be preserved and protected, he added, but even now with about 1 percent of the population nationwide in farming, it can feel like "there's too few of us to argue the point."
Congressman John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, who will represent a redrawn district that includes Yuba and Sutter counties, said he remembers as a state lawmaker when people in agriculture represented the Central Valley.
"Almost all of us in the 1980s were in agriculture," he said, "in one way or another."
Fewer representatives with roots in farming affects this region, said Kulwant Johl of Yuba County, who grows peaches, prunes and walnuts.
"When most of them don't know about agriculture," Johl said, "they cannot make the right decisions."
Still, he said, some lawmakers successfully learn the subject even though they're from cities. Before Sen. Dianne Feinstein went from San Francisco to Washington, DC, she didn't know anything about agriculture, Johl recounted. Now she wins endorsement from the California Farm Bureau and has provided a key voice in such issues as water for farmers in the state.
"She is able to work with us," said walnut grower Conant. "She's learned."
Jeff Magill, an ag teacher at Wheatland High School who has taught the subject for 31 years, learned the difference lawmakers can make in Sacramento when Doug LaMalfa and Jim Nielsen helped keep ag programs in schools.
The representatives of the big California cities, Magill added, aren't necessarily hostile to farming and ranching.
"I don't think they're anti-agriculture," the Wheatland teacher said. "They just don't understand it."
Christopher Greer, director of the University of California Cooperative Extension for Yuba and Sutter counties, said lawmakers who understand ag can help educate other representatives. LaMalfa as a state lawmaker did that when he invited the representative of an urban area to visit his ranch, Greer said.
That experience is easier to undertake in the Legislature than in Congress, he added.
"You can go to Washington, DC, and talk about agriculture," Greer recounted. "But it doesn't have the same impact if you practically experience it."
Lawmakers, like the people they represent, can be lulled into believing that America will always benefit from food costs significantly lower than in Europe, he added.
"Everyone gets a little complacent," said Greer, who works as a cooperative extension adviser. "We expect food to be available at a fairly reasonable price."
Magill said costs and prices are a constant for growers.
"Farmers have to make a living," he said. "They're looking at their checkbooks every day."
Their diminishing numbers mean the growers remaining can do well.
"They're fewer farmers every day," he noted. "If you're good, then you're really good."
For Mark Biddlecomb, director of Ducks Unlimited for the organization's western region, legislation affecting agriculture and conservation is a key concern.
"I can't name names, but there is a lack of general understanding about how the natural world works," Biddlecomb said.
"Last Child in the Woods," a 2008 book, details the price we pay for what author Richard Louv calls a "nature-deficit disorder" — and Biddlecomb said that problem extends to policy makers.
Garamendi said the Central Valley and other sections of the state will continue in agriculture even as more of California is converted to homes.
"It's been going on for a century and half," he said. "It's not going to change."
Still, he said, "large areas of California will continue to be agriculture."
"People need to eat," the lawmaker said.
And, Garamendi said, "I think there are going to be a whole lot more people."
CONTACT Ryan McCarthy at email@example.com or 749-4780. Find him on Facebook at /ADrmccarthy or on Twitter at @ADrmccarthy.