Putting a Wider Focus on Agriculture

Here in the Good Food Movement, we often find ourselves amidst others with similar backgrounds and interests. It can feel like a bubble, hard to remember the wider reality of what it is we are fighting for and against. We can also get sidetracked into singular mentalities simply due to the complex, multi-layered issues that surround our current food system. It’s important to broaden our scope once and awhile, to expose ourselves to perhaps the very opposite of what we immerse ourselves in on a day-to-day basis.

One example is Focus Agriculture, put on by the Agri-Culture organization, a non-profit offshoot of the Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau. This unique “first-in-the-nation” educational program targets business professionals and community leaders, providing a thorough and in-depth look at the multi-faceted arena that is agriculture.

Agri-Culture strives to bridge the divide between rural and urban areas, recognizing that most policy about our farmland happens in cities, away from the people and places that should have the most input about those environmental decisions. The Farm Bureau noticed that most of the decision makers with agriculture didn’t actually have a thorough understanding of the industry. To address the abstract nature of this issue, the Focus Agriculture program was developed in 1989 and is now in its 22nd year.

Each year, a handful of applicants out of a large pool are selected to participate in the class. If chosen, they receive a grant of $1,500 towards the $2,000 tuition and if they achieve perfect attendance during the nine, daylong sessions, $100 is refunded. This must be one of the cheapest educational deals around (the math would be $44 per session) considering the scope of information that is acquired over the course of almost a year.

Over nine months, direct hands-on learning coupled with lectures and seminars are offered on a wide range of topics. Farm tours, Production and Labor, Ethnic Groups in Agriculture, Environment and Technology, Government Relations and Politics, Regional Diversity of Commodities Produced and Marketing and Foreign Competition are some of the themes addressed during the year. Agri-Culture’s Celeste Din says that much of the curriculum stays the same from year to year, and many of the presenters and participating community organizations have been a part of the program since the beginning. However, due to the ever-changing nature of environmental issues and contemporary food policy, the program works at maintaining relevant content to today’s world.

The 21 participants of the 2011 class illustrate the diverse audience this program serves. A bank manager, a photography teacher, a senior finance analyst, a county planning director, mixed in with someone from CCOF and the Land Trust. In the past, they have had state senators, mayors and various politicians mixed in as well. Agri-Culture’s Board of Directors purposefully chooses applicants to create a varied class, one or two people that are directly involved in agriculture, but the rest to represent parts of the public that don’t know that much about the industry. It seems like a great opportunity for sharing ideas and learning from each other’s contrasting experiences and professions.

John Fisher, Program Director of the Life Lab Science Program, is a graduate of the 2001 Focus Ag class. That year, he went to a lumber mill, an abalone farm, UCSC’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, Driscoll Berry Farm, a packing plant for paper and containers, Quail Mountain Herbs, a rose breeding company, a small organic apple farm and heard from a variety of winemakers. He also shadowed the owner of a gigantic strawberry farm for the one-on-one portion of the program, kind of like a ride-along in the world of agriculture. “When I walked in there were like six people on the phone in this office striking berry deals, just like being a trader but their commodity was strawberries. It was cutthroat, total wheeling and dealing,” he remembered in fascination.

Here in Santa Cruz County, we are used to seeing an abundance of small, organic farms. The waiting list to get into a farmer’s market is literally years long, and you can basically throw a rock in any direction and hit a farmer of some sort no matter where you happen to be. But the South County is less transparent, ironic since it represents the “salad bowl” of the world. The strawberries grown in this region are shipped around the globe, a multi-million dollar industry that hardly equates with the typical identity of a Santa Cruz “farm.” But the fact that this gigantic diversity of scale exists here is exactly what Focus Ag is all about. The program truly presents every model, discussing the bigger economies of agriculture in a way that many of the participants would have never comprehended before.

And so it might be challenging for a hardcore environmentalist to sit through a lecture from the Agriculture Commissioner discussing the importance of pesticides in our county, it would at the same time be an opportunity to really hear from the other side and know what goes through the minds of those farmers who might be breeding plants on a molecular level instead of hand-digging a trench for heirloom potatoes.

John recalls visiting the berry grower Driscoll and seeing teams of geneticists conducting plant tissue cultures, more a science lab than a farm. But now he knows even more about what is actually going on here. “Focus Ag always showed two sides of every controversial issue. They brought in really conservative organizations along with experts in sustainability. This let us understand the challenges of running an ag business and we learned about the big issues that agriculture faces,” he said.

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