Assessing California's opportunity to feed itself
Local Economic Studies
Developing a bold, comprehensive, and actionable vision for a sustainable food system for the future is paramount in order to break through the existing trends in the conventional system. Understanding the current state of California's local food and farm economies is key to creating this sustainable future.
The Vivid Picture project team is currently undertaking a regional economic analysis of California's food and farming communities. This effort is being led by Ken Meter, president of Crossroads Resource Center (www.crcworks.org). CRC is a community-based nonprofit offering research and training tools for neighborhoods, communities and others working toward community self-determination.
Mr. Meter has devoted more than 30 years to studying the local economies of low-income communities in inner cities and rural communities. His economic analysis draws extensively upon the wisdom of those who live and work in the communities he investigates.
In 2001, Mr. Meter published his study, Finding Food in Farm Country. The report provides economic overview of the farm and food economies of Southeast Minnesota, and offers a perspective that is typically overlooked. Most economic studies look only at a single business, a particular economic sector or industry, or a specific consumer market. Mr. Meter's approach is to view the region's economy from the viewpoint of the region itself.
It's a new approach to economics, investigating the big picture from the standpoint of the community level. By looking at publicly available economic information from a community perspective, the analysis works to provide a unique understanding of the state of the region's economic health. This knowledge helps low-income urban and rural communities gain access to tools that they can use to develop and grow their local economies.
For the Vivid Picture project, these studies will assess the economic health of California's regional food economies. The analysis will provide an overview of how the California food and farm economy is functioning; how day-to-day transactions form systems of money flows. Money is both gained and lost in these systems, and the study will show where these gains and losses occur.
Understanding the current state of local economies will help the project team clarify how those economies are working to either add or subtract wealth to each community. This information will also aid in understanding the near- and long-term market opportunities for the future food system.
The goal is to plan for a future where money can cycle through regional economies in a way that builds the continued economic health and prosperity of each region.
Overall, California farmers currently earn $26 billion by selling their farm products. This is $3.2 billion more their costs of production--and farmers also have other sources of income from both farm and off-farm sources. This means California farmers are doing better than their counterparts in many states. Iowa farmers, for example, lost $4.8 billion producing their crops between 1998 and 2002.
Still, although California farmers may be relatively better off, there are some disturbing long-term trends behind these numbers. Farmers enjoyed an even greater surplus in 1969, when production costs were $4.6 billion less than their cash receipts. In the intervening years, although California farms have increased productivity by 150%, their cash receipts have declined, relative to production costs. The state's 87,000 farmers earned $1.4 billion less from farm production in 2002 than in 1969. Moreover, farm income is very unevenly distributed throughout California. While farm production in some counties yields a positive cash flow, others run a deficit.
Mr. Meter is currently analyzing two California "foodsheds" - the greater Sacramento area and Ventura County - that illustrate these regional differences. His research will measure local farm and food economies in each region, showing some of the potential for meeting local food demand from local farms.
According to early results of the analysis done on these two regions, the "foodsheds" around the counties of Sacramento and Ventura tell two very different stories about California's food and farm economy.
Ventura County appears to be one of the state's stronger agricultural economies. Ventura's farmers bring in a fairly good return and receive few subsidies from the government. While the county shows signs of good health in its agricultural sector, rising land prices and the pressures of development threaten the future maintenance of that health.
The Sacramento metropolitan region tells quite a different story. Since 1976, real farm income in the region has fallen steadily from a $300 million surplus to a $100 million deficit. Producing at a loss, the region's farmers rely upon outside sources of income to maintain their operations. Federal subsidies are not enough to make up for the losses farmers incur.
The story of the Sacramento area reflects a trend that Mr. Meter has seen throughout the United States. Regions that are producing subsidized crops are often showing the biggest production losses. Many of these farm communities are stuck in a struggle for survival, where subsidies connected with growing certain crops allow them to continue to farm, but keep them from creating the change necessary to achieve lasting economic health. Debt, fear of foreclosure, or loss of land keep farmers from stepping out of the cycle of growing these subsidized crops for export.
A sustainable food system for the entire state of California will be built upon healthy regional food and farm economies, one in which farmers grow the wealth of the region, and are, in turn, handsomely rewarded by their communities. This future requires that each region understand that the economic health of its food and farming industry directly reflects its own health.
This sustainable system will largely be built upon local food and farming businesses. The Vivid Picture project is asking: How many local businesses does each region need in order to support the overall health of its food system? One aspect of Mr. Meter's work will include identifying measures of this health.
Data from these local economic studies will help shape the Vivid Picture visioning tool, providing each of California's counties a picture of the state of its own regional food and farm economy, as well as tools to grow and support the health of that economy.
The history of regional economic structures within California's food economy has many lessons to teach us. The project team believes that incorporating these lessons into the Vivid Picture will help us move toward a more fruitful future.
Reported by Ali Edwards, Straus Communications