The spotlight was on local agriculture last week, with a visit from a powerful member of Congress to hear what local growers have on their minds, and a forum at which farmers got together to discuss the future of agriculture on the Central Coast.

The first session was sponsored by South County Democrat Rep. Salud Carbajal, bringing along Minnesota’s Rep. Collin Peterson, head of an important ag committee in the House.

The major topic revolved around the next farm bill, which is scheduled to kick in after the current legislation expires next September. There was a large group gathered in Santa Maria to discuss the future, but unfortunately Peterson couldn’t offer much encouragement, in part because of funding uncertainties caused by the general dysfunction these days in Washington.

Those who spoke at the meeting were primarily concerned about foreign competition, and the government regulatory, legal strings that prevent domestic products from being truly competitive in world markets.

Grape growers also spoke of the need for federal help in developing drought-resistant crops. Grape production is a major issue for North County, because local wines are gaining a superior reputation in global markets once dominated by European producers.

Also discussed were recent disasters, including years of drought, catastrophic wildfires, followed by devastating mudslides — all of which profoundly affected local growers, costing them tens of millions in crop losses.

The issue of the Endangered Species Act hurting local agriculture came up, but Rep. Peterson wasn’t optimistic about solving that problem, pointing out that the federal government doesn’t have any “extra money” in the budget — assuming Congress can agree on something long enough to produce a budget.

Another meeting at the Fairpark drew a large crowd as well, and for some it was a first opportunity to discuss common problems at a meeting that didn’t involve regulators or a contentious issue.

As one might expect, the legalization of marijuana use by adults in California was a major topic, one made even more significant by the fact that Santa Barbara County is second only to Humboldt County with regard to the number marijuana grow licenses issued.

It seems a certainty that the marijuana business will be huge in this area, and something the ag community must get its collective head around.

One thing the marijuana growers may contribute is the technology of growing things differently. One expert explained indoor growing using light tubes, which can accelerate grow times by 20-30 percent. Farmers looking for ways to improve efficiency — thus enhancing profitability — should take notice.

The takeaway from the forum and the congressman’s visit seems to be that growers on the Central Coast must focus on the future. Given the nature of foreign competition and what appear to be efforts to decentralize the federal government’s fundamental structure, it’s apparent agriculture methods have to change.

Actually, local growers have proved themselves reasonably skillful at adapting to change. They have to, thanks to a litany of natural disasters, a regulator labyrinth and ever-changing local, regional, state, nation and international markets.

One local example is the meteoric rise in the grape and wineries industry in mid-county. Wine region folks seem to be adapting to the changes, and are working together — for the most part — to iron out disagreements about what will happen, where and when.

This is important, because agriculture is not only an integral part of our heritage, it is the leading industry on the Central Coast — and without a flourishing ag community, billions of dollars would disappear from our economy.

We’re pretty sure folks around here understand that.


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