Santa Barbara County’s annual crop report seems to be paying homage to America’s sweet tooth.

The 2018 report is in and, as always, strawberries remain the regal pinnacle of county crops. The big surprise is that wine grapes nudged broccoli aside to slip into the No. 2 spot overall.

Strawberries and grapes … hmm. Sounds like the makings of a great dessert. Somehow mixing strawberries with broccoli doesn’t have the same appeal.

We’re having a bit of fun with the annual crops report from the county Agricultural Commission, because while agriculture remains the primary engine driving the local economy, and despite some small gains for certain crops, 2018 was not quite as productive as the previous year, crop-wise. The total yield was down just under $75 million year-over-year, or about 5 percent.

Still, a total haul of $1.52 billion is nothing to sneeze at — especially if hay is in the mix.

Agricultural Commissioner Cathleen Fisher offered a logical explanation for the small drop in yield, and it’s something every farming community and every farmer in America knows all too well, “Farming and ranching can be a tough business …” Amen to that.

Fisher went on to say that these are still “exciting times for agriculture," and there continues to be global demand for food, flowers and fiber produced locally. She also said the future looks bright for agriculture.

We see the same brightness, but it does not come without effort and resolve. For example, in the midst of our crop prosperity is the ongoing discussion — or debate, depending on your perspective — about accommodating growers’ need for an adequate labor pool. The federal government’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants is taking a toll on many California businesses, but it can hit growers particularly hard.

The fact is, local growers can have difficulty finding enough able bodies to tend and harvest crops. It’s back-breaking work that most Americans are unwilling to do.

Then there is the discussion of housing for temporary workers, and working within the boundaries of the federal H-2A guest-worker program. There isn’t enough affordable housing here anyway, and stuffing too many farm workers into residential neighborhoods is not sitting well with full-time residents of those neighborhoods.

These are mostly policy issues that need to be resolved at every level of government, starting with the White House and Congress, and like everything else that is gravity-dependent, trickling down through state and local governments.

First, at the federal level, our elected leaders need to decide if they are actually up to the challenge of immigration policy reform. Judging from the current mess at our border with Mexico, the obvious conclusion is that federal immigration policy is fundamentally dysfunctional.

State leaders are doing somewhat better on immigration policies, perhaps driven by the realization that California, with the world’s fifth-largest economy, relies on a labor pool bolstered by undocumented workers.

Local elected officials are also tackling this issue head-on, and new policy is in the works for housing farm workers. The importance of their success is really what the annual crop-yield report is all about — an industry that grosses more than $1.5 billion a year, and with the multiplier effect balloons far beyond that $1.5 billion.

Still, as robust as the local agriculture industry may be, growers are worried, because that’s what farmers do, as they keep one eye on the weather and wildfires, and the other on finding an adequate supply of field workers. And no one is really sure what the cannabis industry brings — or removes from — the table.


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