Thursday, November 17, 2011

Yolo and Solano leaders chart way for ag

Agriculture has been, is and will continue to be king in Yolo and Solano counties, but most people don’t understand that, industry leaders said Wednesday at a joint economic summit.

More than 100 politicians, farmers, professors, bankers and government employees met Wednesday at UC Davis to talk about the challenges facing the region’s $2.5 billion industry and how the two counties could pool their collective might to advance their interests.

Educating people will be key, they said.

“It’s important to dispel the myth that agriculture is a small part of the economy” or that agriculture equals farmers laboring in the field, said Dan Sumner of the UC Agricultural Issues Center, which is housed on the UCD campus.

Agriculture was a $2.5 billion business for the two counties last year, a sum almost evenly divided across a variety of sectors that include farming, processing, administrative support and distribution.

It could be an even bigger part of California’s economy, said Glenda Humiston, state director for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program.

If leaders like the ones at Wednesday’s meeting create a statewide agriculture plan, Humiston said agriculture could add 182,000 jobs in five years. The average worker would make $24 an hour.

More than 14 million workers had jobs in California last month, according to data from the state’s Employment Development Department. That’s up 140,000 since 2011.

Despite misconceptions that all ag jobs are on the farm, 65 percent of the estimated 182,000 uptick would crop up in and around cities, not farms, she added.

“The second you start talking about agriculture, (urban and suburban residents) get this glaze over their eyes,” Humiston said. “They have an image of Ma and Pa Kettle holding a pitchfork somewhere. They don’t get this.”

Farm jobs would increase, sure, she said, but many more would sprout to support the raw products coming off the field, including work in light manufacturing, management, distribution, logistics, packaging and marketing.

“These are not farmworker jobs; these are head-of-household jobs.”

Most of the two counties’ ag jobs are already off the farm, according to data presented by Doug Henton, CEO and chairman of Collaborative Economics.

About 15,500 people work in agriculture in Yolo and Solano. Roughly 3,500 grow crops on the farm while the remaining workers are involved “in all those activities between that farm and that fork,” Henton said.

There are many links in the food supply chain, Humiston said, warning the leaders not to fixate on a single link. That’s what Sonoma County did when it homed in on creating a central cold storage where farmers could store their wares and restaurants could come to pick it up.

But that’s only a speck in a complex game of connect-the-dots, she continued. “How is that food getting to the aggregation hub? What will it do once it’s there? You going to put it in boxes? Wash it? Where is it going? Who’s the customer?

“We’ve got to recognize these food systems we’re talking about are very, very complex,” she said. “It’s not simply an aggregation hub.”

Next steps include promoting agriculture, figuring out way to fill in gaps in the food supply chain, like processing plants, and redoubling efforts to preserve ag land.

Yolo County Supervisors Don Saylor and Duane Chamberlain plan to serve as emissaries to the Solano County Board of Supervisors by presenting Wednesday’s action plan. Solano County Supervisor Mike Reagan will do the same in Yolo.

“The counties have been working together without regard to artificial, manmade political boundaries for forever,” Reagan said. There’s a lot more work we can do to take advantage of the tremendous potential we have in this area.”

— Reach Jonathan Edwards at or (530) 747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @jon__edwards