Agribusiness Management Conference offers insights and forecasts

Agribusiness Management Conference

(November 3, 2016) — Expert presentations on state agriculture, politics, the economy, water policy, sustainability and social responsibility highlighted the 35th annual Agribusiness Management Conference hosted November 2 by the Fresno State Institute of Food and Agriculture.

The one-day conference brought together 300 attendees from business, economic, political and research sectors, as well as Fresno State faculty, staff and students at the downtown DoubleTree Hotel and Conference Center.

Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walters capped the event by detailing the historical relationship between agricultural interests and state politics.

His presentation revisited the initial rise in agriculture’s influence in state politics in the mid- to late-1800s as dams and irrigation canals positioned the industry as a state economic leader. A key example was area cattle rancher Hugh Glenn who initially traveled from St. Louis as an unsuccessful member of the gold rush. He earned notoriety decades later as the ‘Wheat King of California’ as the early agricultural business pioneer built up a massive +40,000-acre farm in the upper Sacramento Valley.

Agricultural interests continued to play a key role through Walters’ start on the state capitol newspaper beat in 1975. He noted that then-newly elected Governor Jerry Brown had to consult and gain approval from agricultural interests before creating a key agricultural labor reform bill. However, state population shifts in the ‘90s affected by the closing of military bases and the influx of immigrants have shifted the current balance of power heavily towards the Democratic Party and new issues and interests.

Walters suggested that agriculture will need to form better coalitions and discover new ways to gain support from state legislators in non-agricultural districts.

Terry Barr, senior director for CoBank’s Knowledge Exchange Division, provided national forecasts that generally predicted limited but relatively stable domestic economic growth. However, international forecasts show less growth prospects among other leading economies due to large debt levels, weak currency values and economic growth cycles and uncertain political election cycles.

He noted that as the dollar has strengthened, it has weakened the United States’ relative trade position and slowed markets for agricultural exports. He also noted that even though the U.S. economy has grown for 34 consecutive cycles, the growth has been subtle and in the 1.5 to 2 percent range each year. With no sign of larger improvements ahead, interest rates may slowly start to climb in upcoming years but likely incrementally at best.

Emily Johannes, director of sustainability for K●Coe Isom, presented how sustainability practices and policies have broadened their scope beyond merely attracting modern consumers. Company sustainability reports can also improve companies’ profitability and budgeting, lower risk, improve information flow, solidify relations in the processing chain, better quantify their economic impact on local economies, and increase employee-company engagement.  

A roundtable entitled “Water and the Future of the San Joaquin Valley” analyzed how the agricultural industry is preparing for new water management reporting regulations and other issues effecting water availability in the public and environmental sectors.

Sarge Green, a California Water Institute program director, covered basics of the State Groundwater Management Plan (SGMA) that will go into effect in many high-priority water management areas such as the San Joaquin Valley in upcoming years. He gave an overview of how area communities are joining into groundwater sustainability agencies before the June 2017 deadline with further coordination later required for further water allocation, management and planning in each area water basin.

Dr. Ellen Hanak, water policy director for the Public Policy Institute of California, spoke on studies detailing how different public sectors share surface water allocations throughout the year. While agriculture plays a major role in the Central Valley economy, it also demands a large share of the state’s public water resources that have to also accommodate municipal and environment needs. She noted the increased use of water-saving microsprinkler irrigation systems have raised concerns about nitrate levels in certain areas and the need for closer nutrition soil management among farmers.

Daniel Merkeley, water resources director for the California Farm Bureau, discussed how changing water policies are effecting the 53,000 member farms and families his organizations represents in the state. He noted that many state legislators didn’t completely understand the ramifications behind the recent SGMA plan they enacted, and CFB is now working with farmers to engage and help them in the compliance process. He suggested that more scientific methods and data need to be applied to the effectiveness of surface water allocations into rivers and the coastal bays to accommodate specific fish populations. He added that state agricultural interests need to better promote the need for new surface water storage facilities to collect rainfall and not rely solely on mountain snowpack melting.

A final roundtable “Social Responsibility Audits: What Do They Mean and Who Benefits” presented successful business leaders discussing how industry is better connecting the industry with government and public entities.

Ruben Rosalez, Western region wage and hour division administrator for the U.S. Department of Labor, talked about how California has fewer wage issue cases than the other states his 200 investigators cover. He noted that there are still occasional violations in the state regarding safe transportation and housing of agricultural workers as well paperwork for piece-cropped, hand-picked operations. He spent five years of his 29 years working in the Fresno area, and understands the many levels of farm workers that have to be coordinated. He concluded that he felt that state’s farmers as a whole understand the importance of food safety.

David Moen, director of produce for Save Mart, discussed how information gathered from product audits confirms the importance of trusted, long-standing vendor relationships that also allow growers to maintain stable workforces and reinvest in communities. His company likes to feature growers in their advertisements, grand openings and sampling expos to better inform their customers about their quality and safe products.

George Radanovich, president of the Fresh Fruit Association and former area U.S. representative, emphasized the importance for farmers and retail outlets to tell the positive side of their relationships with farm workers. He stated that California has the highest levels of agricultural worker benefits compared to other states and confirmed it by the low levels of organized farm labor statewide. He also noted that agricultural interests need to better connect with the policy-creation process so state legislators from non-agricultural areas can better understand the dynamics and needs of the industry and workforce.

Wednesday’s event was the primary annual outreach event for Fresno State’s Institute for Food and Agriculture (IFA), which helps state agribusinesses meet the challenges posed by a changing and increasingly competitive world.

More information on the institute or about the conference is available at http://fresnostate.edu/jcast/cab/.