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California: To Grow On? : An uncertain future beneath the surface of America's finest farmlands

March 16, 1986|Bill Stall | Bill Stall is a Times editorial writer.

Of all the myths about California agriculture, one of the most enduring has been that the state's agribusiness industry was so rich and diverse that it could survive any economic crisis.

There was all that land, a stable climate, rich soil and plenty of water. To the farmer, California was Eden, Paradise and Utopia in one.

Back in the 1860s, the wheat fields in the San Joaquin Valley were so vast that a crew might work all day just to plow to the end of one field. When the export wheat market collapsed in 1894, so did the California wheat industry.

But California farming adjusted. As the prophets knew it would, California developed the richest, most diverse and most sophisticated agricultural system in the world. California farmers set out not only to feed their own state, but the entire nation and the farthest reaches of the globe.

California was different from Iowa, everyone said. It was not routinely visited with the weather disasters that could make or break a whole year's crop and investment. The big corporate farms had the capital to survive depressions. The diversity itself insulated California agribusiness. Maybe one or two crops--or even half a dozen--might fail in one year. But California had 250 crops and the world's most efficient farmers. It could survive anything.

That myth may not now endure. The mid-1980s have demonstrated that California agriculture may be exceptional, but it is not immune from the depression that has wracked the nation's heartland.

California agriculture is, in fact, undergoing wrenching economic change from which it surely will recover, but the endless landscape of row crops and orchards is likely to be altered for years to come.

California has not had the tragic headline stories of sheriff's auctions of farms in the same families for generations; of depressed farmers, unable to make their interest payments, committing suicide. But some experts believe segments of California agriculture face problems just as bad as those in Iowa or Wisconsin--perhaps worse in some areas.

Consider one statistic: California cotton exports totaled $897 million in 1982, but plunged to $625 million in 1984, to an estimated $500 million last year and may fall as low as $350 million this year.

Just a decade ago, China was one of the world's biggest cotton importers. Today it has become an exporter. The Soviet Union and Pakistan have also increased cotton production and Japan is cutting back on its imports.

Of every three acres planted in California, one goes to the export market and is subject to all sorts of pressures beyond control of the farmer and, often, of the U.S. government. Those markets have look to be in decline: California exports soared from $2 billion in 1978 to $4.2 billion in 1981, then fell to $2.8 billion in 1984, to about $2.7 billion last year and an expected $2.6 billion in 1986.

Some think things will improve now. Interest rates have come down. The value of the dollar has dropped so that American exports are more attractive. Fuel is cheaper. Chronic California overproduction may fall to more realistic levels.

Take almonds, for instance. After several disastrous years, California almond sales boomed in 1985 and should do well in 1986, too. Almond growers have faced stiff competition from a variety of sources, including hazelnuts from Turkey. They got $1.54 a pound in 1979, but only 82 cents in 1984. But then the Turkish hazelnut crop failed and California almonds suddenly were in big demand.

Good news? Not entirely. Much of the California crop had already been bought on speculation by West Germans. The speculators, not the farmers, reaped the profits. At least the surplus was reduced. Heavy rains this winter have caused some damage to this year's crop so, if nothing else, farmers do not face the prospect of oversupply. That scenario is a sketchy one on which to build much optimism.

In fact, the optimistic view is limited to selected speciality crops and is by no means a consensus.

One corporate farm official, Tristan E.G. Krogius, president of Tenneco West in Bakersfield, said speciality crops are likely to survive the short-term vagaries of world markets. But commodities like cotton, wheat and rice face long-term, increased competition from Third World countries. More than 2.5 million acres have been planted to cotton, wheat and rice in California. Many such fields will remain fallow this year and the long-range outlook for these commodities is no better than uncertain.

"Any country looking to improve its economy looks first to farming," said Krogius. As they do, traditional California markets disappear.

In the simple old days of farming, a hail storm or a drought or an early freeze destroyed a crop. There was one single obvious source to blame, most likely traceable to the whims of nature. That is not so today, particularly in California.

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