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Agriculture's Challenge: Getting Most Out of Less Land : THELMA MOSES

February 01, 1988

\o7 In many ways, Thelma Moses typifies urban Orange County: she's young, college-educated, smartly dressed and career-oriented.

But there is one fundamental difference. Urban Orange County is dedicated to growth and land development. Moses, who grew up in Orange County and has never lived on a farm, is dedicated to agriculture.

Since graduating from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in 1983 with a degree in agricultural education, Moses, now 27, has been manager of the Orange County Farm Bureau.

Her office, tucked away in a corner office in a small commercial building near downtown Santa Ana, is devoid of farm mementos--no paintings of big red barns on the wall, no scythes or plowshares leaning in the corners.

But her desk is full of paper work relating to farming and farming causes.

As farm bureau chief, the Fullerton native--whose grandparents grew walnuts in Orange County, citrus in Riverside and, finally, avocados in San Diego County--is the chief voice of agriculture here.

She is political lobbyist, public affairs officer and publicist for Orange County's farmers, ranchers, orchardists and nurserymen. The bureau, Moses says, has about 400 members, representing about 70% of the farmers in the county. In all, about 600 growers and ranchers work some 62,000 of Orange County's 500,000 acres of land.

The Farm Bureau, founded in 1919, has been grappling with change for more than two decades in Orange County.

And the local farm community has given a good account of itself, maintaining agriculture as one of the major industries in the county--nearly $260 million in gross sales last year--even as its ranks continually shrink.

In this recent interview with Times staff writer John O'Dell, Moses discusses the problems, the triumphs, the past and the future of agriculture in Orange County.

Q: What does a farm bureau do in a rapidly urbanizing county like this?

A: We do a lot of public relations. We try to educate people that there still is a great deal of agriculture left in the county despite the fact that it is not highly visible anymore.

Farmers typically are thought of as the guy on the tractor. In Orange County, certainly there are those who do the tractor thing, but we've changed the face of agriculture here. We are more land-intensive and more labor-intensive than elsewhere. We get a lot more out of the ground than we used to.

Q: What is the bureau involved in right now?

A: The labor situation.

Q: Are you are referring to the recent changes in federal immigration law? How will that affect farmers?

A: I think that there will be probably a crunch for labor once the strawberry season really gets under way. Right now there's not too much of one because there aren't huge crews out in the fields every day. But I think come March, April, May, there will be a push to get workers, and I think it's going to be a difficult thing.

Q: Can't farmers find help in the absence of undocumented workers?

A: In about 1982, the Immigration and Naturalization Service decided it was going to clean house in Orange County. INS agents swept all the fields, took all the illegals out and said, "Hey! There are plenty of people in Orange County who need work, and you growers have to stop hiring people that are taking away jobs from our folks. Hire these Americans who need work." And the growers said "OK, we'll do that." I guess the INS helped get people to go out and work in the fields, but after one day, most of them said, "Listen, I'm not going to do that--I'm going to go back to the streets and I'm not going to do that."

Q: Why?

A: It's very hard work, and that's not to say that you're taking advantage of Mexican nationals. They are willing to work and they're not ashamed to work, and work hard. But we have gotten to where we're very soft, and we don't want to work for our money, thank you. So you can't expect--it's sad--but you can't expect regular old American people to work for their money if they really have to work for it.

Q: You were talking about the situation in 1982. Is that still true today?

A: Oh, yeah. You couldn't pay me enough to go out and pick strawberries.

Q: But then you don't need to. Are there still ongoing efforts to recruit from the legal work force?

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