FARM BEAT: Local ag has room to grow, chief says

July 26, 2013 

The state's top ag official talked over lunch this week with the Modesto Rotary Club.

Her topic: the importance of lunch — not to mention breakfast and dinner — to the health of people around the world.

Karen Ross, secretary of food and agriculture for Gov. Jerry Brown, noted the growth in California farm exports during her remarks at the DoubleTree Hotel.

She also cited the growing interest among Americans in how their food is produced, something they can learn about at produce stands, farmers markets, festivals and other venues.

"We are in a time and a place when consumers here and across the country are yearning to reconnect with their food," Ross said.

She said agriculture is considered by some to be a "legacy" industry that the state is moving beyond, but nothing could be further from the truth. Gross farm income statewide went from $38.5 billion in 2010 to $43.5 billion in 2011, according to statisticians in her department.

(A few hours earlier, the 2012 figure for Stanislaus County was announced — a record $3.28 billion.)

The secretary talked of efforts by schools to improve the nutritional value of what students eat — and in some cases to source the meals from local farms as much as possible.

She singled out the Manteca Unified School District, where the leadership believes that kids who eat well score well on tests.

The state's farmers can help the estimated 4 million Californians without access to enough healthy food, Ross said. And they can do the same with "the 220,000 new mouths" born each day around the world.

Ross said China now has about 300 million middle-class people — close to the entire U.S. population — and food imports from California are growing fast. She cited almonds, walnuts, dairy products, wine and a few other products.

"When a family has more discretionary income, what do they want to do? They want to feed their family better," she said.

Ross listed challenges for the state's farmers, such as strained water supplies, development threats to farmland and a changing climate. But she also noted its strengths, such as technology, academic institutions and a reputation for consistent quality and safety.

"The desire for California agricultural products is off the charts," Ross said.

She directed the crowd to a new series of videos at www.cdfa.ca.gov that highlight farm products.

Have an idea for the Farm Beat? Contact John Holland at jholland@modbee.com.

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