There’s a list, kept by the California State Fair Board, of the best farmers in the state. Paul Wenger joins that list March 20 in a ceremony on the Capitol steps in Sacramento.
It’s not exactly a best farmers list. Wenger will be named “Agriculturalist of the Year” for 2018. What’s the difference between a farmer and an agriculturist?
“When you find that definition, send it to me,” Wenger laughed. He prefers the term farmer. And he’s apparently a good one – with the help of wife Deborah and sons Jeff, Jake and Luke. “I’m a farmer. I tell people I’m just a farmer from Modesto. Well, not just a farmer. ... It’s a calling worthy of anybody.”
For the past 20 years, Wenger has been a force in the California Farm Bureau, which he has served as president since 2010. He’s been especially involved in political battles and marketing wars, which means he understands why words like “agriculturalist” come up.
“We’ve gone around about semantics for a long time,” said Wenger. “We do these focus groups and people know what a farmer is, and they like farmers. But they don’t like ‘agriculture.’ It has the connotation of a large, somewhat sterile, big business. But farming is warm and cuddly. You say farmer and they’re thinking about picking strawberries and milking cows. … But as soon as you say agriculture, you lose them.
“It’s a big identity crisis.”
What happens if you mention robotics, drones and telemetrics? Today’s farmers spend more time on computers than they do shaking trees.
“We’re such a minority in society,” Wenger said of farmers. “But we have a big footprint in the landscapes we farm and the water we use. As the largest agricultural economy in the country and the sixth or seventh largest in the world, we’re a very important segment of society. But less than half a percent are actually involved in production agriculture.”
And it’s not just coastal consumers who don’t appreciate farmers. Sometimes farmers aren’t especially fond of other farmers.
“You cannot believe how much time and energy it took when Adam Gray proposed to make the almond the state nut. The walnut and pistachio guys went nuts (ahem) … You wouldn’t believe it. With the drought and everything else coming at us, we’re going to sit here and fight about what the state nut is? Come on guys, there’s room enough for us all.”
That might be Wenger’s Farm Bureau legacy, getting agriculture to speak with a unified voice.
Wenger isn’t the first “agriculturalist” of the year from the region. We’ve been producing the state’s top farmers almost since the list started. John Thurman got the award in 1982 (its second year), followed by Richard Lyng (1986), Clare Berryhill (1987), Henry Voss (1995), Ann Veneman (2003), George Gomes (2005), Bill Lyons Jr. (2010), Bob Gilbert (2011) and Chuck Ahlem (2015).
Friday, in Chico, Wenger delivered a talk titled “Is our Future Inevitable?” – a future too many farmers view darkly; a view Wenger doesn’t share.
“There are a lot of good things going on in California, and we can still be successful farmers. But we’ve got to engage; we’ve got to spend as much time in the political arena as we do in our fields or marketing our products. If we’re going to just sit on the couch and complain, then we’re going to get what we get.”
Wenger still spends little time on his couch. His son Jake reports that Paul’s already claiming bragging rights among Wenger family farmers for time spent on the tractor.
Mike Dunbar is the editor of the Opinions Pages.