By Professor Randy Ataide
Over the Christmas holidays I read an interesting article by Victor Davis Hanson, a retired professor of the classics at CSU Fresno, a fifth generation raisin farmer in Selma near Fresno, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution with a strong historical proclivity. He is a thoughtful and practical scholar who has not lost touch with the land his Swedish ancestors helped settled in the late 1800’s.
The article is titled “Two Californias” and can be found at http://www.nationalreview.com/articles/255320/two-californias-victor-davis-hanson?page=1 I heard Dr. Hanson on a LA radio station discussing the article, and he is equal parts wistful and insightful.
This is an important piece for those of us in and outside of the business school and community. Tomorrow, the Business & Economic staff (joined by the indubitable Jose Munoz of our MBA program), travels to Selma (the epicenter of Hanson’s article) and then later in the day to Porterville to provide two separate Central Valley economic forecasts for hundreds of farmers, bankers, real estate professionals and residents of the region. What Hanson writes about is the regulatory environment that has overtaken our great state. Driven by the political and demographical realities of the much richer and populous coastal regions, the Central Valley of California, the breadbasket of the world, has been in a “whipsaw” for many years. Let me share a very brief personal illustration of the reality we face in the Valley, having farmed there for many years.
For many years, people dumped their worn out auto tires at the local landfills as general waste at a very low cost. Laying aside the impossibility of tires decomposing naturally, with time these tires would work their way to the surface and just create more problems for the landfill. Alternative industries such as shredders and fuel extractors tried to get involved, spurred often by short-term congressional programs and tax breaks. Massive piles of tires would sprout up throughout the Central Valley, with millions of tires now creating a fire and sanitation hazard. (The refuse, from benign ordinary waste to toxic sludge of the major population centers frequently ends up in the Central Valley. Out of sight, out of mind.)
So what to do with a widely used discarded product required by all citizens, no longer wanted by the municipal landfills? As the price of waste services went up and the restrictions on what could be legally dumped increased, the price of dumping a single tire went from a few cents to a few dollars (as high as $5 or more depending on the size and type of tire). The result, at least where I come from, was predictable: inhabitants of the Central Valley began to dump their tires (and much more) at places other than the authorized dumps. The small llanteras (tire shops) that dot the Valley would undercut the chains and the evil “big box” stores with no used tire fees, and one had to wonder where those piles of tires went that were being piled up behind the shops, homes and corners. (A topic for another day, but if you remove the dreaded “big boxes” from the Central Valley you will see great economic devastation and deprivation; Valley people often don’t have the economic luxury of shopping at Vons or Save Mart, let alone Whole Foods, Henry’s or other sources. They are worried more about affordable milk and toilet paper more so than organic Belgian Endive.)
From personal experience, I know where these tires went all too often. For those of us who own farms in the area, the higher the regulatory burden and fees rose on waste, the reality was that garbage, including tires, car batteries, mattresses, diapers, toys and much more, would appear on our properties overnight. I have friends who awoke to find piles of tires on their ranches. I woke up to the joy of multiple used mattresses and sacks of discarded Christmas toys, with some bags of wet garbage as a bonus. Did I mention pets? I woke up to more puppies and kittens dumped in my driveway over the years, and then I had to deal with the cost of someone else not wanting an unwanted litter. I guess people figure most farms want twenty or thirty dogs to feed.
Who is then responsible for the abuse of the farmer’s property? Of course, it is the farmer. He or she would have to remove the debris because the County agency, if notified, would promptly want to issue a fine to the farmer for an illegal dump. Most of us would promptly clean it up, at our own expense and time sorting through disgusting debris to keep our own properties clean.
The economic realities of the past few years has now only accelerated this problem. While we in the large cities, far from the site of where most of our food and fiber is grown, debate the merits of what in my mind are sometimes dubious environmental benefits at high costs, the reality of the hundreds of thousands of people in the Central Valley grows further apart from what we live in. One more regulation here often means one more violation there. It is like squeezing a hose.
Regulations on business have by many accounts nearly destroyed the existing manufacturing, agricultural and light industrial base of California. While we all need to envision and work towards a sustainable, green and far better future for not only us but our children and grandchildren, my opinion is we should not do this in a way that ruins the present. In my 25 years of farming, I personally experienced a “quiet revolution” in the use of harsh chemicals and pesticides in farming from my father’s generation to mine, done widely but without publicity and fanfare, and these transitions can be done. But Sacramento and a population that views food and fiber production from a idealistic results perspective and not from a production reality is destroying the Central Valley. We are soiling in our own bed.
As an entrepreneur who worked in a sector of agriculture that was devoid of the farm subsidies that many other commodities have, I have long maintained that there are two things that our nation cannot afford to lose to other countries: national security and food. While we can have a discussion that cars, computers, clothes and many other goods and services are fungible goods open to the forces of the free market, when we move our food and security offshore we lose our sovereignty and capacity to exist as a free nation.