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Labor, climate, regulation pose ag challenges

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. —  A field of romaine lettuce in the Salinas Valley in California. On the left is a row that hasn’t been picked yet, and on the right is one that has been picked and shows the amount left on the ground because it’s “ugly.” (Courtesy of DionS)

In the introduction to the Statistics Bulletin from the NM Department of Agriculture, Secretary Jeff Witte wrote, “As we enjoy our meals, it is hard to recognize the toil and stress that went into growing the bounty before us. We thank you, the farmers and ranchers, for what you provide and appreciate the hard work involved in filling society’s plate.”

When I read this I audibly added in my own “amen.”

Deena Crawley

I am not an expert on agriculture. However, I work downstream at Dion’s and have seen the forces working against this crucial component of the economy. Obstacles in labor, the environment and regulation are colliding, and the outcome may have a profound impact on anyone who eats.

Labor

Agriculture is not a field to which young people are flocking. According to the USDA, 69% of farmers and ranchers in NM are 55 or older, and 6,070 are 75+. That is about three times more “senior” farmers in the state than young Dion’s employees in yellow shirts.

The difficult work involved in the profession, high start-up costs, low margins, and high risk make it a tough sell.

According to the Farm Bureau, “The world’s farmers will have to grow about 70% more food than what is now produced” due to a rapidly increasing population. Society needs young people entering the field to meet the demand.

Environment

On the environment front, droughts, fires and viruses deliver surprises every season. Take the Salinas Valley River Fire as an example. The area is known as the nation’s “salad bowl” given that it grows the majority of the country’s greens. In August, a fire dropped ash on the crops, and the smoke prevented crews from harvesting product. This ultimately meant there was not enough supply for the food and retail sectors.

Closer to home, our beloved chile farmers have experienced more than two decades of drought, making irrigation especially challenging. This has led to a decline in acreage from 35,000 in the ’90s to only 8,400 in recent years, according to the executive director of the NM Chile Association.

The specifics on greenhouse gas emissions and the industry’s role in it is polarizing. Though, in general, strategies that support sustainability are a win-win. A frustrating part of the equation is “ugly” food waste. Don Hartman, a local grower notes, “I would estimate as much as 20-30% of edible food is left behind due to cosmetic flaws before ever making it to market, such as scarring on watermelons and onions.” Of course, these are precious resources we cannot reclaim.

Regulation

On Facebook, a user can change their relationship profile to read “it’s complicated” and that is how I describe the industry’s connection to regulation. On one hand, there are strong laws that keep our food and water safe, and assist in managing risk. On the other, there are polices that impact pricing, trade and immigration that make running a farm, and a profitable one at that, difficult.

Water rights are one strong example of complex regulations. The NM Ag Plan states, “New Mexicans own far more water rights on paper than actually exist in the state’s rivers or aquifers. This imbalance creates legal, environmental and economic planning problems. Many of the state’s water rights are not legally adjudicated; this means some water users do not know how much water they can use or sell.”

The challenges above barely scratch the surface in regard to what the agriculture industry is facing.

Fortunately, government agencies, corporations, and non-profits are working to find solutions. I find the “Ag Plan for Resilience in NM Agriculture” compelling if you are inclined to learn more on the state level.

On the federal front, the Department of Interior has a powerful voice. Moving forward, I hope to see solutions steeped in strong collaboration, research, education and execution.

The executive’s desk is a guest column providing advice, commentary or information about resources available to the business community in New Mexico. To submit a column for consideration, email gporter@abqjournal.com.

the executive’s desk

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