Opinion: Keeping California farmers on a roll

Next Tuesday I’ll be back in action defending my championship in the California Rice Commission’s Annual Capitol Roller Competition. I’ll join two of my colleagues, Senators Anthony Cannella and Michael J. Rubio, on stage to find out who in the Legislature is the best sushi roller. The winner gets a framed samurai sword. Last year my co-champion, Susan Kennedy, won custody of the sword but this year, I aim to win it.

It’s a fun event and I hope the Capitol Roller Competition draws attention to one of the most valuable industries in this state – agriculture.  I am honored to serve on the California State Assembly Committee on Agriculture, and have learned a lot about the importance of our family farmers and ranchers. The more I learn about this subject, the more my appreciation grows for the families that keep our supermarkets well stocked.

In this challenging economic time in our state, it is especially important to remember that California has had the distinction of being the number one producer of food, fiber and flowers for more than 50 consecutive years.  With our Mediterranean climate, California is truly the land of milk and honey – and hundreds of other agricultural commodities.  The diversity and vitality of California farming is a marvel that benefits all.

It has been a pleasure for me to champion a number of key issues to help our farmers.  Last year, I authored AB 1960 “California Grown,” to require public agencies to purchase fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in our state.  In 2008, I authored AB 606, to create the California Blueberry Commission which was subsequently signed into law.  I was thrilled to earn the “Cornucopia” Award from California Women for Agriculture and recently spoke at the first inaugural Ag Summit. I am also urging Congress to defer the estate tax specifically for family-owned farms and ranches.

I have toured a variety of farms, to get a firsthand look at our amazing agricultural diversity, which includes more than 400 commodities.  My stops have included the Sacramento Valley, where more than 95 percent of the state’s rice crop is grown. Having visited a rice farm and mill, I learned about how California rice farmers not only account for thousands of jobs and America’s sushi rice, their fields also provide unparalleled habitat for 230 wildlife species.  Sacramento Valley ricelands provide nearly 60 percent of the winter food for 7 to 10 million migrating geese and ducks. With much of our natural wetlands gone, the value of California rice fields and adjacent wetlands to wildlife is staggering.  This benefit to the state is essentially free, as long as our rice farmers remain viable.

This event is an excellent way for us to recognize the contributions of the rice industry to the state’s economy as well. Rice has been an important part of California’s cultural history, having helped to feed thousands of Asian immigrants during the gold rush. Currently, California’s 2,500 family rice farmers produce more than four billion pounds of rice a year, which is not only enjoyed locally in such dishes as sushi, rice bowls, risotto and paella, it’s also in demand in Japan, South Korea, Turkey and many other overseas destinations. About half of the California rice crop is exported and rice was our state’s second most valuable agricultural export in 2009, making this a commodity that has an annual economic impact exceeding $1 billion.

For the sake of our farmers, consumers and the economy, I will continue to do what I can to support those in agriculture.

As we try to move California toward a more prosperous economy, I urge my fellow Legislators to seek out ways to give our farmers and ranchers the best chance to succeed.  As for consumers, the more they learn about where their food comes from, the better they can keep their diets fresh and local, sustaining a vital part of what makes California great – agriculture.

I hope that serves as food for thought the next time you enjoy a plate of sushi.

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