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Opinion: Local farms are key to a healthier California

Almost every evening when we gather for dinner, my family enjoys rice with our meal. And while I have driven past rice farms many times, my knowledge about where the food my family eats comes from has been somewhat limited. As a pediatrician, I frequently counsel families about good nutrition, and I understand that too often finding sources of good food can be difficult. As a first-term Assemblymember, I welcomed the opportunity to learn more about where our food comes from and how we can promote policies that would truly improve access to good food for the people of California.

Despite the overall economic downturn, local family farms continue doing what they have done for generations – producing healthy, abundant and affordable food, while contributing to our economy.

This fall, I visited area farms firsthand. A short drive from the state Capitol, the Sacramento Valley is a unique place where the climate and the earth join to create the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

I rode with family farmer Keith Davis as he harvested medium-grain rice with the spectacular Sutter Buttes on the horizon.  I learned that the Sacramento Valley supplies virtually all of America’s sushi rice, and those same rice fields are home to nearly 230 wildlife species.  

California rice not only is the lifeblood of small communities such as Colusa, Biggs and Richvale that dot the valley, family rice farms and mills provide an estimated 25,000 jobs and $1.8 billion to our economy.  Of the nearly five billion pounds of rice grown in the Golden State, a large portion will stay local and be used for rice bowls, sushi, risotto and paella.  In addition, the same local farms and mills also provide large quantities of premium rice to countries including Japan, Taiwan, and Korea and to the Middle East, creating jobs and commerce in our region.

Family farmers are also stewards of their land and passionate environmentalists. Rice farmers have dramatically reduced straw burning, instead flooding their fields after harvest, providing a paradise for millions of migrating birds. In fact, California ricelands provide nearly 60 percent of the food for the 7 to 10 million ducks and geese that migrate along the Pacific Flyway each winter.  Also, by growing rice on heavy clay soils, with laser leveling of fields and shorter stature rice plants that grow more grain and less plant matter, rice farmers have significantly improved their water-use efficiency.

When my children sing nursery rhymes and read books about farms, the image conjured up is of a farmer on his tractor driving up to a rustic barn full of hay and farm animals. However, being a farmer is a high-tech job applying advanced biology, meteorology, and information technology to ensure a safe, reliable food supply that is attractive and desirable. 

I saw rice mills and processing plants using technology similar to what I used in medical research labs to sort individual rice grains and nuts.  Pilots use GPS and precision instruments to drop rice seeds in precise locations in the fields.  Each step of planting, growing, harvesting and processing the food is carefully monitored.

Successful farms are critical to providing good nutrition and health and protecting our environment. Improved nutrition was a major contributor to the increased lifespan of Americans in the last century, but poor nutrition may cause our children’s lifespan to decrease for the first time in our nation’s history.  The Legislature and the state government need to be better partners with farmers and farm workers to facilitate the success of agriculture in California, which provides thousands of jobs and feeds our families.  

I hope my constituents, and all Californians, take a moment to appreciate the people that bring food to our dinner tables.  Working together, we can build a healthier California.


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