The first farmer was the first man. All historic nobility rests on the possession and use of land. Ralph Waldo Emerson

27 February 2010

The Generosity Of The People Of Gander, Newfoundland

This afternoon I had the wonderful fortune to view--during NBC's Olympics coverage--Tom Brokaw's wonderful story about the generosity of the people of Gander, Newfoundland in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I knew some of this story, but none of the details. Here is the story in a nutshell:

When the FAA realized that America was under attack after the second plane hit the World Trade Center, America's airspace--for the first time in aviation history--was closed. All international flights were re-routed. Some were sent back to Europe or their airport of origin. But some were too far across the Atlantic and did not have sufficient fuel to turn back. Many of those flights were routed to Gander.

Gander is a town of about 10,000 people. Suddenly, with almost no warning, the town was inundated with 7,000 confused, tired, anxious guests. Brokaw's story details the immediate and tremendous outpouring of hospitality, generosity, and friendship from the town's residents to those who had arrived on their doorstep from around the world.

Gander has only enough hotel beds to house 500 people. That meant that thousands were sheltered in the homes of the residents. Stores opened their doors and let people take clothes and food. The two drug stores in town filled travelers' prescriptions free of charge. And the travelers were overwhelmed. There is a segment which sums up the generosity they saw: a local resident tells the guests, who are being transported in a school bus from the airport to the town "whatever you want, whatever you need, just tell us: we will make sure you are taken care of".

The story is truly inspiring. What it shows is that--on one of the darkest days in memory--the worst of a few were countered by the best of many. I just checked the website, but they have not yet posted Brokaw's story. I trust they will soon. If they do, I'll come back and post a link. I commend it to you with great enthusiasm.

25 February 2010

The Glory Season

I've been fortunate enough to have lived in almost every major region of our country--the Midwest, New England, the South, the Northwest, and, of course, the West Coast. And each region has its Glory Season. It's the time of the year when nature's beauty springs forth and it's hard not to notice the extraordinary beauty of God's handiwork.

In New England, that season is Autumn, when the hardwood forests light up in florescent shades of red, orange, and brilliant yellow. You can smell the musty leaves on the forest floor and the wisp of a smoke from someone's fireplace. And when you breathe, you can feel the crisp, cool air all the way to the bottom of your lungs.

In the South, it's the height of Spring, when the azaleas and the dogwoods and the redbuds burst into a panoply of color.  It's the season of The Masters--one of the great events on the annual sports calendar and the official heralding of Spring.

And here in the San Joaquin Valley of California, it's happening right now. From mid-February to the first week of March, the almond and peach orchards are bursting with color. Unlike the occasional dogwood or redbud tree in the South, here you can take a Saturday drive and see hundreds--even thousands--of acres of trees, in row upon row upon row.

Almond blossoms look much like peach blossoms, except that they're white or slightly pink and are more fragrant. It's a singular experience to walk among those rows of almond trees when the bloom is at its peak. You can hear the bees buzzing and each breath is filled with the delicate scent of beauty.

It's an important time for the growers. Those blossoms must be pollinated, because--unlike walnuts and some other tree crops--almonds are not self-pollinators. They rely on bees to pollinate. The bees need a minimum of four good weather days to do their work. That might seem like an easy proposition since we're here in California. But the almond bloom comes during the peak of our rainy season, and if it rains too much, or if it's too cloudy, or if it is too cold, the bees won't work. And without decent pollination weather, the coming crop could be a bust.

California is the world leader in almond production, garnering more than 40% of the total. It's become one of the most important crops in the state. But the industry has its challenges, not the least of which is the water supply. More on that fiasco in a future post. For now, I'm reveling in this most lovely time of the year--our Glory Season.

23 February 2010

Why California Is Exporting Jobs By The Thousands

California is in trouble.  Big trouble.  The Golden State, blessed with eye-popping natural beauty and abundant natural resources--including the richest agricultural valley in the world--is laboring under decades of fiscal mismanagement unlike anything ever seen in the history of our Union.  It has all hit the fan during the past ten years, with problems so intractable that many believe California is ungovernable.

Now many will tell you that all California needs is the repeal of the now-infamous Proposition 13.  What is Proposition 13?  In 1978, a voter initiative was passed by California voters in the form of a constitutional amendment limiting the amount by which property taxes could be levied against Californians to 1% of the cash value of the property.  Proposition 13 sent shock waves across the nation, and initiated a tax revolt in many other states in the years that followed.

Ever since the passage of Proposition 13, progressives in the state have worked diligently to try to overturn the law, which was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1992.  One of the things which absolutely has the progressives tied up in knots is a provision of the law which requires a two-thirds vote of both houses of the state legislature in order to raise tax rates.  The liberals in the legislature--and the state house, for that matter--chafe at this.  They claim that it is only through their ability to 'enhance revenue' through increased taxes that they have any prayer of balancing the state's budget, which is currently running an estimated $20 billion deficit.  But history belies this.  Consider the following:

  • In the ten years from 1998-2008, California's revenue increased by 75%, from $58.6 billion to $102.6 billion.  At the same time, California's expenditures rose by 78%.  By comparison, the Consumer Price index over the same ten-year period increased by just 29%.  Clearly, the state's legislators spent a decade adding lots of new entitlements to its budget--as well as seeing existing entitlements grow much faster than the CPI.
  • The fact that expenditures grew nearly in lock-step with revenues strips bare the liberals' claim that increased tax revenues will bail California out of its fiscal mess.  Liberals can't help themselves.  When new revenues are received, they--like a child with a dollar in his pocket--have to find a way to spend the money.  And the result is an ever-rising budget that burdens the taxpayer.
  • California's debt rating was dropped in July 2009 to BBB, just a step above junk status.  This, of course, increases the cost of borrowing, putting further burdens on California's taxpayers.
So who's to blame for this debacle?  California's last two governors--Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger--have done nothing to get the state's spending under control.  To his credit, the Governator did have a brief dalliance with fiscal responsibility in 2004 when he supported ballot initiatives which would have put a lid on school funding, restricted redistricting through gerrymandering, and limited the size and scope of the state government.  All of these initiatives failed, and Schwarzenegger was roundly pilloried in the press after the election.  He never made a serious attempt at fiscal discipline after that.

But it's not just Davis and Schwarzenegger.

The Democrats have controlled the California legislature since 1974.  During that time, the state's spending has increased by more than eight times.  By contrast, the CPI has increased by a factor of four.  California has been living the dream of the Progressive movement in America.  And thanks to its fantastic universities, its mild climate, its abundant natural beauty, and the rise of Silicon Valley, California businesses thrived through the Eighties and Nineties--thanks to a strong tailwind from the federal government's tax policies.  But fiscal discipline is not a part of the vocabulary of the liberals who control the legislature.  And now that America's economy has a bad cold, California's economy is on life support.  In fact, there's a very good chance it will become the first state in the nation's history to declare bankruptcy.

Employers are leaving the state in droves.  Why?  A heavy tax burden for both individuals and corporations; California's corporate tax burden ranks 3rd highest in the country.  A brutal regulatory environment, with agency oversight from the state, regional bureaus, counties, and municipalities.  And the toughest environmental laws in the country.

The result is that the tax base is shrinking precipitously just as California's legislators are looking for more revenue.  This creates a vicious cycle, driving even more employers out of the state.

What a disaster.  What a shame.  What a story of fiscal irresponsibility on a massive scale.

16 February 2010

Environmental Laws Run Amuck

I have a friend who's a successful developer.  He has recently received approval to proceed with construction of a new Lowe's home improvement store. One of the last requirements before final approval defies logic. The building site contained two elderberry bushes about five feet high. While the elderberry bush is not endangered, the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle is listed as threatened, and has been since 1980. Not only was there no evidence of beetles near these two bushes, but there was no evidence of the beetle in or around the scores of elderberry bushes on a nearby hillside.

It didn't make any difference. Removing the bushes improperly would have resulted in prosecution and a massive fine.

My friend's company had to hire a biologist who confirmed the identification of the elderberry bushes, confirmed that they constituted sufficient habitat for the beetles, and also confirmed that there not only were no beetles, but no evidence of beetles anywhere nearby.

He then had to hire a professional and certified tree removal service who unearthed the bushes, moved them to a location selected by the biologist, and replanted them.

The cost for the biologist and the replanting?  $44,000!

Now some of you will react by saying "oh, he's a rich developer; he'll just absorb the cost".  And you would be wrong.  Because--just like any business--increased costs must be passed along or--after "absorbing" costs piled on top of costs--the business would go belly up.  And that means that Lowe's will end up paying for this bureaucratic debacle, which means that, ultimately, anyone who shops at the new Lowe's will end up paying for it.

This is but a small indication of the gross overreach of the environmentalists in our country.  Saving polar bears or bald eagles or grizzly bears is one thing, but who really cares about the Valley Elderberry Longhorn Beetle?  You and I have no idea how much money we pay every year for goods and services whose prices are inflated by the confiscatory and dictatorial environmental laws in effect in our country.

By the way, it should be pointed out that the elderberry beetle is not considered endangered, but only threatened.  It should also be pointed out that this species was proposed for delisting altogether by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2006.

Why I Love My Dog

Throughout my life--from as long as I can remember--I have owned a dog.  Some have been purebreds.  Many have been mutts.  And without exception, all of them have given me their devoted love.  That's true of the dog I own now--a 4-year-old Golden Retriever named Brodie.  I met Brodie when he was a little over a year old.  He was a "rescue dog", meaning he'd been saved from abusive owners who had raised him in a crate.  As a result, his hips are a little displaced because, as he grew, he couldn't stand up straight within the confines of the tiny space he was living in.  The story told to my wife by the rescue clinic is that the previous owner's neighbors felt so angry about the dog's mistreatment that--when the owners were gone--the neighbors sneaked into the back yard and released Brodie from his pen and then called the rescue clinic to come and get him.

So when Brodie came into our lives, he was thin and his hips were displaced, but he was a bundle of joy and enthusiasm.  For the first several months after he came home with us, he could barely believe that he could just be a dog.  No more pens.  No more confinement.  No more long, lonely, confusing days.  Instead, Brodie got to chase a tennis ball, terrorize our cats, go for walks, eat whenever he wanted to--all the things that make up the life of a well-cared-for dog.  And in return, he gave us his undying love and loyalty.

Some wise person once said "I want to be the kind of man my dog thinks I am".  I've always loved that.  Brodie thinks I am the greatest person in the world.  When I come home from work, he's the first one to greet me at the door.  He runs to get his ball and prances proudly with it, daring me to take it from him (actually, hoping desperately I will take it from him) so I can throw it across the yard and he can chase it and bring it back.  He wakes me up in the morning at first light, and licks my hand and wags his tail to let me know it's time to get up.

In the time I have known him, I don't think Brodie has ever had a bad day.  His disposition is remarkably and consistently fantastic.  The humorist Dave Barry once wrote this about his dog: "I can say any fool thing to my dog and he gives me this look that says 'My God, you're right!  I never would have thought of that!  You're brilliant!'"  I know exactly of what Mr. Barry speaks.

And at the end of the day, as I relax and read, Brodie loves nothing more than to pretend he's a lap dog and climb up on my couch and lay his head in my lap.  And he absolutely would stay that way all night long if I would let him.

God was smiling on mankind when He decided to create dogs.

15 February 2010

The California Many Of You Don't Know

I remember when I was a freshman at Stanford.  People I'd meet would ask me the standard opening question: "Where are you from?"  And when I would tell them I had grown up in a small farming community in the Central Valley (or, more properly, the San Joaquin Valley), most of them would look at me as if I'd just told them I grew up in Nepal.

Let's face it: when the large majority of folks think of California, they probably think of the iconic images that are broadcast via the airwaves and in our theaters for most of the past century: Hollywood, with its shimmering movie stars and its puffed-up self-importance; Los Angeles and the whole of Southern California, sprawling and urban, with one of the finest climates in all the world; San Francisco--one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and also one of the most kooky; and Berkeley--the home of Telegraph Avenue, the hippie movement, the anti-war protests of the Sixties.

And this is not to mention many of the huge tourist draws to our state: the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, where some of the best wines in the world are produced; Lake Tahoe, one of the clearest and deepest lakes in the world; the mighty Sierra Nevada mountains and Yosemite National Park (or Sequoia or Kings Canyon further south); the Monterey Peninsula, home of the Monterey Aquarium, the beautiful hamlet of Carmel, and Cannery Row; Palm Springs, made famous by the movie stars of the past who bought second homes there to escape the insanity of L.A.;  and some of the most beautiful coastline in all the world, stretching nearly 900 miles from the Oregon border to Mexico.

But there's another California that even most Californians don't think about much or even know about.  It's California agriculture.  Consider this:

  • In 2008, California agriculture accounted for nearly $37 billion in revenue for the state's farmers;
  • California is the nation's top agricultural state, and has been for more than fifty years;
  • About one-third of California's total land area is covered by farms and ranches (though that figure is shrinking due to the explosive growth of development and land sprawl--more on that in a future post);
  • More than 92% of California's farms and ranches are family-owned;
  • California produces more than 350 different crops--the most highly-diverse agricultural region in the world;
  • California produces more than half the nation's fruits, vegetables, and nuts on just 4% of the arable land.
Okay, so we've established the fact that California has a robust farming industry.  But what this also tells us is that California farmers--in terms of their lifestyles, their values, their goals and dreams and hopes and fears--are not much different from farmers in Kansas or Ohio or Florida.  That usually comes as a big surprise to people in the "Heartland" of America.  Heck, it usually comes as a big surprise to people everywhere.  What is different about California farmers--more than any other state in the country by far--is that they are involved in constant battles with groups representing various interests, all of which are competing for the rich but limited natural resources of this amazing place.  These groups include but are not limited to various environmental groups, developers, state regulators, local municipalities, water rights groups, and on and on.  

I spent nine years living in the greater Atlanta area when I was part of "corporate America".  Agriculture is also a big part of Georgia's economy.  But I can tell you that the farm community in Georgia faces nowhere near the kinds of pressures and influence from state and local governments or special interest groups as those of us in California do.  It's a huge challenge for our industry, and one which, quite frankly, we're losing--in spite of all of the flag-waving and pontificating going on in Sacramento and Washington about the urgent need to "save the family farm".  (That's yet another topic for a future post.)

A Humble Introduction

To the great consternation of the so-called Mainstream Media, everyday folks like me have the ability--via the freedom of the internet--to share our thoughts on whatever comes to mind.  This is a wonderful opportunity fraught with danger.  Why?  Because if the blogger does not approach this enterprise with a certain degree of humility, he or she will fail.  There is, in fact, a kind of presumptuousness in the very thought of creating a blog.  I mean, what is about me that assumes that somebody out there would actually be interested in reading the things I write about?

Well, dear reader, here are the tenets by which I will be guided as I write and share my thoughts and ideas with you:

  1. You deserve a fresh perspective.  I don't live in Washington, DC and have never worked there.  I don't live in a large city, although I have worked in some before (namely, Boston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and Los Angeles).  I'm definitely not part of 'the establishment', however you define it.  The perspective I bring is as an entrepreneur, as someone who derives his paycheck by living close to the land, and who does it in the unlikely venue of California.  Yes, I'm a farmer who lives in the San Joaquin Valley of California--the same California that's the home of Berkeley, San Francisco, Hollywood, and Orange County.  More on that later...
  2. I'll write with a fresh variety of topics.  Since it's my blog, I have the freedom to write about just about anything that comes to mind.  That's fantastic!  It means I'm not locked in to a specific narrow set of subjects, and so I won't be.  Here you will find a liberal sprinkling of thoughts on the farming business and how farmers can carve out a living in the 21st century; travel tips for those of you who may be so inclined to visit our beautiful, diverse, and financially-mismanaged state; a farmer's perspective on the politics of the day--both here in California and in the nation's capital (and perhaps elsewhere as well); and who knows what else?  I might even throw in a favorite recipe from time to time, or an essay on hiking in the Sierras, or even some tips on the art of being a gentleman.
  3. I'll do my best not to be boring.  That is, I'll write with you--the reader--in mind.  But if I get off-track, if I start to get too self-absorbed, if my prose doesn't match my lofty objectives as imparted in this post, I trust that you will let me know.  I'll try not to take criticism personally, but will be keenly interested in how you think this effort is going.  The key, I think, to avoiding boredom on your part is for me to be fresh, relevant, and insightful.
  4. I will post three times a week.  I won't lock myself in to specific days of the week, at least at this point. But I will make sure that I offer new material each time.
  5. I'll offer attribution whenever it's called for, and will appreciate the same from fellow bloggers who may find something here useful for their own readers.
That's it.  Those are my rules.

I hope you enjoy the ride as much as I'll enjoy being your tour guide.  It will be an adventure for us both.  I promise.  

And now, ladies and gentlemen, please climb aboard this riverboat I've named "The Generous Harvest".  We'll ride wherever the river flows.  Feel free to ask questions along the way...