Farm economy not as bad as reported

Feb 23, 2010

California Sen. Dianne Feinstein fanned a controversy earlier this month when she said she would propose legislation urging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to raise the valley's water deliveries. Her idea was hailed by West Side growers and farmworkers - who say they are suffering economically because of short water supplies - and criticized by environmentalists and many of her fellow democrats - who believe the water is needed to protect delta smelt and salmon.

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times bolstered the environmentalists' position with an article that said agriculture's reported economic difficulties have been exaggerated.

Times reporter Bettina Boxall wrote that crop and labor statistics for 2009 contradict the image of a withering farm economy teetering on the edge of collapse.

"People make a lot of claims, but the data you see is showing growth. We're just not seeing the job loss," the story quoted Paul Wessen, an economist with the California Employment Development Department.

Boxall also spoke to UC Davis agricultural economist Richard Howitt, who in early 2009 predicted that water cutbacks could cost the valley 80,000 jobs and up to $2.2 billion in revenue. He later revised those numbers to 21,100 farm-related jobs and $703 million in agricultural revenue.

Howitt said farm advocates keep repeating the higher estimates and blame most of the delivery cuts on environmental protections, when they can be more accurately explained by the drought.

Furthermore, the projected economic losses, Howitt said, are "not big" compared to the state's $36 billion farm economy

"But the story is not the aggregate. It's the concentration," Howitt was quoted.

Howitt's report on water supply and demand is available on the UC Agricultural Issues Center Web site.

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By Jeannette E. Warnert
Author - Communications Specialist