Farmers reinvent themselves every year, according to Fresno County, Calif., agriculturalist John Harris, a master of innovation who is widely recognized for thinking out of the box.

The man who pioneered pre-cooked beef to keep beef on the table of today's fast-paced Americans told a group of agri-marketers recently that farmers must re-invent themselves faster than ever before if they are to survive in today's lackluster ag economy.

Harris was one of the first to use drip irrigation in row crops and led the way with some of the first permanent crops on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. From his racehorse stables to his Harris Ranch Restaurant on Interstate 5, Harris exudes success, optimism and creativity.

And yet Harris is concerned as never before about the future of California agriculture in economic times “as bad as any of us can remember.”

The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel is often jokingly referred to in agriculture as a barreling freight train. Harris used a page from California's energy crisis when he said that light might no longer be there. “It may be turned off, but hopefully not completely off.”

Harris was joined by three other prominent agriculturists at an ag issues conference sponsored by the Central California National Agri-Marketing Association in Tulare, Calif. Harris and Tulare County farmer Mark Watte; international fresh fruit and table grape marketer Jim Pandol of Pandol Brothers Farming, Delano, Calif., and Kings County farmer and county supervisor Tony Oliveira of Lemoore, Calif.

Major challenges

They were asked to identify their biggest challenge. They listed a grocery cart full of them from water to labor to low commodity prices to energy.

On the production side, improved efficiency by using less water and energy, more mechanization and utilizing new technology were mentioned as the tools necessary to produce more for less and beat increasingly higher costs.

However, it was marketing, consumer and political sides of the business where the producers said they hoped to return to profitability.

“Find how what consumers want and give it to them,” said Harris.

Pandol and Harris both said farmers should deliver only high quality products to win consumers. Give consumers nutritional information about what they are buying, added Harris.

Oliveira said it is imperative to maintain social contact between consumers and agriculture.

Even beyond that, University of California economist Jerry Siebert told the group farmers must integrate more into the market and become even more involved in marketing by increasing their power through associations and bargaining groups in the wake of ongoing retail consolidation.

The challenge also continues to deliver agriculture's message to consumers.

“I want to do whatever I can to let people know how vital our agricultural economy is to our state and nation in providing the safest, cheapest food supply in the world,” said Watte, who is a partner in a family of six in a 3,500-acre farming operation in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley.

Politics at root

At the root of most challenges farmers face is politics, said Pandol. “Support politicians who support agriculture…cross party lines. Don't sit idle and say woe is me. That is death.”

Pandol is vice president of marketing for Pandol Brothers and is responsible for sales and marketing activities encompassing trade with more than 30 countries amounting to $180 million.

He cited Japan as the agricultural example American producers should emulate. “Agriculture in Japan is a strong voting block yet Japanese farmers cannot produce enough food to fed their own people.”

“Hopefully we can look back in the few years and see this time and see this period as only a blip on the radar screen,” said Harris, adding that getting out of the currant malaise will take a collective effort by farmers.

e-mail: harry_cline@intertec.com