March 15, 2004
Mar/Apr 2004 -- The sheep industry can't prevent the changes creeping across America's political landscape. Instead, the industry and the rest of agriculture must learn to manage the change, said Sacramento attorney George Soares, who suggested that other states learn from California's experience.
Soares, keynote speaker at a joint luncheon of the American Sheep Industry Association and National Lamb Feeders Association, said California agriculture perceives itself as a pretty big deal - and rightly so. It produces $29 billion a year in farm-gate sales, twice as big as the next state. It grows more than 300 crops. And one out of every 10 California jobs is tied to agriculture.
One might think that as a major driver of the California economy agriculture gets what it wants. But Soares said the system began to fragment a few years go when California legislators made a major shift to the left, catering to the urban mindset of the state's 35 million people, expected to balloon to 50 million by 2020.
"Take note for your own states," he said. "California agriculture was not as responsive as it should have been. We believed our own press releases. Things were changing and we still thought we were the salt of the earth. We rested on that idea too long, and before we knew it government had changed and moved substantially away from us."
He said the political middle is where things got done, and that middle is gone. Still, there are ways to succeed in troubled times. For example, he was part of a group that created the biggest tax relief for California agriculture in its history - $110 million - right in the middle of the political shift.
Soares offered several strategies for managing change:
- Put policy over politics. Ask your members to check their political stripe at the door. When you walk out the door, do it with consensus.
- Know when to compromise and be prepared to lose. "We have everything to lose, so know when to compromise and when to draw the line."
- Build coalitions inside and outside of agriculture. For instance, California agriculture is building coalitions with the medical health industry to work on rural health care.
- Be active. Soares noted that California Assembly received 82,000 faxes from the agricultural industry regarding a recent issue that agriculture ended up winning.
- Be innovative. California has formed an air coalition and a legal defense fund on air quality issues to prepare for a lawsuit and to be able to intervene. The industry also formed a breakfast club to which legislators are invited from 7:30 a.m. to 9 a.m. -- not 6 a.m. -- as some producers wanted.
- Develop marquis value. Elected people typically have a few people they rely on for advice. "It can be us or it can be someone else."
Soares said California's agricultural future is a mixed bag that must operate on four fronts: the courts, the public, a new governor who "gets it" from a business standpoint and an urban-oriented legislature.
"That's our challenge in California, and it will ultimately be the challenge in the states you come from," he told sheep producers, admonishing them, "Go forward as one."