You are what you eat

We’ve had quite a debate going on in the comment threads over growth management, taxation, and other policies that exacerbate the urban-rural political divide in Washington state. Personally, I’m of the opinion that both sides usually get it wrong… that we are actually a lot more interdependent than we like to acknowledge, and thus have much more common ground than some provocateurs would have us believe.

I’d like to add some nuance to this debate by pointing to Kate Riley’s excellent column in today’s Seattle Times: “Getting city-slickers to listen to the states oldest industry.” Riley lays out the case made by the WA State Horticultural Association and the WA Tree Fruit Commission, that agriculture is a vital industry deserving the same attention and consideration as high tech.

“The Legislature would not consider changes to the tax code, transportation rules or environmental standards without first considering their effect upon economic engines like Boeing or Microsoft,” says Jim Hazen, executive director of the association. “Neither should policymakers adopt new laws and rules without considering their impact upon an industry that is the state’s second-largest employer and among the top 10 revenue generators.

I’m not enough of an Olympia insider or observer to know whether agriculture really does get short shrift in the Legislature, but I agree that it shouldn’t. In fact, one of the components of our Growth Management Act that I find most attractive is protecting productive agricultural lands from encroaching urban sprawl.

Ironically, Riley credits our high-tech Senator, Maria Cantwell, for being one politician who has embraced agricultural issues, and has worked hard in the other Washington on behalf of her rural constituents.

The senator shares farmers’ frustrations with the urban blind spot to agriculture, noting she reminded participants at a recent Seattle chamber discussion on biotechnology that agriculture research should be considered, too. “If you care about jobs in Washington, you need to care about agriculture,” Cantwell said.

It is rhetorically lazy to couch issues like this in the kind of “red-blue”, “right-left”, “east-west” dichotomy that turns every policy decision into an uncompromising ideological struggle. Demagogues like Tim Eyman may be good at sending angry messages, but they do a crappy job of writing rational policy that works for all our citizens.

And after all… we all have to eat.


  1. 1

    Mark spews:

    Hey! Who the heck are you? And what have you done with the hyperbolic, vitriolic, partisan Goldy?

  2. 2

    Mark spews:

    Interesting choice of words — “demagogue.” Did you mean (from Webster):

    1 : a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power

    — or —

    2 : a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times

  3. 3

    Goldy spews:

    Mark… I like to balance my vitriol with reason. Look for some good vitriol tomorrow.

    And as to the definition of “demagogue”, considering that Timmy doesn’t live in ancient times, I’ll have to go with definition number one.

  4. 4

    Mark spews:

    Ahh… Timmmaaaahhhhhh…

    Goldy, just so that I know it is really you posting tomorrow, could you do me a favor and refer to those farmers as “right-wing, Bible-thumping tractor jockeys?” ;)

  5. 5

    Goldy spews:

    As a bit of a home cook, I like farmers. They grow great stuff. I support my local farmer’s market (Columbia City) and make an annual trek out to Yakima to pick tomatoes and peppers and bring them back for canning.

    As for bible-thumpers, as long as they’re not trying to thump me with it, they can thump all they like.

  6. 6

    RDC spews:

    I read Riley’s article, and was pleasantly surprised by her tip-o’-the-hat to Cantwell. Also, it is an easy mistake to think that agriculture is on the other side of the mountains. There is a very productive agricultural sector right here in our own back yard (and it would be nice to keep it). One question I had and haven’t found the answer to yet, is whether the statistics quoted in the article include timber as an agricultural product. Does anyone know?

  7. 7

    Bax spews:

    What I found interesting was how she basically said that Democrats are responsible for an increasing minimum wage. This is just wrong — the minimum wage increases because of a voter approved initiative. So perhaps she should blame the voters of this state, not a political party.

  8. 8

    RDC spews:

    To answer my own question (Comment 6), the answer to whether or not forest products are part of the $6 billion a year in agricultural products, the answer is yes…….and no. Forest products which come from sources which meet the USDA definition of farm are counted; otherwise no. Farm forest products would include small woodlot production, Christmas trees, that sort of thing. These products are 8th in rank among agricultural products. First on the list are apples, at about $1 billion, then milk, wheat, potatos, and cattle, in that order. These five account for more than half of the value of agricultural production (info is from 2003, per Washington Dept of Ag.

  9. 9

    Janet S spews:

    I kind of have to laugh. Democrats love the idea of a minimum wage and labor unions. And then, when the natural consequence happens, they complain. Cantwell is being a big hypocrite by wanting both higher wages and cheaper food. I realize that agriculture doesn’t have the same labor rules as other industries, but the contradiction stands.

    The complicating factor in all this is immigration. We can hire lots of illegals to pick the crops, which makes both sides livid for opposite reasons. The right is a bit xenophobic, the left wants union wage for all. Both sides are in denial about natural market forces.

    People should be allowed to work for the price they want. If the 20 year old from Mexico is willing to work for piece rates picking apples, does the gov’t have the ethical right to tell him he can’t? Do we then deport him back, so he can watch his family wallow in poverty, or he can sneak across the border once more to work for someone who will pay him the wage he is willing to accept?

    This is a complicated issue, and to yell at Tim Eyman is too simple a target for an answer.

  10. 10

    G Davis spews:

    Janet, I’m not sure I want to be part of a society that is so willing to shrug off the economic impact low wages has on a community.

    I’ve been involved in agriculture my whole adult life. I don’t live there but we have roots in the Wenatchee valley where my good old uncle ran the experimental station for years.

    Farming (which I don’t do anymore…too old ;) )is a tough, but good life. But I will take issue with those that whimper about their economic plight. As with every life choice there are trade offs. The most stark reward I have that the typical *city folks* don’t is I’m home all the time. I’m available to my family and able to fully participate with them. I also don’t spend nearly what communters do to get to/dress for/eat out at work.

    The agriculture community makes fine money. Plus we have our land as the end all asset.

    I don’t think because there are those among us that will work for peanuts that it’s the responsible, humane thing to do.

    As a side note, there’s the booming floriculture industry in the Skagit Valley. Those folks make a bundle on their crops.

  11. 11

    Jim H. spews:

    The $6 billion figure used in the Riley column is the amount of money generated by the Washington State tree fruit industry, as reported in the Jensen study. The $6 billion figure does not include income generated from forest products or Christmas tree farms. We funded the study due to the reliance by the popular press and elected officials to use farm-gate values, which we believe severely undervalue agriculture. Farm-gate value does not inlcude revenue generated from packing and processing,nor does it account for the multiplier effect that occurs when you purchase goods and materials. On a separate subject: The current minimum wage law was approved by voters through the initiative process. However, House Democrats have blocked a proposal the last two years to reform the automatic trigger mechanism. The propsal would have tied the trigger mechanism to something other than the Urban-CPI. The proposal would have tied the trigger to the state’s unemployment level, which would have allowed for growth, but at a rate linked to statewide economic conditions.

  12. 12

    RDC spews:

    Re Comment 11 Jim H.

    Jim..thanks. I misread Riley’s article, and on rereading it found that she is, indeed, referring to the study you mention. My information came from the state agriculture website (a 2003 news release); it is apparently purely coincidental that the $6 billion figure is the same for both reports, which measure, as you note, different things.

    On the CPI trigger, I would readily support a different measure if one could be found which accurately measures the cost-of-living. There are enough reputable economists who believe that the CPI overstates the COL to warrant a look at other options. But we need to retain an automatic trigger, whatever the index used.

  13. 13

    DCF spews:

    G Davis, from one farmer to another, I totally agree with your assessment of the benefits of farming and family life. However, I don’t think there is a person out there, working for a business, that would accept not being able to draw a wage for their efforts. Farmers can not count their wages for tax purposes–I put in many hours to raise my market hogs, and can count all the feed and equipment it takes to do so, but I can’t count my time.

    Farms are the basis of our country–at one time the majority of our citizens were yeomen farmers–so our government has seen fit to enact laws, and keep all the benefits possible, to keep farms going. According to state law, if an employee is under age 18, they don’t have to be paid minimum wage–and farmers don’t pay, or withhold, social security for their employees.

    In my local community kids have been pushed out of the seasonal agricultural scene by state law. There used to be lots of local school kids that could earn some money in the summer picking blueberries–the local blueberry farm ran buses from our little town out to their farm–and lots of kids got their first taste of earning money. Then the state decided that children of a certain age should not be subjected to pesticides and the remaining child labor was old enough to drive–so they sought employment that was a little less back-breaking. The blueberry growers had to go to mechanical harvesting, and all the seasonal jobs for young people went away–we don’t even have a cucumber harvest anymore–that farmer went out of business. Enter the immigrants that work for farmers because they can be exposed to pesticides and herbicides–some US businesses out-source jobs some in-source workers–it’s all the same, Americans lose earning power.

  14. 14

    G Davis spews:

    “According to state law, if an employee is under age 18, they don’t have to be paid minimum wage–and farmers don’t pay, or withhold, social security for their employees.”

    Is that true in Washington?