The transportation and availability of water remains a top priority for the San Joaquin Valley’s improving economy.
(Photo credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)
“I feel like we are in a bottle of champagne that has been shaken up and is just ready to explode,” Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin told a full house as she kicked off the San Joaquin Valley regional economic forum on Thursday. “There is so much beginning to happen, we need to seize this moment and get to the next level!”
With that, a series of speakers and panelists delved deep into issues of infrastructure, workforce needs, innovation and entrepreneurship, regulatory reform, ag land preservation, sustainable growth, and access to capital.
Water emerged as a key issue. A recent poll by the firm Probolsky Research showed a staggering 78% of Southern Californians do not know what the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta is. This apparent lack of awareness could be construed as evidence that water is not a high priority for Californians. Forum attendees disagreed. They placed a high priority on water education, maximizing groundwater storage, and building consensus for a plan that addresses the needs of all California water stakeholders.
Agriculture requires a steady stream of seasonal labor and skilled workers. The agriculture chain accounts for nearly 2.5 million jobs in California, according to background papers created by forum host California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley.
Participants expressed a desire for a workable immigration program to ensure a legal, qualified workforce – one that provides flexibility for employers and employees, takes care of workers who are here, and provides a guest worker component to meet the temporary and seasonal needs of farms and processors.
Regulatory reform was also a top priority. “Government works best when it enhances the business environment while protecting quality of life,” said Kevin Abernathy of the Milk Producers Council. “If you don’t do both at the same time, you tend to go backwards.”
There was interest in enhancements to CEQA. Self-professed “CEQA nerd” Jennifer Hernandez, a partner in the law firm of Holland and Knight, believes “After more than forty years, this thing needs a remodel.” Participants supported reducing the time and cost required to comply, eliminating litigation abuse, and avoiding duplicative review processes.
Karen Ross, secretary of the California Dept. of Food and Agriculture described California’s more than 400 crops as both a blessing and a burden of diversity. She suggested the various ag interests focus on common themes – availability of land, water, markets and labor – and advocated for providing Californians a diet of fresh local fruits, vegetables, nuts and lean proteins.
Jeremy Kacuba, tech director for Leprino Foods reminded the audience that California has one more important crop, its people.
“It’s time for the state to invest in a population that is both employable and employed, ” said Kacuba.
Central Valley voices will join with those from thirteen other regions around the state at the California Economic Summit on May 11.