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Across Our State

America the bountiful

We are so blessed to live in America the Beautiful. From sea to shining sea there are snow-capped peaks, fresh-flowing rivers, tall pines and fir trees, canyons and parks that add to the wonder of Creation. Colors are vibrant, soft, spectacular. Everywhere there is beauty if we want to see it.

For some of us, the greatest beauty is in our rural areas-our farms and ranches. They speak of home, family, productive work (and sometimes worry). Although American farmers live on and work just 10 percent of the world's land, they make productive nearly 1.2 billion acres. Each day one of our farmers produces food and fiber for 143 people-- for the hungry all over the world.

These are mostly family-owned farms. According to the American Farm Bureau, 98 percent of all U.S. farms are owned by individuals, family partnerships, or family corporations. Non-family corporations sell about 14 percent of all farm products.

We're good at growing plants and animals for food, fuel, fiber, and shelter. We're good at planting, watering, feeding, harvesting, and providing for the hungry. But an American farmer must also be a business person, an educator, an environmentalist, a marketing expert, and know the current laws and regulations. We are often hampered by others who want to tell us what we know best how to do.

Farmers and ranchers in our own state have earned some pats on the back! The Washington State Farm Bureau gives us the following information: (1) our ag industry employs 160,000 people and contributes 12 percent to our state's economy, or $32 billion; (2) the 39,000 farms in Washington total 15.7 million acres; (3) we grow more food, feed and seed crops than any other state except California; (4) a third of the state is in pasture or rangeland, which supports a large livestock industry. In addition to these great statistics, Washington ranked first among the states last year in 12 commodities: apples, pears, sweet cherries, red raspberries, hops, spearmint oil, lentils, Concord and Niagara grapes, carrots and sweet corn.

For all their good work, farmers and ranchers receive only 19 cents of every dollar spent on food both consumed at home and away from home. The rest of the dollar goes into production, processing, marketing, transportation and distribution. In an effort to increase their share of the profit and to cover their increasing costs, farmers take over one of those areas. There is a growing list of producers who sell from their farms, or who do processing and marketing themselves or in a group. Our state has encouraged these efforts in campaigns like Heart of Washington and Eat Fresh.

Do you think all that 19 cents goes into the farmer's pocket? No, there are seeds and fertilizers and other supplies to buy, repairs to do, interest and taxes to pay. Farm labor takes 10 percent. The farmer actually ends up with about 3 cents on the dollar for all investment, planning and work he/she does.

You would think by some accounts that the farmers and ranchers just take from the land. Not so. More than half of them intentionally provide habitat for wildlife, so much so that many animals, even predators, have shown significant increases during the past few years. From 1997 to 2003, we gave a net increase of wetlands of 44,000 acres per year during that five-year period. Landowners have installed 1.54 million miles of conservation buffers. These are narrow (hopefully) strips of land that is believed to help improve soil, air and water quality besides adding to the wildlife habitat. In addition, the erosion rate has been reduced by more than 40 percent since 1982. It is nonsense that the farmer does not care for his land. Just think. He makes his living from it and his life and reputation on it.

With all this, the farmer is in danger of losing his land and his water. Others want what we have. Good neighbors next to cities have shared their land for housing, but the demand increases. Many cities have begun to develop their empty buildings downtown to alleviate the need. Zoning laws keep rural development at a minimum, but land use can work against our ag industry as well.

We live in a nation and a state that still values what the American and Washington farmer can do and will do, but there are fewer and fewer young people who are raised on farms, who know the joys and headaches of raising animals and growing food, and who are willing to work. Most Americans do not appreciate the fact they spend only 10 percent of their income for their food when in many countries that figure is 50 percent.

Let's keep our regulations at a minimum. Let's let our farmers farm. We want to remain the agricultural powerhouse we have become. We can be beautiful and bountiful.

- Jerri Honeyford, wife of Sen. Jim Honeyford (R-Sunnyside), provides her Across our State column for local readers of the Daily Sun News while residing in Olympia.

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