Wheat was king in these parts some 150 years ago.
From 1865 to 1885 San Joaquin and Stanislaus counties developed a reputation “second to none” according to agriculturists of the time for producing wheat and barley of good quality and quantity. Farmers grew so much it was considered one of the nation’s top wheat producing regions.
It was shipped on barges at San Joaquin City south of the confluence of the Stanislaus and San Joaquin rivers. Back then — before silt built-up—barges could still navigate that far up the river. Wheat was also taken by wagon to Stockton. Whether it arrived by barge or wagon, Stockton provided the key to shipping wheat to market. Historians note in 1880 San Joaquin County raised the fifth largest wheat crop in the world. It was in excess of 3 million bushels or enough to fill 1,024 freight cars.
Early crop yields were placed at as much as 80 bushels an acre. Not rotating crops started depleting the soil to the point the yield eventually dropped to 15 bushels per acre.
By 1900, grain no longer was the top crop. Alfalfa and melons along with grapes surpassed grain production. Almonds were also being introduced at the dawn of the 20th century.
One wonders where Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon would be today had the federal government decided to put a price support system in back then to protect wheat growers in San Joaquin County. The odds are there would have been no grapes or almonds planted let alone an incentive for farmers and residents to join forces and undertake the risk needed to create the South San Joaquin Irrigation on their own.
It is why you’ve got to wonder if the federal sugar policy that consists of price support for growers and quotas coupled with hefty tariffs for imported sugar was in place in the 19th century for wheat and other products how much different the Central Valley would be today. Without incentives to find new ways to increase crop production and lower costs there would have been no pressing need for massive reservoirs and water conveyance systems. If farmers can survive and thrive under guaranteed prices propped up by taxpayers that assure higher prices for consumers why would they take risks at innovative crops or trying to increase production?
United States restricts import and subsidizes for sugar cost federal taxpayers $258 million in 2013 alone. The Coalition for Sugar Reform earlier this month estimated the subsidy program has cost consumers, taxpayers, and businesses more than $15 billion since 2008.
In short, anything that uses sugar costs consumers more because the federal government is taking money out of consumer pockets in the form of taxes to make sure sugar prices stay high to guarantee producer profits.
Sugar beets for decades were a mainstay of Manteca area agriculture until Spreckels Sugar closed their East Yosemite Avenue plant in 1996. There were 120 full-time and 100 seasonal jobs lost in Manteca when Spreckels Sugar closed. They have since been offset by nearly 2,000 jobs that sprang up in commercial and industrial ventures on the 362 acres that the sugar refinery once occupied.
Farmers didn’t miss a beat. They quickly converted to other crops.
With the demise of sugar beet production, save dairies and the milk support program, the Manteca-Ripon-Escalon agricultural production is a rarity in the United States. There are no crops supported by federal subsidies and price supports. At the same time, the irrigation system supplying farms with water was built without even a penny of help from the state or federal governments.
Farmers keenly attuned to domestic and world markets helped make almonds the state’s top farm product in terms of dollars and the No. 1 export to world markets.
The continued effort to prop up the price of sugar to protect the remaining American growers against foreign competition is akin to the federal government deciding to use tax dollars to prop up the domestic meth industry in order to protect it against the low cost meth coming in from Mexico. There of course would be the added twist of the government using its resources to beat back foreign meth from entering the American marketplace in large quantities to give domestic producers the ability to stay competitive and enjoy a higher profit margin by letting their meth go to market without fear of law enforcement impeding its flow.
Comparing meth with sugar isn’t that far-fetched given the amount of energy and money the federal government spends vilifying sugar as a major cause of obesity and a kaleidoscope of various diseases.
The bottom line: Sugar protections put in place by the federal government are doing taxpayers and consumers no favor and is allowing sugar growers not to be innovative in looking for other crops to grow or find ways to increase domestic sugar production to the point tariffs aren’t needed for foreign grown sugar.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209.249.3519.