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Californian agri sector shrinking under weight of regulations

Dairy owner Steve Nash used to be enmeshed in California politics, staying active in the Fresno County Farm Bureau and appearing before state legislators and regulators to advocate for agriculture-friendly policies. But in 2014, he gave up. He began the process of moving his business from Selma, Calif., where it had been operating for more than 80 years, to Chapel Hill, Tenn.

“Milk was at one of its lowest prices in California at that time, and we were looking at the Southeast and their marketing order,” Nash said. He scouted out land from Arkansas to Georgia and settled on Tennessee “because of the business climate and their ag department,” which helped him search for properties, he said.

Today his family raises 1,350 cows – mostly Holsteins and some jerseys – on 700 acres in a little farming community south of Nashville. He has about 200 more cows and farms about 100 more acres than he did in California.

“Regulations were probably one of the biggest” reasons for leaving the Golden State, Nash stated. “We wanted to build and expand, and there was a lot of cost to doing that – everything from environmental impact reports and assessments to things as small as the fire department being involved in the expansion of your dairy. Everyone wanted a fee.”

Nash is one of many growers who’ve been forced to make some tough decisions about their California operations in recent years as the state has imposed a morass of red tape in the areas of water and air quality, food safety, labor wages and worker health and safety.

New regulations since 2006 have caused significant increases in growers’ cost of production, making it more difficult for all but the biggest farms to survive, noted researchers at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo in a 2018 report.

Some growers are left with an ominous choice: switch crops, move out of California or quit farming altogether.

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