Legacy Feast Honoree Profile: David Shabazian of SACOG
Please tell something about yourself that’s not on your resume.
I am a “musician” in that I play some guitar. Hectic schedules make it hard to play these days, but I occasionally have a few minutes to try to remember a song or two. I also like to explore different music. The internet is an amazing resource for finding new music and can even be overwhelming. It’s astounding how much music is out there and how easy it is to access it. I feel like a kid in a candy shop.
Having grown up on a farm, is the work that you do with rural-urban connections strategy part of a personal mission? How have you seen it affect the region since you took over in 2007 and what keeps you motivated to keep pursuing the work?
I was one of those farm kids who wanted to get off the farm as soon as possible. But after being assigned to manage RUCS, I quickly realized and appreciate my personal connection to the work. My degree from UC Davis was paid for by proceeds from a farm stand my father operated, a place where people met friends and connected with a local farmer. My family’s farm was never the primary source of income and my parents eventually parceled off pieces of the farm for financial reasons. Later, development consumed farmland right up to our property, which would have gone too if not for county policy. With the passing of my dad, the farm was too much for my mom to maintain and she ultimately sold it. Unfortunately, this is not a unique story. I hope RUCS will create results that help other families in similar situations.
My past ignited my enthusiasm for RUCS, but it is the amazing opportunities we have in our region that keeps it going. While the rest of the economy was hobbled by a deep recession, agriculture was setting new records in yields and value. That trend is supported by a marketplace that is changing rapidly in everything from increasing demand abroad for California products to the exponential growth in markets for locally grown food. Add to this trends toward healthier eating and the fact that our region can grow—and eventually aggregate, process, market and distribute—many of those crops makes us well positioned to take advantage of those opportunities. We have a range of organizations supporting and promoting agriculture and food and we have the best agriculture university in the world providing research on technology that will continue to keep us at the forefront of the industry. What’s not to be excited about?!
Speaking of growing with Sacramento, what has been the most inspiring thing that you have seen in the region?
In the rearview mirror, we see a region that was consuming 333 acres of undeveloped land for every 1,000 people. Today we see a region that is forecasted to convert only 42 acres for the same number of new residents. This is a significant shift that reflects a confluence of good planning timed with a growing desire for the types and locations of housing and retail that bring us together rather than spread us out. We see communities adding urban farms and local companies supporting them by providing resource and buying produce. We will soon have a new arena with vendors committing to using locally grown food. Our food banks are providing more fresh produce sourced from local growers. We have schools starting to buy local food, planting gardens and teaching children about health, nutrition and how to prepare meals. And we have a farm-to-fork dinner that sells out 740 tickets in 40 seconds. This transformation in our urban communities comes at a time when farmland and crops are so desirable and so valuable that in some places land designated for urban development is now being planted in orchards. These changes and our heightened awareness of our agricultural heritage and comparative economic advantage makes me excited to be in the Sacramento region.
The Sacramento region has been known for producing several types of citrus, several types of nuts, olives, rice, timber and wine grapes. How will the current drought change the face of Sacramento agriculture moving forward?
There are so many ways drought affects agriculture that forecasting the future of the industry is very difficult. For example, last year, despite the drought, the region saw record production and value of processing tomatoes. At the same time, rice, our biggest crop and provider of Pacific Flyway habitat, fell by about 20 percent. If drought persists, we could see more fallowing, increases in less water intensive crops, and fewer acres of annual crops to make water available for permanent crops. We’ll probably see even more use of water-saving irrigation technologies, but paradoxically maybe more flood irrigation to keep groundwater levels sustainable. Over time, we could see plant varieties that use less water and processing technologies that are more water efficient. I think the drought, coupled with recent groundwater legislation and ongoing concerns about surface water supplies will accelerate creative solutions to keep farmers in business and the nation and world supplied with high quality food.
Interest in small and urban farming is growing. What advice would you have for young people that are interested in pursuing life in the field?
1. Go to school. Farming requires a good understanding of science and technology and you need business skills.
2. Work for a farmer. The old ones know what they are doing; otherwise, they wouldn’t be old farmers!
3. Enroll in a beginning farmer program. The good programs will teach you how to use your education to grow food and run a business. They can also connect you with old farmers.
4. Learn to tolerate risk. You are an entrepreneur and likely an independent operator. You will be subject to crop failure for a range of reasons and market fluctuations that are out of your control. Remember, it happens to every farmer.
5. Be flexible, adaptable and creative. You will face easy and hard decisions on a daily basis. You need to be a problem solver and keep moving forward.
6. Study the market. You need to know which crops work for which markets in order to be successful. Find a niche and fill it.
7. Be prepared for long days and physical work. Sorry, this is not a desk job and there is always something to do. You’ll get a “break” from about Thanksgiving to New Years and then it’s back to work.
8. Trust your instincts. You had the instinct to go into farming, you probably have the instinct to distinguish good decisions from bad decisions.
David Shabazian is one of three leaders to be honored on May 14 at the 2015 Legacy Feast as a leader in Environmental Sustainability for his work as the manager of SACOG’s Rural-Urban Connection’s Strategy (RUCS).
Each of the three award winners receive a $3,000 cash grant they can direct to a deserving nonprofit in their name that will extend their legacy of leadership. David Shabazian has chosen to support the Center for Land Based Learning.