Farmers must live with plagues of uncertainties pests, crop prices, labor shortages and, of course, the weather.
Listen to a family farmer in California like Doug Brower, and there's a whole other reason it can be such a struggle: a tangle of regulations.
Brower splits his time between Folsom and the Uhrhammer homestead hard by the Merced River south of Turlock, where he grows almonds and walnuts on 40 acres. His wife's family moved there just after World War II. Since he retired from 30 years as a military contract officer, Brower has been spending more time on the farm. Since his father-in-law passed away last October, he has taken over running it.
The more he's learned about all the government rules he's supposed to follow, the more frustrated he has become. By his count, the farm is subject to at least a half-dozen local, state and federal agencies.
There's the state Water Resources Control Board, which wants to know how much water he's pumping out of the river to irrigate his orchards. The orchards have rights to about 405 acre-feet of water a year. Since he can't afford fancy monitoring equipment, he mostly guesstimates his monthly diversions, but stays well below the limit.
There's the state Department of Pesticide Regulation, which requires reports on what he sprays to protect his almonds from the navel orangeworm and walnuts from the husk fly and codling moth. If he didn't do it himself as a state-certified applicator, and had an employee spray instead, there would be many more safety rules to worry about.
There's the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which issues the permits he has to get to burn pruned limbs and other agricultural waste.
There's state and federal Occupational Safety and Health and the state Employment Development Department, which want paperwork for the farm's one full-time worker.
Until he found out at a seminar that he didn't have enough fuel to qualify, Brower thought he'd have to come up with a Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure Plan for his above-ground petroleum tanks.
His home office is strewn with bulging files as he tries to keep track of all the requirements and when he's supposed to submit reports.
"I'm trying to do the right thing," he told me as he steered a beat-up golf cart through neat rows of nut trees.
Brower says farmers like him are expected to know about every regulation issued by any government agency that might somehow apply to them. That's impossible, he says.
He worries that an inspection to the very letter of the law would lead to "bureaucratic gotchas" and big fines that could put him out of business. "That's the real danger to the little guys," Brower says.
Wanted: Younger farmers
Purely by coincidence, on the same day last month that I toured Brower's orchards, the state Board of Food and Agriculture convened in Winters to talk about how to interest younger people in farming and ranching. The average age of California's 130,000 farmers and ranchers is nearing 60, and officials worry about who will replace them when they retire or pass away.
While huge corporate operations get lots of attention, it's still small and medium-size ones that will determine the fate of agriculture in California. Of the 81,500 farms and ranches, three-fourths sell less than $100,000 of crops or commodities.
The regulatory burden should be a big part of the discussion. Corporate farms can afford to hire people to fill out forms and track compliance. It's the small farmer scraping by we should be worrying about.
And regulations are helping push the consolidation into bigger farms by raising costs and driving family farmers off the land, says Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation.
He says it's getting very difficult for farmers whose livelihood depends on what they produce on a few hundred acres. Those who are struggling face a dilemma: They can sell out to big corporate farms, or get bigger themselves. Or they can become smaller and grow organic or boutique produce.
"The irony is we want new people to get into farming, but they can't get into it a smaller way," Wenger told me. "Because of the regulatory environment, we're making people either get really small, or really big."
Regulations are more burdensome in California than other farming states, he says. It's especially annoying when rules conflict with each other.
The Wenger family's century-old farm near Modesto has 450 acres mostly in almonds and walnuts. During harvest time, he's required to keep down the dust. So this month, he says he went looking for a 2,000-gallon water truck and found a nice 2000 Sterling that fit the bill.
But he ran into a roadblock: the dealer in Stockton couldn't sell it to him without costly modifications because of California Air Resources Board regulations cracking down on emissions from diesel trucks. So far, Wenger is having trouble finding a gasoline-engine water truck that isn't an antique.
"I can't even buy a truck. It's just crazy," he told me.
Most farmers, Wenger says, just want all the regulators to get in the same room, agree on the result they want and issue straightforward rules. If farmers violate the guidelines, then penalize them, but don't make them somehow prove they will never do anything wrong, he says.
The farm federation has an entire Web page devoted to issues and regulations, including air quality, food safety, land use, transportation and water diversions.
The state Department of Food and Agriculture also has an entire section on its website devoted to proposed and pending regulatory changes that might affect farmers. They're listed alphabetically everything from the repeal of maturity standards for Granny Smith apples to proposed changes in the terms of service for the Milk Inspection Advisory Committee to a declaration that the entire state is an eradication area for the European grapevine moth.
Top official hears gripes
Karen Ross, the department's new secretary, says all kinds of farmers complain to her all the time about the number of agencies and the amount of paperwork they have to deal with. "It doesn't matter where I go in the state, it's the first or second thing out of their mouths," she told me.
She's also troubled that among prospective new farmers, young people in farm families seem to be the least optimistic, in part because of their parents' grumbling about regulations.
Since many regulations come from other agencies, Ross says it's a top priority to work with them to get rid of conflicting or duplicative rules so the state's business climate for farmers is as friendly as its growing climate.
Officials need to get cracking on that effort.
Agriculture can be a vital cog to help the Central Valley and other farm-rich parts of California climb out of the recession. It remains the nation's leading farm state with $35 billion in cash receipts in 2009. When that money is made by small farmers, it's more likely to recirculate through the local economy.
Almonds were a $2.3 billion crop in 2009 in California, ranking it fourth among agricultural commodities. Walnuts, at more than $738 million, ranked 12th. California leads the nation in the production of both; almonds were the state's top agricultural export in 2009, while walnuts ranked fifth.
The weather has mostly cooperated, so it's looking like a good year for almonds and walnuts.
The Uhrhammer orchards produced 42,000 pounds of almonds and a good walnut crop as well. The profit could reach $80,000 this year.
The farm typically clears $50,000 or so, so the four family partners don't rely solely on it for a living. They keep the orchards as much to keep the tradition and to have a nice place in the country. The small farmhouse fronts El Capitan Way (so named because years ago, before the smog, you could see all the way to Yosemite, Brower says).
The land's highest value, however, is for development. That's obvious from just looking at all the subdivisions that sprouted from former fields up and down the Central Valley during the housing bubble.
Five years back, they almost did sell the almond orchard for more than $700,000 to someone interested in building a riverfront home. However, the zoning approval got hung up, the housing market crashed and the deal fell through. An appraisal last October put the value of the house at $130,000 and the orchards at $640,000.
Brower, 64, would like to keep farming until he's 75 if his health allows and if keeping up with regulations doesn't become too much of a pain.
He has made himself a vow: The day he has to spend more time filling out paperwork than driving his tractor is the day he quits.
Can't say I blame him.