By Steve Horn
ESCONDIDO — Frank Konyn has lived his entire life on his family-owned dairy farm in the San Pasqual Valley, land officially owned by the city of San Diego as an agricultural preserve, but which many may confuse as the eastern edge of Escondido.
Owner of Frank Konyn Dairy, an 800-cow operation which produces milk as part of the second largest dairy cooperative in the U.S., Konyn says the dairy industry has seen better economic days in San Diego County, the state and nationwide. He attributes his farm’s hardships, which employs 35 workers, to a double whammy of market forces: expensive state regulations and the international trade war currently being waged by President Donald Trump.
In the past two decades, Konyn said, there has been a major “exodus” of dairy farmers out of the business. He said that 20 years ago there were 14 dairy farms in San Diego County and now only two remain.
“California is not necessarily a business friendly climate,” Konyn said. “You know, whether you produce milk in Colorado or Kansas or South Dakota, or you produce it in California, the price of milk that you sell is generic product and the price that you sell is going to be very similar. Yet, in California we have a lot more environmental regulations, a lot more air regulation. And I think that that explains a lot of the exodus.”
While he said he believes President Trump’s trade war is well-intentioned on behalf of segments of the U.S. labor force, he also sees it as having had negative repercussions so far in the agribusiness sector.
“That’s whether it’s dairy farmers not being able to export powder to China, or cheese to Mexico, or it’s the corn farmers and the soybean farmers not being able to sell their products,” he lamented. “And so it has extended our downturn that we’ve been in and as you look around, for dairymen it’s become very emotionally taxing on them.”
Within Escondido, Konyn’s travails are far from unique. Instead, they embody an industry with a long legacy in the city but one currently adjusting to changing times as land which was once agricultural shifts increasingly to “sprawl” style housing development.
Shrinking availability of agricultural land, albeit, is not the chief concern of agribusiness these days, according to the Escondido-based San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Eric Larson. He said little flat agricultural land is left to protect to begin with. Instead, he pointed to the increasingly high price of water as a shared concern among the Farm Bureau’s members.
That high price of water stems mostly from a regional water shortage, with much of the state still recovering from a years-long drought, Larson said.
“We benefit from being in a metropolitan area because of the security of the water supply,” Larson said. “But we don’t get a benefit because that water supply is very, very expensive,”
Larson said the Escondido City Council’s recent vote to approve a new location for the Hale Avenue Resource Recovery Facility (HARRF), a facility which will bring treated wastewater to the city’s agricultural community, will help that cause.
Larson said that within Escondido, avocado farms still reign supreme as the crop with the highest amount of yield produced, which he called “historically the crop of choice in Escondido.” Those farms growing them sit mostly on the most eastern and northern edges of the city. Nurseries, too, have expanded within the city, Larson said.
Beyond water, Larson cited a shrinking fleet of skilled farmworkers as a central concern for the farming community in Escondido. He said a comprehensive federal immigration reform policy would get to the root of the problem.
“We’d like a work visa program that could be used by workers who are already in the United States to create some permanence for them, so they can continue to work,” Larson said. “The second part is we’d like some kind of a guest worker program that would allow a defined number of workers to move back and forth across the border each year.”
As large-scale agriculture production has down-scaled, Larson said that some niche operations have arisen. One of them is Mountain Meadow Mushroom Farms, which sits in the far northern edges of Escondido.
“We produce approximately 6 million pounds of your typical white button mushroom,” said Roberto Ramirez, the owner of the mushroom farm, who employers about 100 workers on 17 acres of land. “However, we also produce close to 1 million pounds in other varieties: cremini mushrooms, portobello, shiitake, oyster and king oyster mushrooms.”
Ramirez also boasts a worldly workforce at Mountain Meadow.
“Our workforce is about 30% to 40% refugees from Burma (Myanmar), Congo, Kenya, Egypt, Somalia, and other small countries,” he said. “What we enjoy the most about growing mushrooms is the fact that we can offer a product that is not only sustainable, but nutritious and it has great value. Our mushrooms are the freshest in the market and are certified organic, plus pesticide free. Something that not even some organic farmers can say.”
Konyn said that for him, the dairy business amounts to more than just a profession or career and that’s what keeps him going during tough times. It is a way of paying homage to his past, too. With an aging mother and deceased father, he would like his mother’s last days to be spent where she raised him and he grew up.
“You know, typically people don’t come out of college and say, I’m going to go out I’m going to become a dairy farmer. This is tradition … family tradition,” said Konyn. “You grew up into it. So because you grew up into it, you keep trying and you keep trying.”
Photo Caption: Cows feed the Frank Konyn Dairy Farm in the San Pasqual Valley. Photo via Frank Konyn Dairy Facebook page