CIRS Blog about Rural California
Kingsburg cherry farmer Allen Jackson laments last season’s paltry harvest. Dry and warmer than normal temperatures contributed to fewer cherries and less revenue.
“There were some areas where there wasn’t enough fruit on the tree to even try picking it,” said Jackson, who grows 11 varieties of cherries. “But things are looking much better now.”
Jackson and other tree fruit farmers are welcoming the return of cooler daytime temperatures and foggy weather – staples of San Joaquin Valley winters and two factors needed for good fruit development.
WASHINGTON -- Angry California Republicans threw in the towel late Thursday, conceding that a California water bill that had divided the state was dead for the year.
In a remarkably acrimonious ending to negotiations that once seemed close to bearing fruit, GOP House members acknowledged the bill’s failure while putting the blame squarely on California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
“It’s dead, unfortunately,” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, said in an interview Thursday afternoon, adding in a later statement that “our good faith negotiations came to naught.”
The utter collapse of negotiations means a California water package that in its latest manifestation spanned 92 pages will not be slipped into a much larger, much-pass omnibus federal spending package needed to keep the federal government open. If legislative efforts are revived, they will come in the new year.
“That land is so rich you could eat it with a spoon!” exclaimed Tom Willey, a pioneering organic farmer in Madera, referring to the swath of land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley that makes up the Westlands Water District. Willey would know. He has farmed for a stint in Westlands and has farmed in the Valley for decades.
He went on: “They used to say that any idiot could be a good farmer out there because the soil was just so fertile. It was true, absolutely true. And there’s no question that, under a different set of circumstances, 160-acre farms could have been successful out there.”
That figure, 160 acres, is significant. Until 1982, there was a law on the books – the 1902 Reclamation Act – that limited the size of farms allowed to use government-subsidized irrigation water across the western U.S. to just 160 acres. That’s much, much smaller than the kind of massive-scale agricultural development that characterizes California farming in general and the Valley in particular.
What may sound to modern readers like a quaint rule was actually meant to be an important safeguard against consolidation of land, power and wealth in the developing West.
Most people understand that California agriculture is big, but unless you have spent time in the Valley it’s hard to imagine how vast the industry really is. Farms stretch for uninterrupted miles, sprawling across tens of thousands of acres.
The Westlands Water District spans 600,000 acres (the size of Rhode Island) with fewer than 600 landowners. And farmland values are sky-high in California – the USDA’s 2015 Land Values Summary lists California’s average cropland price at $10,690 per acre.
This makes it nearly impossible for aspiring farmers, whether they’re young folks or former farmworkers, to become farm owners. Had the 160-acre rule been enforced, the situation would be much different; California agriculture, at least in places using subsidized irrigation water, would have been dominated by family-scale farms.
So what happened?
In the late 1970s, a group of Fresno-based activists trained a laser focus on this rule and on enforcement of Reclamation Law to promote small farm development, stirring up a surprising – if forgotten – amount of dust.
National Land for People was founded in 1964 by a journalist, photographer and energetic, populist visionary from Wisconsin named George Ballis. NLP’s goal was straightforward: They wanted small farmers and farmworkers to own the 160-acre parcels that the Reclamation Act promised. They drew their motto – La tierra pertenece al que la trabaja/Land belongs to those who work it – from Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
Ballis teamed with a group of people who were committed to bringing attention to the fact that water law was not being enforced in California – and that a small collection of large landowners were getting rich off of government water subsidy.
There was Berge Bulbulian, Armenian raisin-grape grower and self-described “farmer front-man” with a sharp wit and socialist politics; Marc Lasher, a social worker from New York who wanted to work for justice in the “belly of the monster”; Mary Louise Frampton, a young civil rights lawyer with a novel (and successful) approach to suing for enforcement of the law; Eddie Nolan, organizer of African American farmers in the Valley, and Jessie De La Cruz, one of the first female organizers for the United Farm Workers who would go on to put together an important farming cooperative in the Valley. And there was Maia Ballis, George’s “collaborator in life,” joyful co-conspirator and talented graphic artist.
A July 2015 reunion of NLP members. L to R: Mark Lasher, Berge Bulbulian, Maia Ballas, Mary Louise Frampton. Photo Ildi Carlisle-Cummins
Fired up about what they saw as a wave of “water crimes” being committed in the Valley, the small, volunteer NLP team pieced together detailed records of “questionable land deals” in the Westlands Water District.
From a house-turned-organizing-office in Fresno, the group created maps, graphics and a fiery newsletter sharing their findings with thousands of supporters. George Ballis pulled no punches. In the newsletter, he called corporate farming businesses “the biggies.” He further propagandized NLP’s work with a graphic of an oversized dollar bill that read “Westlands Water District” on the top and “2 Billion Dollar Boondoggle” on the bottom, with the line “Paid for by U.S. Taxpayers” running up the side.
Despite their straight-no-chaser rhetoric, NLP made friends in high places, earning the respect of congressmen like George Miller and officials in the Department of the Interior, who oversaw Reclamation Act projects.
In addition to speaking truth to power in the Valley, the group also made many trips to Washington, D.C. NLP members squeezed into a tiny van to drive across the country to testify at congressional hearings, staying at the YMCA on their no-salary budget. Despite Bulbulian’s urging that NLP buy Ballis a three-piece suit to wear for these occasions, he insisted on sporting a long beard and “hippie” clothes to the hearing. Ballis didn’t soften his argument when he was before Congress, either, exclaiming things like, “This isn’t a hearing, it’s a pep rally!”
However, building key political allies was not enough to force the government to stop the existing illegal actions in the Westlands. Scraping together a little money, the NLP hired Mary Louise Frampton in 1974 to sue the Department of Interior for not enforcing the Reclamation Act. Fresh out of law school and 24 years old, Frampton devised a unique strategy for the suit. Against all odds she won a court order halting land deals across the West. The NLP won appeal after appeal – all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.
The Valley buzzed with controversy. NLP members were labeled “communists.” Even as Valley newspapers wrote of “the biggies” preparing for battle, Maia Ballis reported that, “It looked like we had won!”
When the Department of the Interior held hearings on the proposed rules and regulations that they would then use to enforce the law, members of the NLP received death threats. Frampton remembers an FBI agent standing guard outside her motel room in El Centro as protection while she prepared to testify.
Growers went to outrageous lengths to silence the NLP. According to Frampton, they flew helicopters over the outdoor hearings to drown out testimony and pulled in huge farm equipment to kick up clouds of dust over the grandstands.
And then, in 1980, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan strode into the White House, bringing with him a whole new administration – and Department of the Interior leadership. Some activists speculate that promises to overhaul the Reclamation Act helped him get elected.
Whether or not it was a campaign promise, Reagan’s administration worked with Congress to pass the Reclamation Reform Act. Defenders of the new law claimed Reagan’s changes “modernized” the act, updating it to reflect the costs of farming in the 1980s. From the NLP point of view, the law was gutted, with the acreage limitation raised to 960 and the residency requirement eliminated.
Bulbulian read this as a classic capitalist maneuver. “You gamble on breaking the law to make as much profit as possible and then when the law is being enforced you use the profits you made to sway political interests to change the law so your crimes are legal.”
In 1982, NLP admitted defeat on the water issue. Ballis wrote in an NLP newsletter, “We lost not just because of biggie bucks. We lost because what we advocated is against the warp of our time.”
But, he insisted, their work was not over: “The struggle to create a democratic, responsible and sustainable food system goes on. … Now we turn our full attention to creating new cultural, social, economic realities on a small scale.”
In what could be seen as a tactical shift, or possibly as retreat, the Ballises and Lasher uprooted NLP from the Valley, planting it again on 40 acres they called Sun Mountain, east of Fresno at the base of the Sierra Nevada. Here National Land for People morphed into the People Food and Land Foundation, and George poured his boundless energy into building a passive solar house, creating perennial gardens and demonstrating what sustainable living could look like – outside of the reach of “the biggies.”
NLP didn’t win its battle. California farming continued to consolidate, and corporate land holdings ballooned. It’s easy to superimpose 2015 cynicism onto this National Land for People story and wonder whether their Reclamation Act enforcement fervor was foolish.
What is striking about Bulbulian, Maia and George Ballis, Lasher, Frampton and all the other NLP crusaders is the tremendous optimism and idealism that they brought to their work. NLP’s heyday was 30 years ago, not 100, and yet they held an entirely different vision for the Valley – one that would have broken down massive landholdings held by white landowners and transferred them to small farmers and farmworkers of color. They looked at the stark, mostly unpopulated land of Westlands and imagined a string of thriving communities and a base for democracy in the Valley. Their optimism, it seems, was the ultimate political act.
Today, with water on everyone’s mind, Californians have a rare opportunity to rethink how we want to use this precious, and highly subsidized, resource. Is it to deliver profit into the hands of a few? Or is there another possibility?
Tom Willey wistfully reflected, “I once wished to hell I’da had 160 acres out there, really.” For many activists in the California food movement, it’s hard not to agree.
WASHINGTON -- Winemakers from northwestern Idaho to the foothills of California’s Fresno County produce distinct vintages but share a common dream of seeing benefits flow from federal recognition.
In what’s become a rite of passage, the different groups of winemakers have sought designation of their respective regions as viticultural areas. It can be a years-long ordeal that proponents hope will result in marketing fizz.
“This area has a lot of viticultural history,” Karl Umiker, co-owner of the Lewiston, Idaho-based Clearwater Canyon Cellars, said in an interview Nov. 12, “and this will be a way we can draw people’s attention to it.”
If approved, the proposed 306,650-acre Lewis-Clark Valley Viticultural Area at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers would be Idaho’s second federally recognized winemaking region. An existing Snake River Valley area, straddling southwestern Idaho and parts of Oregon, was established in 2007.
Almonds are irrigated with 3.5 acre feet or 42 inches of water, and the typical 124 almond trees per acre yield an average 2,270 pounds of nuts. One cubic foot of water is 7.5 gallons, and one acre is 43,560 square feet, so 502 gallons of water are used to produce a pound of almonds: (7.48 x 3.5 x 43,560 )/2,270 = 502. With about 380 almonds per pound, each almond requires about 1.3 gallons of water.
California's acreage of long-staple Pima cotton declined as more farmers switched to almonds. California had over 300,000 acres of Pima cotton in 2011, and fewer than 100,000 acres in 2015. Despite cotton yields of over 1,200 pounds per acre, nuts and processing tomatoes require less water per dollar of revenue.
Over 70 percent of California grapes and almonds are irrigated with drip or a similar low-water technology. However, less than 10 percent of the alfalfa and corn used to feed dairy cows uses water-saving technologies; flood irrigation is typical.
A Fresno State study (www.fresnostate.edu/academics/drought/) focused on the effects of the drought in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley, emphasizing that areas most dependent on surface water suffered most. The report called for water budgeting, that is, recognizing the true value of water and pricing it accordingly.
WASHINGTON —Ever hopeful lawmakers on Thursday conjured the vision of a compromise California water bill that succeeds instead of fails.
It may be a mirage.
But in a long-awaited hearing, the chairwoman of a key Senate committee zeroed in on some specific, concrete details that could be the basis for real-world legislation. Water storage, recycling and desalination projects could be the foundation for a deal, some believe.
“We’ve got some things we can be building on,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Clearly, we’ve got some real differences. The way we’re going to work this out is to work together.”
WASHINGTON - A top Interior Department official Tuesday will sign a San Joaquin Valley irrigation settlement with the Westlands Water District, signaling the end of a long-running legal battle, but marking the start of a hot new political fight.
After years of wrangling, negotiators agreed to a deal that absolves the federal government of the responsibility to provide irrigation drainage to farms in thte Westlands district. The government’s failure to provide the drainage as part of building the Central Valley Project led to tainted soil and serious environmental problems.
In return, according to lawmakers briefed on the deal Friday, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland. The nation’s largest water district will also receive a potentially an advantageous new type of contract and have its own remaining debt to the government forgiven, among other changes.
WASHINGTON -- The federal response to the Western drought has been hindered by high-level vacancies, bureaucratic caution and political calculations that have thrown sand in the gears.
Put another way: With more than 70 percent of California now classified in a state of “exceptional” or “extreme” drought, Uncle Sam is floundering.
“We need leadership from the federal government,” pleaded Cannon Michael, a politically engaged farmer from Los Banos in California’s acutely dry San Joaquin Valley.
WASHINGTON — A decades-old program for managing surplus California raisin production might be in jeopardy, following a heated Supreme Court argument Wednesday.
With a blend of skeptical questions and scornful asides, conservative justices in particular voiced doubts about the program, which can require raisin handlers to set aside a portion of the crop for a reserve. By keeping some raisins off the free market, the program is supposed to stabilize prices.
“Central planning was thought to work very well in 1937,” Justice Antonin Scalia said, “and Russia tried it for a long time.”
Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel Alito likewise grimaced at the set-aside program, which is part of the overall California raisin-marketing order.
“Could the government say to a manufacturer of cellphones, ‘You can sell cellphones. However, every fifth one you have to give to us?’ ”Alito asked. “Or a manufacturer of cars, ‘You can sell cars in the United States, but every third car you have to give to the United States?’ ”
California's most recent agricultural report, released early in 2014, reported that the state's farm sales approached a record $45 billion in 2012, almost 50 percent more than Iowa, where farm sales were $32 billion. Farm sales are divided between crops, with $32.6 billion in sales, and livestock products, worth $12.2 billion in sales.
Within crops, fruits and nuts were worth $17 billion, and over half of the value of fruits and nuts came from grapes and almonds. Vegetables and melons were worth $6.8 billion, and lettuce worth $1.4 billion was a fifth of the value of all vegetables. The value of field crops was $5 billion, including a quarter from the hay grown primarily to feed to dairy cows. Tulare is the dairy county, generating over a quarter of the state's sales of milk and cream, and Tulare is also the leading county for cattle sales.
Three counties had farm sales over $6 billion in 2012: Fresno ($6.6 billion) Kern ($6.2 billion) and Tulare ($6.2 billion).
By Michael Doyle and William Douglas
WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers from California’s San Joaquin Valley are now at the forefront of challenging party orthodoxy on immigration, a dissident position that brings both promise and peril.
On Thursday, doubling down at a party retreat, Rep. Jeff Denham kept the spotlight on sharp disagreements over immigration control. The move came one day after Denham joined fellow Valley Republican David Valadao and some others in the GOP in opposing strict immigration measures pushed by party leaders.
“I think it’s going to be a renewed debate,” Denham said in an interview Thursday. “It will give us an opportunity to come together on some good reforms.”
WASHINGTON — A tangled legal fight over grape patents ended Friday in a victory for the California Table Grape Commission.
Capping years of courtroom battling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled the Fresno-based industry group has licensed valid patents for the Scarlet Royal and Autumn King grape varieties.
The unanimous, 13-page decision by the three-judge panel turned on technical questions, including what date the grapes came into public use. The appellate court rejected arguments from challengers that the grapes were already being generally circulated well before the patents were applied for.
“The evidence at trial was sufficient to support the district court’s finding that the patented plant varieties were not in public use prior to the critical date,” Judge William C. Bryson wrote.
Money is at stake, and maybe more.
The drought dominated farm-related news in summer 2014. California's Lake Oroville was less than 40 percent of capacity and Nevada's Lake Mead was at its lowest level since the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930s, less than 1,100 feet above sea level rather than the usual 1,200 feet.
California's State Water Resources Control Board in July 2014 instituted mandatory statewide water restrictions for the first time, allowing local water agencies to fine those who waste water up to $500. The new regulations by the SWRCB, which regulates only urban water use, limit outdoor watering to two days a week, largely prohibit washing sidewalks and driveways, and ban washing cars without a shut-off nozzle on the hose.
A University of California at Davis study estimated that 429,000 acres or five percent of California's eight million acres of irrigated land would be fallowed in 2014 due to lack of water, including 10,000 acres that would normally be planted to vegetable and melon crops. About 40 percent of California's irrigated crop land, some 3.2 million acres, are planted to trees and vines, "hardening" the demand for water in the sense that perennial crops must be watered each year.
Judges concluded that the government owes additional damages for the Bureau of Reclamation’s failure to deliver enough water to the Stockton-based Central San Joaquin Water Conservation District. Potentially, the district could collect millions of dollars.
“We are thrilled that the court of appeals has seen the justice of Central’s claim,” attorney Roger J. Marzulla said Monday (Aug. 4), adding the decision “now clears the way for Central to recover at least a portion of the tremendous damage done . . . by Reclamation’s unexcused breach of contract.”
The ruling issued Friday (Aug. 1) by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed a trial judge, who had rejected the water district’s claims for “expectancy” damages. In this case, these cover things like damages to farmers and the local groundwater aquifer resulting from the shortfalls in surface water deliveries.
The water district has previously asked for about $13.1 million in damages.
The lack of water to grow crops dominated farm-related news in the San Joaquin Valley during the spring and summer of 2014. The federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project announced zero allocations for the water agencies in the San Joaquin Valley that buy water from them, although the SWP raised its allocation to five percent in April 2014.
California has eight million acres of irrigated land, and 410,000 acres or five percent are expected to be fallowed in 2014 due to lack of water, including 10,000 acres that would normally be planted to vegetable and melon crops. About 40 percent of California's irrigated crop land, some 3.2 million acres, are planted to trees and vines.
A UCD study released in May 2014 estimated that San Joaquin Valley growers would receive a net 1.5 million fewer acre feet of surface water in 2014, which could lead to 6,400 fewer jobs in crop production, three percent of the average 200,000 farm worker jobs in the San Joaquin Valley and 1.5 percent of the state's average farm employment of 400,000. An additional 8,000 related nonfarm jobs could be lost. Some of the farm and nonfarm jobs expected to be lost are seasonal.
WASHINGTON — Beneath a placid surface, California lawmakers are furiously churning to keep an anti-drought bill afloat.
They’re counting votes, making tradeoffs and tinkering with language. They’re confronting singular political calculations like: Will a Lake Mead provision for Nevada, home state of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, cause problems with other Democrats upstream in Colorado?
And, no mean feat, they are meeting.
Last week, a prominent environmental group released its annual report identifying the top ten “endangered” streams and rivers nationwide—waterways that are at a crossroads politically, where key upcoming decisions will have major impacts for better or worse. California’s San Joaquin River, the second longest river in the state, is #1 on the list due to the historical and ongoing impacts of state water infrastructure, and major proposals to expand this infrastructure in the future. Flowing 330 miles, the River begins in the Sierra Nevada mountains and meanders through the San Joaquin Valley toward the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, which is part of the largest estuary on the west coast. Tributaries to the San Joaquin include the Stanislaus, Tuolumne, Merced, Calaveras, and Mokelumne Rivers. The 10,000 square mile San Joaquin Valley receives little rainfall on average, but historical river flows have been maintained by seasonal snow melt from the Sierras. This area is the most agriculturally productive region in the country; the San Joaquin Valley supports upwards of $25 billion in food crops annually. The San Joaquin River provides important transportation corridors for agricultural products and since the early 1900s, the river has been routinely dredged to allow large cargo ships to navigate.
It is well documented that major changes to the Delta and the San Joaquin River have resulted from human activities, especially water diversions and other infrastructure that captures and transports water away from the Delta to drier parts of the state. Some studies estimate less than five percent of the native biodiversity of the Delta remains, with the tidal marsh habitats being most degraded. Chinook salmon and other native fish struggle to maintain healthy population levels as aquatic habitat areas along the San Joaquin (and many other waterways in and near the Delta) have been degraded and blocked by in-stream water diversions and monumental structures like dams.
Water diversions and stream barriers reduce flows and physically alter the surrounding habitat areas. According to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California, many of these alterations and changes will be permanent: [t]he characteristics of the earlier Delta that are likely gone forever include (1) physical habitat appropriate for species that tend to rely on shallow water and structure for refuge and feeding; (2) food aggregation that long, complex sloughs and channels provide through increased production and retention, and (3) cooling functions that adjacent wetlands provide for small water bodies, such as sloughs, which provide refuge for fishes during summer heat spells.
WASHINGTON — San Joaquin Valley lobbying priorities this week can be summed up simply.
“Water, water, water,” Brenda Veenendaal, senior regional planner with the Fresno Council of Governments, said Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
In separate, but overlapping lobbying trips that formally began Monday, officials from both Fresno and Tulare counties have been seeking support from elected lawmakers, all-important staff and Obama administration higher-ups. These are annual ventures that this year took on a different, wetter cast.
Water projects and drought relief now top the Fresno County COG wish list, which in previous years emphasized roads and rail. In some ways, the state’s well-documented drought emergency has simplified the Valley officials’ sales job, as bipartisan congressional action actually seems possible.
“It seems like they are starting to come out of their bunkers,” said Amarpreet Dhaliwal, mayor of the city of San Joaquin and chair of the Fresno COG Policy Board. “There seems to be some thawing, a little bit of movement.”
Despite producing mixed results for sustainable agriculture interests, President Obama’s 2015 budget request is an encouraging sign that the federal government is getting serious about climate change, and particularly about adapting to its impacts.
The President’s proposal includes a $1 billion dollar Climate Resilience Fund, which is intended to strengthen preparedness of states and communities for increasingly extreme weather like floods, droughts, and wildfires. The fund would support investment in research, technologies, and infrastructure across numerous agencies and sectors, including agriculture.
Of course, we need not look far to find proof of the urgent need for such an initiative.
Word of the fund first came out in February, when Obama met with growers and ranchers in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of drought-stricken California. While touring the farm of Joe and Maria Del Bosque, who have fallowed their melon fields due to water shortages, the President emphasized the role federal support could play in alleviating drought impacts and preparing for the future.
“A changing climate means that weather-related disasters like droughts, wildfires, storms, and floods are potentially going to be costlier,” he noted, “And they’re going to be harsher.”
The Wall Street Journal profiled the city of Fresno's bleak finances October 31, 2013. Fresno, a city of 500,000 residents, had the least cash on hand of any of the 250 largest US cities. Fresno had less than a day's reserves, compared with a median 80+ days for large US cities.
One cause of Fresno's cash crunch is a $26 million convention-center garage that lost business to new facilities at California State University, Fresno in the northern part of the city. Garage deficits were financed in part by borrowing from other city funds. Eventually, the city began to lay off employees, some 1,200 or 30 percent of its 4,200 workers, between 2009 and 2013.