Westland’s has been demonized by the environmental movement and while some of the criticism may be valid, a lot of unfair statements have been made. I know farmers in this area and they are “family” farmers. I know the definition might vary for different people, but these are multi-generation agriculturalists. There is a very real “human” component to the discussion and no matter what side you are on, we should try and listen to each other. Read on and decide for yourself.
The truth about the West Side farmers
by K. Lynn Humphreys
originally published at aquafornia.com
Lately there has been a lot of purposeful use of the words “conglomerates”, “profiteers”, “big ag”, “corporate ag”, and “land barons”, when referring to farming families within The Westlands Water District. The relentless flow of these distracting terms is an obvious attempt to depersonalize farmers, and to demonize them as giant industry hogs that are grabbing resources at the expense of the environment. After all, it is easier to justify opposing someone if you don’t think of them as being like you. I would like to tell you about the real people farming in the Westlands District.
My husband is a fourth-generation farmer. He, along with his siblings, has grown up working on tomato harvesters, hoeing weeds, and laboring side by side with farm workers just as his father and siblings did on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. Over decades, the lifetime investment of multiple generations of a single family contributed to the development of the knowledge and experience necessary to manage their fields. They learned not only from their parents, grandparents and college educations, but also from being hands-on farmers and sharing information with their farming neighbors.
Their farming neighbors are the same families that were there when my husband was growing up, and when his father was growing up. The only difference now is their families, like yours, have grown. The children that wanted to become farmers purchased land alongside their parents’ farms. And then their children did the same. Land was also passed down as grandparents faded away. Ironically, “big ag”, the frightening term in the eyes of some, is actually the “family farm” those same people seek to promote.
There are also many other reasons families farm together. Probably the biggest consideration that dictates farm size is the question of what it takes to be economically worthwhile in terms of what is achieved for the amount of money spent. Equipment is but one facet of where expenses occur. A tomato harvester for example has a price tag of about $400,000. Tomatoes cannot be harvested without one. Tractors for plowing and furrowing and seeding and fertilizing also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. A farm must generate enough product to support the equipment agriculture cannot exist without. Families farming together share equipment costs enabling them to achieve results with the minimum use of resources.
A second factor significant in determining farm size is Mother Nature’s will. A farmer’s ability to earn a living is decided by the unknowns of natural phenomena. Tomatoes can be ruined by hail storms. Freezes destroy citrus. Grasshopper infestations devour corn. Sometimes mature cotton gets rained on, and so forth. Farmers must grow enough of a crop to be profitable, fulfill contracts even when yields are low, and be diverse in crop variety to monetarily balance the ones that don’t survive nature. In order to successfully weather uncontrollable factors that threaten their fields, farming cannot exist on a small scale. It is neither feasible nor practical.
The third and most critical reality that is known to affect farm size on the west side is the fact that they must operate under different water reliability conditions than other farmers. Because water is extremely unreliable on the west side, farmers must have enough acreage to consolidate water on a few acres in order to produce a full crop on those acres. Their remaining acreage will be left without a crop. Small farms cannot afford to do this. Even though a family farmer may own several hundred acres, not all of it is always in production.
With the realization that large-scale farming on the west side is fundamentally necessary to achieve results, one also must recognize the need for water. So why are there so many farms in a region that began in the late 1920’s as a dry semi-desert? Why should we sell water to San Joaquin Valley farmers? The answer can be found in the fertile soil, but it is best answered in the climate.
Water is sold to farms in this region because, let’s face it, agriculture doesn’t thrive every where. The dry heat in the summer and the cool damp weather in the winter are ideal conditions for growing more than 60 food and fiber crops. There are few places in the world that have the rich soil combined with a Mediterranean climate like ours. Only central California has been given the gift of prosperity through agriculture because of its climate; something 49 other states do not have to the extent we do. We are so fortunate to have the ability to grow half of the nation’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts right here in our valley, and the opportunity to put one in six people to work in the ripple effect of ag related jobs. Interestingly enough, almonds, artichokes, figs, olives, persimmons, pomegranates, prunes, raisins and walnuts are only grown in California. We boast the ranking of 8th largest economy in the world because of agriculture.
Because water must be shared by all people and interests in California, water diversions are necessary due to the natural geography of our state. Northern California receives the most abundant rainfall and runoff from mountain snow pack; however most of California’s population lives in Southern California, and most irrigated farmland lie in Central California. It is imperative that we have efficient water systems to convey water supplies from one region to another to serve the needs of all Californians. Otherwise our state’s nearly 34 million people would all have to live in northern California and the bay area; an area where food does not flourish.
There are some who believe that water for farmers is heavily subsidized, and therefore very inexpensive. The fact is farmers receiving water from the CVP (Central Valley Project) are required to repay their share of the federal government’s cost to build, maintain and operate the CVP. Currently, irrigators are obligated to repay the government more than $1.1 billion for the initial construction of the vast project. Farmers who comply with acreage limits required by Reclamation law are not required to pay interest on the principle debt incurred to build the project. This is the only subsidy they receive. Farmers who do not meet Reclamation law requirements are required to pay the full cost which means they pay the principle plus the interest. New CVP contracts contain significant increases in water rates that are intended to result in repayment of all CVP capital costs by 2030 which is in adherence to the law mandated to them. Farmers continue to pay these costs regardless of whether or not they are experiencing natural or man-made droughts.
There are others who believe farmers are allowed to buy water at lower rates than other water users. The fact is, water costs are not set by the type of use, but rather by many other factors primarily being the proximity to the water source. Water rates vary across the board for agriculture, urban, and industrial users. One also needs to recognize that farms receive “raw” water, whereas cities use treated water. The water that comes out of your faucet has been to a treatment plant first, and you pay extra for that service. In this case it isn’t that farmers are paying less, it is that you are paying more.
Historically, periods of naturally occurring droughts have been part of the water cycle on the west side, so learning how to adjust crops for drought years has always been a part of the yearly planning. When we have above-average rain, farmers plant more tomatoes, or similar crops that require more water. When we have below-average rain, farmers plant more drought tolerant crops such as wheat and other grains. West side farms are among the most productive and water-efficient in the world. They have collectively spent millions of dollars employing cutting edge technological innovations in their water conservation efforts, including water recycling, drip-irrigation and center-pivot irrigation. But even their best efforts and decades of experience could not prepare them for the unnatural drought that is being deliberately imposed.
With this year’s rainfall over 80% of normal, and Shasta Dam reaching 77% of average capacity, federal regulations attempting to protect Smelt in the Delta have intentionally prevented Westlands farmers from buying more than 10% of the water they rely on. Even though reputable science has shown Smelt populations did not increase when water exports were cut, and levels in the Delta remained high, farms were still were not allowed to buy more than 10% of their water. Even though Smelt are not native to the Delta and are threatened by other non-native species in the Delta, adequate water for agriculture was again denied. Even though Smelt exist by the millions from Michigan to Maine, water continued to flow to the ocean instead of to our farms. Even though Smelt cannot survive pyrethroids found in pesticides or high ammonia levels from the partially treated sewer wastewater being dumped in the Delta, yet again our farms were the target. For more than 20 years irrigation for agriculture has been restricted, yet Smelt populations have continued to dwindle.
The result is the ongoing dismantling of the economic engine of our great state at a time when our state needs the money most. The disturbing part is that many members of congress are okay with this outcome and have steadily approved the water cuts that have resulted in thousands of fallowed acres and lost jobs; jobs that extend far beyond the field workers. Environmental groups seeking to relocate human habitations outside of California, and stop humans from increasing our population numbers, are also in favor of this outcome. They believe California should be returned to the way it was a hundred years ago. Collapsing California’s economy fits perfectly into their agenda as they realize without a job you cannot afford to have children or live in this state.
Where is the common sense? Are there some among us who have found a way to sustain themselves without food? Obviously not. And that is why as long as people eat food, “big ag” will exist. We can have it here in our own backyard where we have a say in the regulation of pesticides, food inspections, and other governmental controls, or we can put it in the hands of other countries, along with all the jobs and tax revenues, and eat what they sell to us. Either way, large scale farming will always exist. It is the only way it can be done efficiently.
Westlands farmers are not the villains and they certainly are not to blame for the declining Smelt populations. They are simply 600 families on the west side of the valley that farm an average of 900 acres each. Since Westlands Water District is made up of about 600,000 acres, a few quick calculations and you will see the people buying water from Westlands are not the self-regarding monster corporations as the people trying prevent agricultural irrigation would have you believe. They are not mass “conglomerates” that are comprised of a variety of different companies and dissimilar businesses. They are not faceless big industry that is here today and gone tomorrow. Do not let those biting the hands that feed you try to lure you to their cause by convincing you they are anything other than families with farming DNA in their souls deeper than the soil under their nails. If you need more proof, come and see for yourself. Any of the families on the west side would be proud to show you their crops.
The real Westlands farmers respect their environment and treat carefully their ground so as to preserve the future of farming for the next generation, and have done so successfully for about 90 years. They possess the virtues of honesty and respect for others; generosity to charities and those in need; and sound business judgment. They nourish California’s economy as well as the bodies of the people of the world. They work in and with nature’s elements, and are now up to their dusty boot-tops trying to figure out how to continue without enough water. They drive pick up trucks, have tan faces, and wear blue jeans, plaid shirts, and straw sunhats. They are everything left that’s good about humanity. They are families, and have families, just like you.
You may have seen this blog post by the CSPA about Westlands Water District hoarding water. I just received a copy of Tom Birmingham’s response to these allegations:
August 21, 2009
There has been some confusion created by an irresponsible and misleading claim by the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance that it has “discovered” that Westlands Water District has been “hording [sic] surplus water it can’t use.” At the end of the 2008 water year, Westlands had approximately 300,000 acre-feet of water which CalSPA claims was hoarded. The reality is that this is water that Westlands carried over in storage in anticipation of a low allocation from the Bureau of Reclamation. Had Westlands not planned for this contingency, its farmers would have started the 2009 water year with zero surface water for the irrigation of crops because Reclamation gave Westlands and other south-of-Delta Central Valley Project irrigation service contractors a zero percent allocation.
Ultimately, Westlands received a ten percent of its allocation of contract water supplies from the Central Valley Project, the most severe cutback in the project’s history. Many of our family farmers have only managed to survive this year by pumping groundwater at rates that cannot be sustained. But even so, more than 260,000 acres of productive farmland had to be fallowed, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs and billions of dollars for the economy of the Westside. As we look ahead to 2010, Westlands estimates that it will be carrying over an estimated 270,000 acre feet of water that has been rescheduled for delivery from the federal project in the coming year.
There is nothing secretive about this fact.
Westlands publishes notices of the condition of our water supplies every month on our website, and that includes rescheduled water as well as all of our other water resources. The website also provides charts, schedules and other graphic materials that trace the use and availability of these supplies month by month. Information on rescheduled water has also been included in periodic public meetings attended by growers and the media, and public concerns about the protection of those supplies were the subject of widespread news coverage last March. Reclamation separately maintains and publishes comprehensive records of rescheduled water supplies which are included in that agency’s various reports and statistical studies.
Where is this water?
It is not being held in storage. It is in fact only a promise of future delivery. If these extreme water shortages continue or the demands of other water rights holders take precedence, that water may not be available when a farmer needs it. But this promise of delivery is nonetheless an asset that farmers can take to the bank as proof that they have a reasonable expectation of having water available to grow their crops next year. And that is critically important for staying in business. The process of securing financing for next year’s planting is beginning now, as this year’s reduced harvest is just being brought in. Without this rescheduled water, many farmers would be unable to secure the funds they need to plant a crop for next year. And thus, the catastrophe that the Westside has suffered this year would get even worse.
Why didn’t the farmers use all of this water up in 2009?
There are lots of reasons. The allocated water did not become available until most cropping decisions had already been made, and even then, there was some uncertainty about its delivery. Also, faced with severe shortages, many farmers elected to apply groundwater for the crops that could survive on it, while protecting higher quality surface supplies for other produce. This is the way every responsible water agency manages its supplies in times of shortage. We all report how much water we have to use and what we are holding in reserve. We conserve wherever we can. If we had nothing in reserve, our consumers would begin next year with no water at all. That would be irresponsible. But no one suggests that the water in Shasta Lake is being hoarded or that the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California is doing the wrong thing when it orders a cutback in deliveries to 20 million people even though it has water in its reservoirs.
Westlands is no different.