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Agriculture

The historically abundant harvest of California’s Central Valley, which has fed millions around the world and housed, clothed and fed the families of farmers, crop harvesters, food processors and others dependent on the agricultural industry, is in jeopardy, thanks to a four-year drought and to a legislative failure to expand and update systems for the capture and long-term storage of precipitation.

The rallying cry from farmers of large and small operations throughout the area is that legislators and environmental activists are “choosing fish over people” because state policies currently prevent farmers from pumping needed surface water from rivers in a misguided attempt, in the opinion of Pat Ricchiuti, president of P-R Farms and Enzo Olive Oil, to bring salmon back to rivers like the San Joaquin River (after an absence of more than 60 years) and to preserve chad and smelt populations which are decreasing, largely due to pollution from the cities.

“Fifty percent of our water from the Central Valley currently flows down the rivers and into the ocean, thanks to the federal Endangered Species Act,” explained Ryan Indart, general manager/partner of Indart Enterprises which grows cherries, almonds, oranges and winter forage hay on its 700 acres.

“Thanks to these political policies, over 1,000,000 acres in the Central Valley are currently lying fallow because the farmers cannot get enough water. One-year crops like lettuce, tomatoes, melons, onions and barley are no longer being planted because farmers need to use the little water they have to concentrate on the orchards and vineyards that constitute a 20-year investment, not the other crops which are one-year investments,” he continued.

“The environmentalists need to wake up and realize that the Central Valley is where their food comes from and that these farms provide employment for tens of thousands who are now being put out of work and onto state welfare rolls. It is affecting all of us. Because we haven’t been allocated any surface water, we are all pumping from our wells to irrigate our orchards and crops and those wells are becoming weaker. California needs to build some new reservoirs,” Indart said.

“Right now, 50 percent of California’s water is going to the environmentalists, 40 percent is going to the farmers and 10 percent to the general public. That is crazy!” said Ricchiuti.

“We farmers have changed the ways in which we irrigate our crops in order to save water. But even that is working against us,” he continued. “We have switched to drip irrigation and micro-sprinkler irrigation which is enough for the crops, but the Valley has naturally alkaline soil and we need lots of rain and irrigation water to flush the salts out of the soil. Without rain water and sufficient irrigation, the salts are now coming up to the surface and killing the crops and even some trees. So this is a double disaster.”

Bob Bagdasarian, owner of Kings River Winery which grows 12 different varieties of grapes, is also seeing the ground settling and sinking in some parts of the county because, lacking any allocation of surface water, the farmers are relying on massive amounts of pumping from wells to water their crops.

“We put in a new, deeper well about 15 years ago so we are fine, but many of the older, shallower wells in the Valley are failing. Our water issues are very serious,” Bagdasarian admitted.

As a result, farmers are phasing out the production of water-intensive Thompson seedless grapes which are used for raisins, table grapes and some wines and replacing them with almonds, pistachios and small mandarin oranges which command a higher price at market and can help compensate for the acres left fallow.

“Our water system in California was designed for the farms, not to bring the salmon back or to save the chad. Even in the dry years, there was plenty of water for the farms because they just released the water that had been banked,” Bagdasarian explained. “This is an issue of political-correctness. The environmentalists think that they don’t need the farms, that they can just buy their food at the grocery store. But they are ignoring the state’s tremendous unemployment rate because of the loss of agriculture-related jobs and they are ignoring the amount of food we produce for the world.”

“There is plenty of money in California but instead of using it to invest in the future by solving the water problem with additional reservoirs, they are using the money to support the farm workers who have had to go on welfare. They are wasting money on short-term fixes instead of getting to the root of the problem,” he continued.

Blake Smittcamp, vice president of industrial sales for Wawona Frozen Foods which grows peaches, plums and pears and then packages them into plastic cups, cans and freezer bags, concurred. “This water crisis is affecting all of us. The lack of sufficient water is stressing our trees and we are concerned about the aquifer because of all of the pumping we have been doing to irrigate. We usually get about 30 to 40 percent of our water from surface allocations and that didn’t happen this year so we are relying solely on our wells and on paying for hardship water.”

“We need better water management and more storage facilities in this state. Too much of our water is traveling south to Los Angeles and San Diego and then out into the ocean,” Smittcamp lamented.

“The last time I checked, the ocean didn’t need anymore water,” quipped Ricchiuti. “We need to act now to avert disaster. We need to put the economy and the people first and use our system of canals, ditches, lakes and reservoirs the way it was designed to be used.”

All of the farmers have been forced to rethink what they are producing because of these issues. They saw the handwriting on the wall several years ago so P-R Farms gave up their tree fruit business, shuttering the packing plant in Clovis that once employed 125 to 135 people six months out of every year, pulled out their orchards and replaced them with olive trees and almond trees.

Now they are concentrating on growing high-profit almonds and producing top-notch, highly rated olive oil because olives don’t need as much water. In addition, olives which are being used to make oil can be machine harvested, saving the Ricchiutis significant amounts of money on labor at a time when the entire P-R operation is struggling.

“We are at a crossroads caused by a crisis which is every bit as much man-made and politically-made as it is natural,” stated State Assemblyman Jim Patterson. “We are going down the wrong path and we need to change direction immediately for the sake of California’s economy, its people and its environment.”

“The current drought has been made worse by a water crisis created by the failure of the state’s elected officials to modernize, upgrade and expand the state’s system of water storage and conveyance. When we have wet years, we need to have the capacity to capture and store run-off from northern California and the Sierra Nevadas so that we can bank it and use it during dry years,” Patterson explained.

“The system which currently exists was built about 60 years ago and it is what turned California green and made it into a region that grows over 400 commodities and feeds the world. But if we don’t expand and update that system to meet the needs of today, we are going to watch the slow demise of agriculture in the Central Valley,” he continued.

“We, in the legislature, need to keep the promise made to California voters under the recent Proposition to provide money to build additional reservoirs so that we can get water to the people and farmers who need it. But we are in a huge wrestling match with the environmentalists, the governor and his water board that want to sidetrack this money for other purposes and stake claims on more water for environmental purposes,” Patterson admitted.

“We are up against a political and ideological movement which is denying the virtue and value of the hydrology that is right in front of them and the many good things it brings like flood control, hydroelectric power, recreation and inexpensive and available water. Unfortunately, the outcome of this fight is uncertain.”

Patterson said that he also sees national security implications in the threat to California agriculture. “We have always been self-sufficient and have even had excess food to export. Once we cannot produce that great volume of food, we become vulnerable. We don’t want to become dependent on other countries for our food supply. We would never off-load the building of parts for our most modern fighter planes to China, yet we run the risk of off-loading the growing of our food to places like Mexico and Argentina? This is a real danger,” he asserted.

The bottom line, according to Patterson, is that money needs to be invested in expanding and updating the storage and conveyance of water so that excess run-off during wet years can be banked for use during drier times. He also advocates the removal of dead trees and undergrowth that prevent the efficient flow of snowmelt and rain water to the rivers. This would also help to prevent the huge forest fires that California has experienced in recent years because it would rob them of combustible fuel.

Others outside of the traditional agricultural landscape are also working to come to the rescue of the struggling farmers in the California. Holly Carter, founder of Carter & Co. Ag Communications in Fresno, chose to create an agricultural division within her public affairs firm in early 2014.

“The atmosphere in California is extremely hostile toward agriculture. At least once a week we see a hit piece in a major news outlet which portrays farmers as the root of the water problem in this state,” she explained. “I have grown to know these farmers over the past decade and this portrayal is absolutely incorrect. There has been a serious breakdown in the farmers’ ability to communicate to the general population. My mission is to be the voice of California Ag until they learn how to tell their own stories respectively.”

Carter & Co. Ag has stepped up to counter these attacks. “We must define, or be defined,” she explained. Her self-stated outcome is to create a perpetual seat at the table for agriculture before public policy is written that adversely affects this industry.

“Everything we need to change the outcome is within us now,” Carter said. “The tools are all around us to build the solution. We just have to think beyond the limitations.”

Carter focuses on telling the story of California Ag in non-traditional ways such as social media. Her agriculture advocacy efforts include her support of social media campaigns like “My Job Depends On Ag” and #MoreDamStorage, which serve to educate the thought leaders by putting a face on the people and places that produce the world’s food.

“We must clearly articulate the ‘why’ behind our industry so the mass population will understand that there is no such thing as ‘Ag’ or ‘Non-Ag’ in the State of California,” Carter explained.

She is also actively arranging interviews with the mainstream media to allow farmers to tell their story … a story of sustainability. “Farmers have been doing for years what consumers are only now being asked to do,” Carter continued. “We just need the voters to understand the potential unintended consequences of the demise of California Agriculture. ‘Farm to Fork’ will no longer exist if we can’t get locally-grown organic fruits and vegetables. I guess we will have to rename it ‘China to Fork’.”

Carter is actively mobilizing the agriculture industry to register to vote “permanent absentee” and to post photos on social media of themselves mailing their registration. She plans to do the same when it comes time to vote in 2016. She explained that there is nothing more motivating to a politician than a motivated and engaged electorate.

“We need to educate the public so they understand the implications of a continued man-made drought. We no longer have the luxury of apathy and complacency. With 42,000 registered voters committed so far, we believe our numbers will soar well beyond six figures by 2016. Our voice matters and elections have consequences … the outcome is pre-determined. This is a wake up call to all elected officials who represent California interests… listen, hear, act, or else.”

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