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The basic elements: water, land and labor

Jan./Feb. 2009 California Country magazine

California farmers need water, land and labor, but these basic ingredients are becoming increasingly difficult to come by.



Robert Diedrich and his nephew Tod worry about the impact water shortages could have on their Fresno County farm as well as the farming communities around them.

What family farmers need to grow our food

If it's for breakfast, lunch or dinner, it was likely grown in California. The state's farmers and ranchers produce food and fiber valued at nearly $37 billion--more than 400 commodities that not only find their way to tables here at home, but also to markets around the world.

To help fill grocery shelves and kitchen pantries, California family farmers rely on some key elements to get the job done. To start with, they need water, land and labor. But these basic ingredients are becoming increasingly difficult to come by.

Today, as fourth- and fifth-generation farming families forge ahead with new agricultural practices and innovations, they face unprecedented challenges--unreliable water supplies, increased development pressure on farmland and a broken immigration system that penalizes workers and farmers alike.

California family farmers produce 99 percent of the nation's supply of commodities like artichokes, figs, raisins, olives, peaches, plums and sweet rice. And food exports from California go to more than 150 countries. But many agricultural experts wonder how long that can continue.

Talk to Fresno County farmer Tod Diedrich. He'll explain that water supplies to his family's farms last year were only 40 percent of their federal contract amount. This year the supply could be as low as 10 to 15 percent.

Or, listen to Solano County farmer Derrick Lum, who looks across fields of sunflowers and sorghum and knows he's smack in the middle of two growing urban areas--Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area.

Then take a walk in the vineyards of San Joaquin County with winegrape grower Joe Valente and his mechanic Robert Camargo. They know the struggles and dreams of those who come to California's farm fields from other nations to help produce food for a hungry world.

These family farmers talk about the basic elements of farming--what they mean to them personally and what we all can do to help protect and share in California's agricultural bounty.

Ching Lee and Kate Campbell are reporters for the California Farm Bureau Federation. They can be reached at 800-698-FARM or clee@cfbf.com or kcampbell@cfbf.com.

Water is the lifeblood of a community 

Robert Diedrich and his nephew Tod worry about the impact water shortages could have on their Fresno County farm as well as the farming communities around them.
Robert Diedrich and his nephew Tod worry about the impact water shortages could have on their Fresno County farm as well as the farming communities around them.

"Everything costs more these days, but what's really worrisome is the outlook for water," said Tod Diedrich, who grows almonds and processing tomatoes in Fresno County, near the small farming community of Mendota. "Water is everything for us. Without it, where do you start?" Erasers are getting shorter as family farmers across California work on budgets for growing this year's crops. They're adding up the dollars for seed, fuel and fertilizer and scratching their heads. They rub out the totals and try again.

He ticks off the need for land and labor on his fingers, but stops counting when it comes to water. Last year water to San Joaquin Valley farmers was cut to just 40 percent of contracted deliveries, with an additional cut coming after crops were already in the ground.

"My dad and I lost more than $1 million on that one," said Diedrich, whose family has farmed in California since the 1880s. "We've sunk thousands of dollars into cleaning up old wells and getting them into service to get ground water. We just put $60,000 into one old well and came up dry.

"Then Westlands Water District, which supplies our irrigation water, sent us a letter," he said as he walked in his almond orchard, checking drip irrigation lines with Baxter, his faithful Boston bulldog. "They told us the cost of supplemental water is going up again, too."

Depending on this winter's rainfall amounts, water experts say irrigation deliveries could be as little as 10 to 15 percent of contract amount--maybe even zero. Back-to-back dry years and court decisions to protect endangered species, like salmon and delta smelt, have depleted water supplies.

Diedrich said the Endangered Species Act urgently needs to be revisited, because "we're not saving wildlife, but we're taking away people's livelihoods and our communities suffer."

"The way things are going, a whole lot of people are going to be out of work and a whole lot of land is going to be lying fallow," he added. "We need to plan for water in the future, but the way things are going that's tough to do."

After figuring costs to plant a crop and the unreliable outlook for water, Diedrich said, "I have no plans to grow anything but my permanent crops--almonds--at this time. I'm just going to try and keep our trees alive.

"I want people to know we've done about all we can with conservation measures. We're 100 percent drip irrigation," he said, referring to one of the most highly efficient watering techniques. "And we've used minimum tillage for years to retain soil moisture. There just isn't any water left to save.

"My family lives here. My kids go to local schools. We're looking at farms drying up--and the towns along with them."

In Mendota, a town of about 9,000 people that prides itself on being the "Cantaloupe Center of the World," fresh laundry hangs from backyard clotheslines and people ride their bikes the few blocks to the grocery store.

Along Quince Street, men sit in clusters and talk in the afternoon; others carry green garbage bags to collect aluminum cans for recycling. Mayor Robert Silva surveys the community from the patch of grass in front of City Hall. After more than 20 years of public service to the town, he waves to children coming home from school and to an elderly man tapping along smartly with his cane.

Silva has managed one of the town's supermarkets for many years. He knows the community--what they eat and how they think. And, it's not just California Country magazine that has come to find out what's happening in this vulnerable valley farm town where Spanish rolls off the tongue as easily as English.

Silva said that as word of California's drought has spread, the likes of The New York Times and major TV news networks have found their way to Mendota. All ask the same questions: How bad is it? What can be done to help?

Silva is patient with the newcomers, thoughtful about questions he has answered many times before. He says the unemployment rate is pushing 40 percent, the highest rate in Fresno County.

"Right now everybody's just holding on," Silva said. "Jobs are limited and we're trying to get an extension on unemployment benefits. We're trying to get some additional supplies to our food banks."

He said local farmers have been working closely with the city to assess the crisis and determine the needs of local families. There's a coalition of communities hard-hit by the drought, and county and state agencies are helping plan services for the families struck by the current water woes and economic downturn.

"Once the farmers get their water allocation from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation this spring, then we'll know if our economy is going to get better," Silva said. "I know that people are aware of our situation, but what they may not realize is that we, this state, need a comprehensive water plan that guarantees a reliable water supply to all Californians. Without it, we're all going to suffer."

Urban development puts pressure on farmland

Despite being squeezed by urban growth, Felicia and Derrick Lum hope to pass the family farm to their children.
Despite being squeezed by urban growth, Derrick Lum and his wife hope to pass the family farm to their four children, including Anika, above.

Solano County farmer Derrick Lum doesn't have to look far from his fields to see the growing crop of residential homes, shops, restaurants and other city structures that have sprung up around him.

A third-generation farmer whose family has been working the land for 88 years, Lum is keenly aware of the urbanization pressures that he is up against as more farmland in his region is plowed under to make way for new development.

His family farms in Fairfield, which is sandwiched between San Francisco and Sacramento, a region also known as Suisun Valley.

"There's not many of us farming families left here," he said. "If we want to stay in farming, I have to do something different than what my dad did in order to keep the ranch and the farm in our family name."

Lum has had to diversify his crops to adapt to the changing times. Before the closures of three major canneries in Northern California, his family used to devote most of their acreage to processing tomatoes, pears, apricots, prunes and peaches. But world trade brings fresh fruit to supermarkets year-round, making the canned versions almost obsolete to many consumers.

Today the Lums no longer grow tomatoes, apricots or peaches and have scaled back on pears and prunes. They've added garbanzo beans, wheat, sorghum and sunflowers to the mix, crops that allow for more mechanization and efficiency. They're also interested in doing agritourism and more direct marketing to boost their farm income.

Outside the farm, Lum has been active in his community pushing for land use policies that would benefit agriculture. It is not enough to simply protect farmland, he said. If agriculture is to stay in a community, then local governments need to adopt policies that would give farmers tools and options to help keep their farms economically viable, he added.

"You can't stop development," said Lum. "There are some ranches that are going to be given up for the growth of cities and the growth of the economy. But let's do it right. It's not about preserving the land; it's about preserving the farmer."

He is adamant that a community's general plan needs to specifically address agriculture, not just attempt to protect open space the way parks and forest preserves are maintained by federal earmarks.

"Farmland is agriculture," he said. "Farmers are farming that land. They're maintaining it with their own income and trying to make a living off of it."

Unlike urban residents who have the luxury of mobility if they need to switch jobs, farmers are tied to their land, Lum said. They can't simply pick up and leave, he said, and they can't move their land, which, by the way, is also home to some of the richest, most fertile soil in the world. Once prime farmland is paved over, it is gone forever, he said.

Against the many challenges of his rapidly changing region, Lum said he hopes to pass the family farm to his children someday and see them pass on the family legacy--but only if they can make a good living farming the land.

"When communities implement regulations and policies, they should look at the general plan to see if it's going according to what their plan is to enhance agriculture and its economic viability so farmers will keep the land in agriculture and keep it green."

Farmers seek a reliable, legal work force

San Joaquin county farmer Joe Valente, left, values the contributions of the many long-term employees at Kautz Farms. Robert Camargo, right, started 20 years ago as a field laborer and now works as head mechanic.
San Joaquin County farmer Joe Valente, left, values the contributions of the many long-term employees at Kautz Farms. Robert Camargo, right, started 20 years ago as a field laborer and now works as head mechanic.

With more than 5,000 acres of winegrapes to maintain, San Joaquin County farmer Joe Valente knows the importance of being able to find and keep competent, hard-working and dependable employees.

"Without workers, we're out of business," said Valente, vineyard and orchard manager of Kautz Farms.

Unfortunately, many California family farms have faced that prospect in recent years as the labor supply tightens and farmers are left without a means to access a reliable, legal work force.

The recent slowing economy and housing slump have helped to ease some of agriculture's labor shortages, with the decline in construction jobs and workers transitioning back to the farm. But Valente said without a comprehensive guest-worker program, farmers will continue to have difficulty finding workers who are willing to do jobs that many Americans won't do.

"The issue is not going away," he said. "We'll face that problem again."

In many ways, Kautz Farms began preparing for the problem years ago. At one time, the diversified farm grew a number of labor-intensive crops such as bell peppers, beans and fresh tomatoes.

"But we saw the picture on the wall that there's going to be a tough labor supply down the road," Valente said.

Now the farm's main crop is winegrapes, which still require labor for pruning, weeding and other fieldwork but can be mechanically harvested. That has helped to reduce some of the farm's labor needs. But even machines do not work by themselves and require workers to run and repair them.

The man who oversees those machines is Robert Camargo, who came to work at Kautz Farms 20 years ago as a field laborer. With no formal education or specific skills, he picked peppers and pruned grapevines. Valente said Camargo showed a desire to learn and soon moved up to driving tractors. He was also handy with machinery and learned how to fix tractors, harvesters and other farm equipment. Today, Camargo is the farm's head mechanic.

Valente said giving workers opportunities to improve their skills is not only a long-term investment for the farm but it also allows the workers to have more job security and the farm to retain those workers.

"The majority of our people here have started in crews and worked their way up," he said. "As they progress up the ladder, their wages increase, so that's incentive for them."

He noted that many of Kautz Farms' employees have been working there for 10 to more than 40 years, including himself, who's been with the farm for nearly 30 years. Many of the workers have relatives who work on the farm, such as Camargo, whose father and two brothers are employees there. They too started as field workers and now drive trucks and tractors.

Camargo said he considers himself an example of someone who came to this country with nothing and now has achieved the American dream.

"I think I'm doing pretty good," he said. "I'm really happy to be working here. They support me for so many years. Now I have a house, I have a car, I have my family close to here and I have my work. I think my dream has come true."


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