Ag Today Monday, February 1, 2016

Ag Today

Monday, February 1, 2016

 

Sacramento Bee

California almonds, partly blamed for water shortage, now dropping in price

By Dale Kasler, Phillip Reese and Ryan Sabalow

They were blamed for planting too many trees, using too much water and worsening the effects of California’s epic drought. The state’s almond farmers responded by expanding their orchards in a bold wager that the sky-high prices the world was paying for almonds justified both the water use and long-term investment.

Now those farmers are dealing with a steep drop in prices – and wondering if the great almond boom that transformed Central Valley agriculture is starting to fizzle.

Almond prices in California have dropped significantly in the past few months. A farmer who could sell a pound of almonds for nearly $5 last summer is now getting as little as $3.10.

Farmers say a downturn was inevitable after years of rising prices and an explosion in production. Almond prices got so high that some consumers and food manufacturers started turning to other nuts they could use as substitutes. Recent developments in the global economy also have depressed prices, including the weakening of economies in key markets such as China.

“We hit record price levels, and at some point the elastic breaks,” said Mike Mason, chairman of the Almond Board of California and a grower in Kern County, home to one-fifth of the state’s almond crop. “Everybody expected that we would have a price correction.”

The consequences extend beyond the livelihoods of the state’s 6,000 or so almond growers. Much of the Central Valley economy has come to depend on almond farming, as lower-value crops such as cotton and alfalfa have surrendered land to new orchards.

Land devoted to almonds jumped from 590,000 acres in 2005 to an estimated 890,000 acres last year, according to the Almond Board, a grower-supported association. Farmers added 20,000 acres of almond trees last year alone. This happened even as critics questioned the shift of massive acreage to a permanent crop – and a relatively thirsty one – while the state was ordering deep cuts in urban water use and struggling to juggle competing water demands.

It’s not as if the price decline is bringing the almond industry to a screeching halt. Mason said prices have stabilized in recent weeks, and most experts say the industry’s long-term prospects remain strong. Even today’s lower prices are above the average for the past decade, and almond farming remains profitable for most growers, said farm economist Vernon Crowder, a senior vice president at Rabobank.

Richard Waycott, chief executive of the Almond Board, said farmers who are expanding their orchards won’t reverse course. Trees have been ordered and fields have been cleared. “A price correction here or there doesn’t necessarily have much of an immediate impact,” Waycott said. “Most growers … are looking at a 25- to 30-year horizon.”

Daniel Bays is one of those taking the long view. A third-generation almond grower in Patterson and Westley, near Interstate 5 west of Modesto, he replaced 80 acres of old trees last summer with a new orchard. Planting almond trees is expensive, and by the time Bays’ babies are producing nuts in three or four years, the new orchard will have cost $800,000. He said he does not regret the investment.

“The family’s been farming long enough that we know things go through cycles,” said Bays, whose family farms 600 acres of almonds and 900 acres of other crops.

Bays said prices of many other commodities such as tomatoes have been slipping as well. “There aren’t other crops at this point that are really looking all that much more appealing than almonds are, even with the decrease in price,” he said.

Still, the price drop is unsettling in much of the San Joaquin Valley, where almonds have become king. Buddy Mendes, chairman of the Fresno County Board of Supervisors, said falling almond prices means less money spent on farm equipment, less sales tax revenue and other economic effects.

“You’re going to see it trickle down,” he said.

The decline also could influence whether farmers south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta will agree to help pay for Gov. Jerry Brown’s Delta tunnels, the $15.5 billion plan to re-engineer the fragile estuary with the goal of improving reliability of water deliveries to Southern California cities and farms. Farmers have been questioning whether the tunnels would pencil out for them financially, and a sustained drop in nut prices could make the project an even tougher sell, said Ted Page, an almond grower and chairman of the Kern County Water Agency.

Nancy Vogel, a spokeswoman for Brown’s Natural Resources Agency, said decisions on the tunnels will go beyond the “daily fluctuations of commodity prices.”

While no one’s predicting a major shift away from almonds, some experts say the decline in prices could bring a pause in the relentless planting that has seen almond acreage grow 50 percent in the past decade.

“It will affect some planting decisions,” said Rocque Merlo of Merlo Farming Group, a farm-management operation based in Oroville. “There are investors who will look at that. When we get into a free fall like we just experienced, that changes mindsets.”

A slowdown would be welcome news for many environmentalists and other Californians who argue farmers have no business planting trees in regions of the state, particularly the San Joaquin Valley, that are naturally arid and rely on water delivered by canal from Northern California. The fact that almond orchards cannot be fallowed in a drought – unlike, say, tomatoes or cotton fields – just puts more pressure on state and federal agencies to keep pumping water through the Delta to keep valley orchards irrigated.

“It hardens the demand for water exports from the Delta,” said Barbara Barrigan-Parilla, executive director of an advocacy group called Restore the Delta. “Hopefully, (the price decline) will stop the rush to plant thousands more acres of almonds in desert areas where almonds should not be grown.”

As government agencies have curtailed deliveries during the drought, almond farmers rushed to protect their $10,000-an-acre investments. They fallowed their tomato fields and other row crops to divert water to their almond orchards.

They also increased their groundwater pumping to keep the trees alive. That contributed to the alarming depletion of aquifers and exacerbated the phenomenon known as subsidence, in which portions of the Central Valley are sinking.

“You don’t really have a legitimate water supply for this crop in this part of the world,” said Adam Keats, a senior attorney and water expert at the Center for Food Safety in San Francisco. “They’ve been stealing as much water as they can from elsewhere in the state to grow almonds.”

Almond industry officials counter that farmers are using water much more efficiently than they did in the 1990s, when the almond boom in California began. While almonds are a comparatively thirsty crop, farmers say there are others that require more water per pound of production. Growers also say it makes a lot more sense to use scarce water supplies on a high-value crop such as almonds, which have soared in popularity in recent years, than a low-revenue crop such as alfalfa.

“Farmers are just responding to what the consumers want,” said Paul Ewing, a grower and processor in Los Banos. “You need a lot of water to grow any food. I think almonds got an unfair shake … with all the press.”

The Almond Board says California farmers apply 3 million acre-feet of water to their almond trees each year. That represents about 7 percent of the state’s “developed” water consumption. Put another way, the state’s 6,000 almond farmers use roughly 35 times the volume of water consumed by the 466,000 residents of the city of Sacramento last year.

The state’s almond crop, valued at $2.53 billion in 2005, peaked at $6.38 billion in 2013. It dropped off to $5.89 billion in 2014, the last year for which figures were available, as water shortages cut into yields. Still, almonds remain California’s No. 2 agricultural product, after the dairy industry, and are the state’s leading farm export, far and away. California’s climate is ideally suited for almond production, and the state is responsible for 80 percent of the world’s supply and 99 percent of the U.S. supply.

Almonds’ image as a healthy, nutritious snack has helped sales blossom in western Europe, China and elsewhere. Flexing its considerable marketing muscle, Sacramento’s Blue Diamond Growers became the “official snack nut” supplier of the U.S. ski and snowboarding teams during the 2014 Winter Olympics, and the company’s Almond Breeze milk alternative will be the “official almond milk” of the U.S. volleyball team at this year’s Summer Olympics.

Blue Diamond declined comment for this story, referring questions about almond prices to the Almond Board.

Almonds’ growing popularity naturally drove prices upward. The average price paid to growers jumped from $1.45 a pound in 2008 to $3.19 in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

USDA figures for 2015 are not yet available, but growers and processors say prices generally shot up to around $4.50 a pound last summer. Merlo Farming Group, which informally tracks industry prices, says nonpareil almonds, considered the premium variety, sold for as much as $4.98 a pound last July. Since then, Merlo said prices have fallen to $3.10 a pound for nonpareils. Some varieties are selling for less than $3 a pound.

What happened? Some growers say prices simply got too high, prompting some consumers and food manufacturers to reduce demand or switch to alternatives such as walnuts.

“When they get to $4.50 or four bucks (a pound), people aren’t going to buy them,” said Page, the head of the Kern water agency.

Adding to that downward pressure: a surprisingly strong 2015 crop. Production was about 10 percent greater than expected despite water shortages, said Crowder, the bank economist.

Crowder said international finance also played a role, a significant factor in a business that exports about two-thirds of its production. The strong U.S. dollar made almonds more expensive overseas, and China scaled back purchases as its economy faltered. Exports fell 14 percent in the last five months of 2015 compared with the year before, the Almond Board reported.

One thing led to another: As prices tumbled, some importers in Dubai and India defaulted on purchases that had been locked in at earlier, higher prices.

“We had some deals that fell apart overseas,” Crowder said. “You have almonds sitting, waiting to find a place.”

The price correction came faster than most analysts expected, but Crowder and others said the lower prices have customers warming up to almonds again.

“Now it’s $2.75, $3,” Page said. “I think that’s more normal. Then you have … lots of use, lots of consumption at that level.

“At $2.75, you’re still making money,” he said. “You’re just not making an obscene amount of money.”

Dale Kasler: 916-321-1066, @dakasler, dkasler@sacbee.com

 

 

Riverside Press-Enterprise

DROUGHT: Desert crop production for export prompts outcry

By Janet Zimmerman

In eastern Riverside County, almost to the Arizona border, is the Palo Verde Valley, where scorching summers, mild winters and access to Colorado River water have made it an agricultural hot spot, especially for alfalfa.

Some of the hay crop grown in the valley is used for domestic cattle and the rest is sold to other countries where land or water shortages preclude industrial-scale growing operations. The same is true in the Coachella Valley, the high desert of San Bernardino County and other Inland growing areas.

This month, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabian dairy company Almarai paid almost $32 million for 1,790 acres of prime farm land along the Colorado River in Blythe.

Almarai’s Fondomonte California LLC is growing feed for its cattle in Saudi Arabia. In 2014, the company bought almost 10,000 acres of farmland in Vicksburg, Ariz., for $47.5 million.

The Saudi government has ordered conservation of scarce water resources and is phasing out the growing of crops and green fodder for livestock over the next three years.

Almarai’s Blythe purchase comes in the midst of California’s drought, which has prompted statewide rationing for residents and businesses. The shortages have led some to wonder whether it’s wise for farms like Almarai to grow alfalfa and other thirsty crops for export.

One vocal critic is UC Riverside economist Christopher Thornberg, who says the practice is akin to exporting water.

“They have already destroyed their water tables, now they’re destroying ours,” he said.

The solution, according to Thornberg, is to raise prices on agricultural water and overhaul the water rights system that gave Palo Verde farmers their “first in time, first in right” claim in 1877.

Such a move would surely eliminate high-water crops like alfalfa and cotton in the valley. Those crops would then have to be purchased from other states that aren’t suffering water shortages, he said.

“If (farmers) have to pay for that water at anything remotely like a reasonable price, it wouldn’t happen because they wouldn’t make money on it,” Thornberg said.

Almarai officials could not be reached for comment.

Palo Verde holds the most senior rights to water from the Colorado River, sparing it from the drought. Farmers pay the Palo Verde Irrigation District an annual fee of $74 per acre irrigated to use the water.

Fondomonte has converted to drip irrigation that is more efficient than flooding and overhead spray used by some other farms in the valley, said Robert Wellman, a crop consultant in Blythe. Runoff from fields throughout the valley also is returned to the river for use by those downstream.

“I know a lot of people have their concerns, but in Blythe, it’s not had an effect on our water,” said Blythe Mayor Joseph DeConinck, a farmer who has sold his alfalfa for export.

Exporting crops is nothing new, though the practice is growing with the move to a global economy, he said. The farms are good for the local economy because they employ residents and patronize businesses, he said.

Dan Putnam, an alfalfa and forage specialist with UC Davis, said the assertion that alfalfa is a water-sucking crop is wrong. At full canopy, it uses the same amount of water as other crops, and water use on an annual basis is much higher because alfalfa is grown year-round, he said.

The crop’s irrigation-to-economic value also doesn’t take into account the fact that the million acres of alfalfa grown each year in California support the state’s $3.7 billion cattle industry and $9.4 billion dairy industry, according to an analysis by the Pacific Institute, an Oakland-based think tank.

“Alfalfa is the best crop to have in a drought,” Putnam said.

That’s because irrigation can be lessened during part of the year if there is another use for the water, he said.

“That would certainly be a better option to look at ways of adjusting water use rather than just curtailing all forage production, which is supporting food production,” he said.

Contact the writer: jzimmerman@pe.com or 951-368-9586

 

 

San Luis Obispo Tribune

Paso Robles groundwater district may hinge on parcel tax vote

By David Sneed

Supporters of a water management district for the Paso Robles groundwater basin face a daunting hurdle — persuading two-thirds of the approximately 6,000 people living in the basin area to agree to a parcel tax that will raise nearly $1 million a year for five years.

As Bob Brown, a North County vintner and vocal supporter of the groundwater management district, has said publicly, it’s “going to be a heavy lift.”

The proposed property tax is one of three complicated and interrelated elections that will decide whether a management district for the basin is established, whether a parcel tax will be levied and who will run that district if it’s formed.

Further complicating the situation is the fact that different sets of voters will decide each of those questions.

Property owners will vote on whether to form the district, and all registered voters will decide whether the district would be funded by a parcel tax. San Luis Obispo County elections officials have been clear that both measures must pass if the district is to be implemented.

Ballots for the election will be mailed Feb. 8 and are due back March 8.

The fundamental question residents and property owners in the basin must decide is whether they want a local water district with an elected board of directors to manage the basin or whether they want other governmental agencies to do it. If the district is not formed, management will fall first to the county Board of Supervisors and then, by default, to state water officials.

County officials have made it clear they don’t have the money and personnel to manage the Paso Robles groundwater basin if the district formation vote and the parcel tax measure fail. State officials have also been explicit that if they are forced to step in and manage the basin in lieu of a district or the county, their approach could be expensive and will be done without voter approval.

The state has declared the Paso Robles basin to be in severe overdraft, meaning that decades of overpumping have caused groundwater levels in much of the basin to fall precipitously in a decline that will continue unless pumping can be significantly curtailed and new sources of water found.

A new state law called the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, or SGMA, requires that such basins be sustainably managed by 2020. The SGMA also allows the state to step in and manage a basin if local governments fail to act.

If a local district is formed, it would have a broad suite of powers to bring the basin into balance. These include the ability to meter wells, levy usage charges and assign pumping limits. It would also have the ability to obtain new water sources, such as the Nacimiento Reservoir and recycled water from Paso Robles.

It will be up to the district’s elected board of directors to decide which of those powers to use and how to use them. Metering wells is a common tool water districts use to measure how much water is being pulled from a basin, said Wade Horton, county public works director.

“Metering is typically part of management, but it is not an absolute,” he said. “But I think it’s likely.”

Opposing sides

Everyone wants the basin to be managed fairly and equitably, although opinion is split over whether a district or the county should manage the basin.

Supporters of the district say a district that is managed by basin voters and property owners — those who have “skin in the game” — is the best way to maintain local control of a vital resource.

“We need to solve our problems ourselves and not ask outsiders to do it,” said Bill Spencer, owner of Windrose Farm in Creston and a candidate for the district’s board of directors. “People from around the state are watching what we do in the Paso Robles basin.”

Opponents say the district will be an expensive and unnecessary new level of bureaucracy. County Supervisor Debbie Arnold has consistently voted against forming the district and said the county is already effectively managing the basin. Arnold said residents or landowners probably would have to pay for that management, but she said she believes the county would charge less than a groundwater district.

“This district would have an extraordinary authority to tax and regulate property in the basin,” she said. “This is the perfect role for county government.”

Residents and property owners must also decide who will sit on a nine-person board of directors if the district is indeed formed. Seats in two of four categories on the board are contested.

These are the three questions in the election:

Measure A — The parcel tax

In many respects, this is the key vote because it requires a two-thirds approval by registered voters who return their ballots.

The approximately 6,000 people who live within the basin boundaries will decide whether to approve a parcel tax that will generate $957,000 a year for five years. This tax will pay for district activities, including staff salaries, administrative overhead and the cost to prepare a sustainable groundwater management plan.

The cost of the management plan is the big unknown. The Fox Canyon Groundwater Management Agency in Ventura County could serve as as an example because it is very similar to the proposed Paso Robles district. Fox Canyon recently signed a $1 million contract to write its management plan.

How much an individual property owner would be taxed each year varies widely, depending on how much property is owned and how much is irrigated agriculture. The fees are heavily weighted so that those with irrigated agriculture on their land will pick up about 80 percent of the fees.

For example, non-irrigated land will be charged 25 cents per acre, while irrigated land will be charged $18 per acre, Horton said. His department developed the fee schedule.

In addition to the per-acre charge, a parcel will be charged if it contains a single- or multifamily residence, has a commercial or government building, or is vacant.

For example, a property owner with a single-family residence on 10 acres and no irrigated agriculture would pay $37.50. This is based on a formula that calls for a $15-per-year parcel charge, a $20-per-year single-family residence charge, plus 25 cents per acre for the non-irrigated land.

In contrast, if that same parcel were used entirely for irrigated agriculture, $205 in annual fees would be charged. Broken down, those fees would be $180 for the 10 irrigated acres, plus a $15-a-year parcel charge and a $10-a-year undeveloped-land charge.

“The goal of the funding formula is to develop an equitable and reasonable allocation of costs based on the best data available that is simple to understand, accounts for the fact that all parcels in the Paso basin need to comply with the SGMA and is representative of the historic pumping within the Paso basin,” Horton wrote in a staff report to the county Board of Supervisors in November.

Measure B — To form or not to form

This measure is considerably less complicated than Measure A. It asks the 4,832 property owners in the basin whether they want the district formed.

Unlike Measure A, this measure’s passage requires a simple majority of the property owners who submit ballots. The vote is based on the principle of one landowner, one vote. People who own multiple parcels within the basin, in whole or part, get only one vote.

Both Measures A and B must pass for the district to be formed. In the unlikely event the funding measure passes but the formation vote does not, the county Board of Supervisors could allocate the nearly $1 million in expected annual costs for the county public works department to manage the basin.

To date, the public works department has been managing the basin under the supervision of the Board of Supervisors sitting as the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District. However, the department doesn’t have the funding to develop a state-approved basin management plan and perform the other functions required by the new state regulations, Horton said. Like a water district, the county also would need to hire staff to manage basin activities.

“We are running out of space to put people in our San Luis Obispo offices,” Horton said. “We would need to get additional space, and it would need to be in Paso Robles.”

Choosing a board of directors

Both residents and property owners in the basin must also decide who will serve on the district’s nine-member board of directors — a hybrid board with a combination of property owners and registered voters within the basin.

Members of the board of directors will fall into four categories — large landowners with 400 acres or more, medium landowners with 40 to 399 acres, small landowners with less than 40 acres and registered voters. Each of the landowner categories will get two seats on the board, while registered voters will get three.

Property ownership in the basin is heavily weighted to small landowners. Of the total 4,832 property owners, 4,084 fall into the small landowner category. The medium category has 635 owners.

The large landowner category has only 113 owners but encompasses the lion’s share of the acreage. The large landowners have 246,987 acres in the basin — meaning that 113 property owners control 71 percent of the acreage.

Two of the four categories are contested. The registered voters and large landowner categories will be decided in the election.

The small and medium landowner categories are uncontested, so candidates in those categories will be appointed in lieu of an election, if the district is formed.

WHAT WILL BE DECIDED

Mail-in ballots will be sent to registered voters and property owners in the Paso Robles groundwater basin Feb. 8 to be returned by March 8. Both Measure A and Measure B must be approved for the management district to be formed.

Measure A: Whether to establish a parcel tax to generate nearly $1 million a year to manage the basin. All registered voters in the basin will receive this ballot. A two-thirds majority is required for passage.

Measure B: Whether to form the Paso Robles groundwater management district. All property owners in the basin will receive this ballot. A majority vote is required for passage. Even if this measure passes, it would only take effect if Measure A also passes.

District board of directors: Election of the nine-member board of directors. Three seats will be chosen by registered voters, two seats will be chosen by large landowners with 400 or more acres, two seats will be chosen by medium landowners with 40 to 399 acres, and two seats will be chosen by small landowners with less than 40 acres.

TAX RATE TABLE

PROPERTY OWNERS WOULD PAY A TAX BASED ON NUMBER OF PARCELS, LAND USE AND WHETHER THEY IRRIGATE. THESE ARE THE RATES:

PARCEL

$15 PER PARCEL

LAND USE – FLAT FEE

SINGLE-FAMILY RESIDENTIAL, $20

MULTI-FAMILY RESIDENTIAL, $40

COMMERCIAL/GOVERNMENT, $100

VACANT, $10

IRRIGATION – PER ACRE

NON-IRRIGATED, 25 CENTS

IRRIGATED, $18

dsneed@thetribunenews.com

 

 

Editorial

Contra Costa Times

Stop the Delta tunnel water madness

East Bay residents have a vested interest in the Santa Clara Valley Water District’s decision on whether to support Gov. Jerry Brown’s $17 billion plan to build two tunnels under the Delta.

The governor’s top lieutenants came to San Jose for a formal presentation to the water board Tuesday to make their case — knowing that the board had just fired CEO Beau Goldie, who was a cheerleader for the tunnels from the start. The district already has contributed nearly $14 million toward studies, and Goldie had expected ratepayers to provide at least $500 million more.

Fortunately, opponents of the plan gave the board an earful as well, and members seemed to be listening.

We hope they’ll refuse to spend another dime on the scheme to move water from Northern California to Southern California.

The Bay Area does not want to further damage the largest estuary west of the Mississippi so that Central Valley farmers and Los Angeles residents can get more water. And the Santa Clara Valley board might actually be able to stop this water grab. The agency’s participation so far has allowed the governor to claim support from both Northern and Southern California. Without Santa Clara, the project is a much harder sell.

Most of the $250 million in project costs so far has come from the Metropolitan Water District, Kern County Water District of Southern California and Westlands Water District in Fresno. The state needs another $1.2 billion soon to fund engineering and design studies, and it needs assurance that enough water districts will participate to pay the $17 billion tab.

Or more. Way more, most likely, for 35 miles of 40-foot-wide tunnels, knowing how costs have multiplied for most if not all major tunnel projects.

Of the seven Santa Clara Valley Water District board members, five — Chairwoman Barbara Keegan, Vice Chairman John Varela, Gary Kremen, Linda LeZotte and Richard Santos — voiced skepticism Tuesday when Brown’s team made its case. That is a hopeful sign, even though the other two, Nai Hsueh and Tony Estremera, voiced support.

Every serious scientific study of the Delta shows that its health is deteriorating because too much water already is being drained away. State biologists reported this spring that the Delta smelt, the canary in the coal mine for the Delta, is almost extinct. Salmon runs were pathetic this year.

The best way for California to meet its water needs is to focus on conservation, recycling and reuse. Agriculture uses about 75 percent of the state’s water supply, but only 40 percent of farmers use drip irrigation.

The state has wasted six critical years wrestling with the tunnels when it could have been advancing sensible strategies. The Santa Clara Valley Water District, with Goldie’s leadership, has enabled that waste.

The water board now should put a stop to it.

 

 

San Jose Mercury News

Crop report: Good news, bad news for California farmers

By Aaron Kinney

SACRAMENTO — Despite a historic drought, California farmers and ranchers are bringing in more money than ever, the state’s latest crop report shows. But that doesn’t mean they are living high on the hog.

The sales value of California’s agricultural production in 2014 was a record $53.5 billion, up 5.1 percent from 2013, according to the Department of Food and Agriculture, which this week released an annual review of agricultural data. The increase in 2014, the latest year for which a statistical analysis is available, was driven by strong demand for milk, cattle, berries and lettuce, among other products.

Still, net farm income was down 11 percent to roughly $15 billion because of rising costs, including fuel, fertilizer and pesticides. Beyond those mundane expenditures, the drought has forced farmers who don’t have enough water to purchase the precious resource on the open market or dig new wells in search of groundwater.

“In any business you’re looking at revenues and expenses,” said Dave Kranz, spokesman for the California Farm Bureau. “And expenses for California farmers went up at a much faster rate than the revenues did.”

The state’s 76,400 farms continued adapting to the drought by moving their limited water resources toward the most profitable crops. Raspberry production was up 65 percent, for instance, while corn grown for livestock feed was down 60 percent.

California kept a strong grip on its title as America’s top food grower, earning nearly double the revenues of Iowa, which came in No. 2. The Golden State leads the nation in several dozen agricultural products, including avocados, broccoli, carrots, lettuce, milk, onions, peaches, spinach and strawberries.

Growers in 2014 took advantage of a strong U.S. economy and rising international demand, particularly for almonds, walnuts and processed tomatoes. A little more than 40 percent of the food grown in California was shipped overseas, with the top destinations being Europe, Canada and China.

But farmers would be faring even better were it not for the drought, said UC Davis researchers Richard Howitt, who estimates, based upon NASA satellite images, that more than 400,000 acres of farm land were fallowed in 2014 in the Central Valley because of dwindling water supplies.

“Unless you think the satellites are lying to us, you have to acknowledge that ‘ag’ took a hit,” Howitt said.

Howitt said he expects next year’s crop report to follow the recent trend of robust revenues and missed opportunities. As for 2016, this wet El Niño winter will not be a panacea.

“The El Niño rains will help a lot in some places and marginally in others,” he said.

Contact Aaron Kinney at 650-348-4357. Follow him at Twitter.com/kinneytimes. akinney@bayareanewsgroup.com

 

 

Opinion

Visalia Times-Delta

Farming involves broad interests

By Don Curlee

Just in case you think farmers hold limited viewpoints, the policy manual of the California Farm Bureau Federation is a document that can change your mind.

Adopted at the annual meeting in December of the state’s largest farm organization, it establishes policy on 215 subjects and issues, possibly more than many state legislators have thought about. It is done every year to provide guidance for the organization’s leaders, and background when they are asked for their opinions on vital farm issues.

Not only does it offer guidelines on the obvious agricultural issues such as water, immigration, taxes and private ownership, but it provides direction on many matters of broader interest. It establishes positions on welfare, economic productivity, youth employment, preservation of urban open space, education and unmanned aircraft systems.

Presenting the specific stances for so many subjects required a 28-page supplement in the organization’s Jan. 13 publication Ag Alert. The policy section lifts out, so members can keep it handy and be informed as various subjects that are covered reach prominence in the year ahead.

To make the various issues immediately accessible the last page of the insert is an index. It tells readers that Farm Bureau policy on international trade, for instance, is found in policy number 47, that policy164 deals with the boycotting of agricultural products and that policy 186 covers the termination of government agencies.

Obviously the policy document serves Farm Bureau’s 53,324 California members well, encouraging them to study and review the organization’s positions, leading them to their own review, commitment and understanding. It also explains for non-members, the media, legislators, educators and other interested parties where and perhaps why the organization believes as it does.

Within the agricultural industry the policy document helps those in other organizations clarify their positions, leading to actions they may take. Those may parallel the Farm Bureau’s stance or they may not, but the presence of well defined policy statements helps bring clarity and understanding across the board.

Arriving at the stated policies every year requires serious and concentrated involvement by dedicated members who have special interests in and knowledge of the matters of which they speak. It’s a labor of love as they spend hours studying and discussing the various issues and formulating their own concrete opinions.

The process gets underway when a number of committees composed of Farm Bureau members from around the state meet to review existing policies. They recommend updates, revisions and additions, tabulated and maintained by a couple of staff members at the Sacramento headquarters.

The Farm Bureau in each county sends delegates to the statewide convention every December, where they debate, finalize and adopt the policies that will guide the organization in the year ahead.

Details are not overlooked. Water development, management, conveyance and sales are among the topics on which policy has been established for 2016. From policy items 68 through 90 positions regarding water are spelled out, including the recommendation for agricultural representation on state and regional water boards.

From that point the topics create a litany of the concerns, goals, fundamentals and hopes of all California farmers. The policies are broad enough to span geographic divisions, but specific enough to provide encouragement to the smallest, remotest farm operator. They offer a canopy under which the nation’s richest and most productive agricultural state can operate profitably.

As independent owners and operators, the state’s farmers, even the 53.324 members of Farm Bureau, are not obligated to follow the policies blindly or to uphold them thoughtlessly. The policies are helpful guidance however for a pack of free thinkers with pickups and tractors. The seats of both have been known to develop astounding wisdom.