Monday, January 25, 2016
Feds to California farmers: Water reserves low despite recent rains
By Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler
Even as steady rains drenched the Sacramento Valley on Friday, federal dam managers issued a bleak proclamation to farmers hopeful that recent rain and snow might translate into more water deliveries for their crops.
On Friday, the Bureau of Reclamation issued notice that reservoir levels behind Central Valley Project dams remained unusually low despite recent rains and heavy snowpack.
The notice is likely to portend another rough year for the thousands of Sacramento and San Joaquin Valley farmers whose water districts contract with the bureau for deliveries. Last year, the federal Central Valley Project made zero deliveries for the second straight year to many of its customers because of the drought.
Farmers with junior water rights in the San Joaquin Valley are bracing for another year with no deliveries, said Johnny Amaral, a deputy general manager for Westlands Water District, which serves farmers over a vast swath of land in Fresno and Kings counties.
“Zero allocation again will be traumatic – not just for us – but for everybody who depends on water deliveries,” Amaral said. “It’s a huge blow.”
Bureau officials said Friday that “reservoir carryover storage” at the end of the 2015 water year, which ended in September, was 2.9 million acre-feet. That is 24 percent of the system’s total capacity and 47 percent of the 15-year average for six critical Central Valley Project reservoirs: Shasta, New Melones, Trinity, Folsom, Millerton and San Luis.
Even with recent rains, officials said the reservoirs remain nearly 1 million acre-feet lower than they were a year ago.
Spokesman Shane Hunt said the Bureau of Reclamation is required to notify contractors by Feb. 15 whether 2016 will be another “critical” year for water allocations. The actual allocation figure will be announced in late February. The statistics released Friday represent a more general supply outlook.
“It kind of sets the stage for what’s coming next month,” Hunt said.
Last month, the state Department of Water Resources told farmers and cities that rely on the State Water Project they can expect just 10 percent of normal deliveries this year. That’s below the 20 percent allocation shipped last year.
So far California’s winter precipitation has been somewhat above average, but not extraordinary enough to reverse the impacts of four severely dry years. The statewide snowpack is 113 percent of average for this date. It’s 124 percent in the northern Sierra.
Rainfall in the Sacramento Valley is running at 114 percent of average, and 120 percent in the San Joaquin Valley.
“With this promising news and El Niño storms beginning to materialize, we are feeling encouraged,” said David Murillo, the Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid-Pacific regional director. “However, storage in our reservoirs remains low, and we must be prudent as we develop initial operation plans and allocations for CVP water contractors.”
Amaral, the Westlands deputy director, said he was frustrated that even with recent storms causing regional flooding, water is washing out to sea instead of heading south through pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Last week, state officials said they had to shut down the pumps that divert water to Southern California to protect endangered Delta smelt.
Westlands is among the agricultural districts pressing to loosen endangered species protections to provide more water for cropland.
Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow, email@example.com
San Luis Obispo Tribune
Paso Robles water district vote will have profound impact on North County
By David Sneed
The future of the troubled Paso Robles groundwater basin will soon be shaped by residents and property owners in a crucial series of ballot measures that will arrive in their mailboxes next month.
At stake is the ability of rural residents to stay in their homes and for North County’s economically vital wine industry to sustain itself.
Hundreds of rural homeowners dependent on wells for their water have watched levels in those wells drop precipitously. Irrigated agriculture, which uses nearly 70 percent of the groundwater pumped out of the basin, also is threatened. Eighty percent of irrigated agriculture in the basin consists of wine grapes.
On Feb. 8, county election officials will send out ballots to voters and property owners, who will decide whether to form a Paso Robles groundwater management district. As proposed, the district would have sweeping powers to tax and regulate property in the sprawling 790-square-mile water basin that covers much of the North County.
“I think water is the most important issue facing us as rural residents,” said Chad Patten of Paso Robles, who is running for a seat on the proposed water district’s board of directors.
If formed, the district would have the power to meter wells to measure use, levy charges on that use and set usage limits. It would also have the ability to obtain supplemental water such as recycled water from Paso Robles, the Nacimiento pipeline and water from the State Water Project pipeline. The district would be specifically prohibited from exporting water outside the basin.
What will be voted on in the election
The election will consist of three separate ballots that must be returned by March 8.
In Measure A, approximately 6,000 registered voters in the basin will decide whether to establish a parcel tax that would generate the nearly $1 million a year needed to manage the basin. Two-thirds of the returned ballots must be in favor of the tax for it to be established. The majority of property owners would pay $37.50 or less a year, but property with irrigated agriculture could easily pay more than $1,000 per year.
“Getting two-thirds of the vote is going to be a heavy lift,” said Bob Brown, owner of Pretty Penny Vineyard in Paso Robles, who is in favor of forming the district.
In Measure B, the estimated 4,832 landowners within the district will decide whether to form the district. A majority of the returned ballots must be in favor for the district to be formed.
In order for the district to be formed, both Measure A and Measure B must pass.
On the third ballot, voters and landowners will choose the water district’s board of directors. Nine seats on the board are up for grabs — three chosen by voters, two chosen by large landowners of 400 or more acres, two chosen by medium landowners of 40 to 399 acres and two chosen by small landowners with less than 40 acres.
Of those four categories, only two are contested, meaning there are more candidates than there are seats on the board. The large landowner and registered voter seats are contested.
A crisis decades in the making
The crisis in the basin that led to a proposed groundwater management district was decades in the making. Groundwater wells have pumped more water out of the basin than nature can replenish through rainfall and natural percolation. Four years of extreme drought exacerbated the overpumping problem.
“Over the past four years, we have gotten two years’ worth of rain,” said Wade Horton, county public works director.
Although the county is experiencing a wet winter this year because of an El Niño weather pattern, it will not be enough to recharge the basin.
“It will take multiple wet years to begin recharging the basin,” said John Diodati, county public works administrator.
A recent hydrological study of the basin calculated that the basin was overpumped by an estimated 2,473 acre-feet per year from 1981 through 2011. As a result, water levels in the basin dropped 80 to 100 feet or more in some areas, and those levels are expected to drop an additional 70 feet by 2040.
Hardest hit is the Estrella area, a 12-mile-wide-by-15-mile-long swath of land east of Paso Robles. County hydrological data show that water levels in that area of the basin have dropped by 120 feet since 1981.
Ed Redig is a retired State Parks employee and lives in the Estrella area on Blue Oak Lane off Geneseo Road. His story is typical.
He built his house there in 1994 and drilled a 400-foot-deep well. By 2007, he had lost 100 feet of water in his well.
A year ago, his well went dry, and he had to drill a new 700-foot-deep well. That cost him $30,000.
“That was a big hit for a retired guy who is just trying to get by,” he said. “Dozens of people in this area have had to drill new wells.”
Special legislation led to this vote
The situation prompted several groups of residents and vintners to try to form a water management district for the basin. However, some feared that a standard water district would be dominated by a handful of large property owners in the basin.
In an effort to avoid that, the groups proposed a district with a hybrid board of directors that would be a mix of large, medium and small landowners and registered voters, thereby avoiding any one group being able to dominate the district and its decision-making.
At the request of area residents, Assemblyman Katcho Achadjian, R-San Luis Obispo, introduced AB 2453 in 2014, legislation that would allow a water district to be formed with the hybrid board of directors elected by voters and property owners.
“Over 300 wells went dry in a five-month period this year. Therefore, the need for this legislation is immense,” Achadjian said in 2014.
The proposal to form the district has deeply divided the community. Proponents argue that the basin is in crisis and a locally managed district will ensure fair allocation of water. Opponents argue that the district would duplicate management activities already being done by the county and add another wasteful and expensive layer of bureaucracy.
As Achadjian’s bill wended its way through the state Legislature, language was added that outlined the powers the water district would have. These include the power to meter, monitor and manage the basin, including the authority to levy extraction charges.
The bill was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2014 and took effect in 2015, leading to the current election.
“I think that voting to form the district will be the easy thing to do, but actually managing it will be the hard thing to do,” said Edwin Rambuski, a Templeton attorney and farmer who is running for a seat on the district’s board of directors.
Law requires a plan
Another new state law is also having a profound impact on the effort to form a management district for the Paso Robles basin — the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. That law requires that basins in critical overdraft, including the Paso Robles basin, have sustainable groundwater management plans in place by 2020. The Paso Robles basin is one of 21 such critically overdrafted basins in California, according to state water officials.
If the water district is not formed, the county Board of Supervisors, sitting as the county Flood Control and Water Conservation District, could have the county public works department manage the basin. If the county doesn’t manage the basin, the state will step in.
The law gives the State Water Resources Control Board the authority to intervene if local governments don’t act to stabilize a basin that is in overdraft. State intervention would require well meters at landowner expense to verify usage volume and compliance with pumping restrictions. Those fees would be charged without voter approval by landowners or residents.
“Groundwater users in overdrafted basins must work together to manage the basin sustainably, or state intervention will bring the basin into a sustainable condition until such time as basin water users can themselves sustainably manage the basin for this and future generations,” wrote the State Water Board’s Executive Director Thomas Howard in a letter to San Luis Obispo County.
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.
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.
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.
David Sneed: 805-781-7930, @davidsneedSLO
Soon, state will explain why it wants our water
By Mike Dunbar
The state of California soon will tell us what we’re worth. Don’t be surprised if the answer is “not as much as south Valley farmers,” or “not as much as San Francisco fishermen,” or simply “not much.”
In February, the State Water Resources Control Board will release its long-awaited revised Substitute Environmental Draft, laying out how much water it wants to flow down the Tuolumne, Stanislaus and Merced rivers to the ocean and the board’s projections of the costs of those increased flows to our region. Such reports are number-heavy and a bit boring, but stick with us because the state plans to take money out of every pocket in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
The board’s first report in 2012 was so pathetically flawed it’s taken state number-crunchers four years to get over the embarrassment.
Their foremost concern is the welfare of Oncorhynchus tshawytscha – the king salmon. Of less concern is the welfare of other species – cows, chickens, farmers, etc.
The 2016 report is likely to repeat the state’s desire that 40 percent of each river be used to restore salmon populations. In the case of farmers in Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts, that means giving up 25 percent of the water they’ve been putting to beneficial use for generations. It is 15 percent more from the Stanislaus and 20 percent more from the Merced.
Before the state can grab that much water, it is required to calculate economic and social impacts for our 1 million residents. When it first suggested its 40 percent figure, the state’s pencil pushers put the economic impact at $124 million per year. That didn’t even reach the threshold of absurd.
A journalist with a cheap calculator can find impacts at least 10 times greater, without mentioning $1 billion in losses San Francisco said it will suffer as it shares the pain of its Tuolumne River partners, Turlock and Modesto.
Undeniably, all three rivers are damaged; salmon numbers have dropped cataclysmically from 50 years ago. The Tuolumne is the worst, supporting only a remnant population. More could be done and must be done to help fix the rivers, and yes, more water will be required. But not all solutions have to involve depriving farmers of water.
Keeping 25 percent more water in the river might help improve the salmon’s plight – or it might not. We’ve been trying to have that discussion for years, but the environmental community – which has burrowed into the ears of government staffers – insist the only remedy is higher flows. Never mind data showing that bass populations have exploded as the rivers warm, and they have been devouring 98 percent of outmigrating juvenile salmon.
Bass are invasive species, and their favorite food is smaller fish. UC Davis pointed out that entire populations of Sacramento pikeminnow are often “completely eliminated by bass.” To a bass, there’s not much difference between a juvenile pikeminnow, a salmon fry and a Delta smelt; they eat ’em all. But we digress.
In writing about the 2012 environmental draft, we noted the water board reached the bewildering conclusion that its least-dramatic flow increases would result in fallowing 12,280 acres. That, the state wrote, would result in a $9 million increase in ag income. Dumbfounding.
The state’s preferred 40 percent flows would result in only 66,500 acres being fallowed. That, said the state, would cause a $40 million drop in ag income. Apparently, state economists believed each irrigated acre produced $600 in 2012. Utterly outlandish.
Total farm income in Stanislaus County was $4.4 billion last year. That means each of Stanislaus County’s roughly 540,000 ag acres produced $8,150 – or 13 times the state’s 2012 number. Merced and San Joaquin had similar figures. If the state sticks with its estimate of 66,500 fallowed acres, farmers will collectively lose $542 million – not $40 million. That’s every year, but that’s not all.
Each $1 of farm income generates $3.50 of economic activity, according to UC Davis. So that $542 million becomes $1.9 billion. And that’s the best-case scenario. County farm bureaus estimate losing so much irrigation water would result in 100,000 fallowed acres. That would cost farmers closer to $810 million with an economic impact of $2.8 billion.
Yes, many farmers would pump more groundwater rather than fallow fields, but the state has decreed groundwater use must be sustainable, meaning less pumping. Other farmers will switch some of their land to lower-value annual crops. That way, during a drought, they could skip planting altogether and save water for their remaining trees. While farmers might economically survive such a year off, their employees and those working in food-processing factories won’t.
For justification, the state will point to the poor Pacific salmon fishermen, insisting only healthier San Joaquin River flows can restore fish populations. Hogwash.
There are fewer than 500 commercial salmon fishermen in Northern California, according to a Department of Fish and Wildlife report, and their best year this century was 2005 when their catch was worth $15.7 million in 2015 dollars.
In a good year, some 500,000 salmon leave the Sacramento River for the ocean. It’s been 30 years since even 15,000 salmon exited from the entire San Joaquin system. To restore a salmon fishery, start with the Sacramento – which provides 80 percent of the Delta’s water and 97 percent of its salmon. Unless, of course, you intend to have the Sacramento River bypass the Delta altogether, being sucked south through giant tunnels.
The real sticking point – the point that must be negotiated – is how much water and how fast the state wants it. If the state just starts taking the water, our region will be economically devastated.
Next month, when the state unveils its new numbers, our region’s leaders – supervisors, water district board members, employment officials, etc. – must be ready to refute poor analysis and correct any bogus data. With substantially less water, jobs will disappear, land values will fall and less will be collected in taxes. A congressional report already calls us the Appalachia of the West; with less water, we could be the Sahara.
Mike Dunbar is the editor of the Opinions pages: 209-578-2325, firstname.lastname@example.org
San Francisco Chronicle
Fish and Game upheaval reveals shift in state wildlife policy
By Peter Fimrite
The sudden resignation of the most adamant defender of hunting and fishing on the California Fish and Game Commission could put the finishing touches on a sweeping philosophical shift in the way the state views wildlife, sets rules for fishing and controls predators like mountain lions and wolves.
Commissioner Jim Kellogg retired in late December in frustration over what he termed a lack of consideration for the sportsmen and women he represents. The resignation — combined with the unrelated recent departures of commission President Jack Baylis and Sonke Mastrup, the commission’s executive director — sets the stage for Gov. Jerry Brown to appoint conservationists to the increasingly pivotal state board.
Such a move may, observers say, complete the transformation of the commission from an organization that advocates for fishing and hunting to one that safeguards endangered species, preserves habitat and protects California’s top predators from slaughter.
But it won’t happen without a fight. While environmentalists say they are finally getting a fair shake in the high-stakes political game of wildlife management, advocates for outdoor sports fear that they have lost their voice and that the role they have played in the protection of species is being forgotten.
Facing divisive issues
The five-member commission, whose job is to recommend policies to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been wading through divisive issues that could profoundly impact the future of the state, including what to do about diminishing salmon populations, sick sea lions and disappearing sea otters.
How California responds to growing numbers of wolves, coyotes and mountain lions is a central battle. The question is whether the predators should be tolerated or encouraged — or driven away by guard dogs or gunned down when they get too close to people or livestock.
Historically, the commission has been made up almost entirely of hunters and fishermen, but that focus has changed in the past several years.
“It has been going through a transition from a predominantly hunting and fishing commission to more of an environmental commission,” said Bill Gaines, a hunting advocate and lobbyist for the outdoor sports community. “They are responsible for a lot of things that would never have been on their agenda several decades ago.”
Brown, who is responsible for appointments on the commission, did not say when he would fill the vacancies.
“We aim to fill all of our vacancies with the most qualified, capable and committed candidates from a broad and diverse pool of applicants,” said the governor’s spokesman, Evan Westrup, in a written statement. “That ultimately dictates the timing of our appointments.”
Shift of power
Fish and Game’s transition ratcheted up over the past few years with the departures of two commissioners: Michael Sutton, an avid hunter and fisherman who nevertheless disapproved of trophy hunting and supported marine protections, and Daniel Richards, who was famously photographed with a dead mountain lion he had killed in Idaho.
Richard Rogers, who was not considered a friend of the outdoor sporting community, also left the commission last year.
The replacements for Sutton and Rogers — Anthony Williams, a 47-year-old lawyer and Democratic consultant from Huntington Beach who is the first African American in the commission’s 145-year history, and Eric Sklar, 52, of St. Helena — are viewed as more on the conservation side of the ledger.
But it was the resignation of Kellogg, who often teamed up with Sutton and Richards, that was viewed by many as the end of the line for the hunting and fishing coalition on the commission.
“I’m leaving pretty much out of frustration,” Kellogg said in an interview. He had been on the board for 14 years when he retired Dec. 31, the longest-serving member of the commission.
“I’m just tired of being the only one fighting the fight for the hunters and fishers,” he said. “The first 12 years I won most of the battles, and the last couple of years I lost almost every battle.”
The changes on the commission are an illustration of a statewide phenomenon. Californians, more than ever, regard wildlife, including apex predators, as a valuable part of the ecosystem instead of as food or vermin.
Chuck Bonham, the director of the Department of Fish and Wildlife, says he is committed to embracing science-based wildlife and ecosystem management while preserving the history and traditions associated with hunting and fishing.
Telling name change
Clearly, though, there has been a movement away from those traditions. The transformation became vivid in 2012 when then-Assemblyman Jared Huffman of San Rafael, who has since been elected to Congress, introduced a bill to change the name of the department that has managed fishing and hunting in California since 1872 from “Fish and Game” to “Fish and Wildlife.”
The bill passed in 2013 despite opposition from hunters, who saw it as a signal that game animals would soon be made off-limits. The commission itself, however, maintained the “Fish and Game” moniker despite lobbying by environmental groups to change the names of both the commission and the department it serves.
The name change was part of a slew of legislation requiring, among other things, that the department take into account ecosystem balance and sound science when managing wildlife. To conservationists, it represented a rejection of an archaic view that wildlife is meant to be shot or speared and mounted on a wall.
“It has become a more open-minded forum where Californians of all viewpoints can be heard and, on any given day, anyone can win,” said Jennifer Fearing, a lobbyist for the Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection organizations. “I think it was stacked against conservationists for so long that any shift seems like a victory for conservation.”
Many farmers, ranchers and rural residents, however, believe the state is turning away from them as they struggle to hold on to their heritage.
“I come from the days when most people grew up with a fishing pole and kids spent most of their life outdoors. Today kids just sit on the couch with their cell phone,” Kellogg said. “The whole world is changing. What people don’t understand, though, is that when there isn’t any hunting in California, there won’t be any native wildlife, because it is the hunters and fishermen who spend the money on wildlife management.”
In fact, Gaines has argued, hunting and fishing tags and license fees contribute $80 million to $100 million a year to the Department of Fish and Wildlife — roughly a quarter of the annual budget. He said 60 percent of the interior wetlands of California are privately owned, preserved and managed for duck hunting, and that the national wildlife refuge system is overwhelmingly funded by hunters.
Fewer hunt, fish
At the same time, noted Gaines, recent studies have shown that only 10 percent of Californians actively support hunting. The number of state residents who hunt and fish has been declining for decades, according to researchers.
Hunting groups believe animal rights advocates want to outlaw the pastime entirely. They point to recent laws banning bobcat trapping, the use of lead bullets, coyote killing contests and the hounding of bears and bobcats.
The establishment of vast marine protected areas along the coast and the recent release of a draft management plan for carefully handling wolves, which are expected to multiply in California after a long absence, served as further proof to some ranchers and sportsmen that they are playing second fiddle to what they see as tree-hugging, save-the-whales city slickers.
Far from wanting to ban hunting and fishing, Fearing said she just wants state policymakers to listen to all sides. Until recently, she said, anyone who introduced science that contradicted rural ranching and pro-hunting doctrine was dismissed.
“If you want the rest of the state to chip in and advocate for more resources to make sure we have robust protection of our wildlife, you have to convince the public that you are an agency that shares their values,” Fearing said. “I think they are doing that now. It’s incumbent on them to grow that trust.”
Geoff Shester, the California program director for the marine advocacy group Oceana, said he hopes the Fish and Game Commission will be guided by a responsibility to protect rather than destroy in the future.
“What’s happening is not an antifishing or antihunting perspective,” said Shester, who has fought for the protection of ecosystems, including the San Francisco Bay herring fishery. “It’s more about how to do these activities responsibly. Dealing with issues like overfishing is good for both fishing communities and for the conservation community.”
Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter: @pfimrite
Fresno County growers claim ‘arbitrary legislative targeting’ in late-session bill
By David Siders
In a lawsuit challenging a multimillion-dollar farm labor deal struck by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature last year, two Fresno County growers said Friday that they were illegally carved out of the agreement.
In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Fowler Packing Co. and Gerawan Farming Inc. said they faced “intentional and arbitrary legislative targeting” in a pact involving back payments for thousands of employees for rest periods and other work hours. In exchange for making back payments, Assembly Bill 1513 offered farmers throughout the state protection from lawsuits – and potentially far higher penalties – for past failure to pay.
Yet the bill, passed on the Legislature’s final day, contained exemptions effectively excluding Fowler and Gerawan, among other growers, from the arrangement – a provision to keep the influential United Farm Workers union from opposing the deal. The UFW has long feuded with Gerawan over employee representation, and a lawyer for the union was among attorneys listed on class-action lawsuits against both Gerawan and Fowler.
“From my perspective, if we’re going to create a grand compromise that helps most growers and helps most workers, you don’t want to let it get blown up because there’s somebody who’s a potential bad actor,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, told The Sacramento Bee at the time.
In their lawsuit, Fowler and Gerawan ask the court to declare provisions exempting them from the agreement unconstitutional, saying the agreement violates equal protection law.
“AB 1513 was reverse-engineered via a last minute legislative ‘gut and amend’ designed to punish Fowler and Gerawan,” the companies argued. “The targeting was in response to demands by the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) that these growers be excluded from AB 1513’s ‘safe harbor’ provisions as the price for the UFW’s non-opposition to this legislation.”
The UFW did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Brown administration has previously described the agreement as a landmark deal resulting from “good-faith negotiations and compromise and understanding.”
AB 1513 served to clarify pay for piece-rate workers throughout the state, including many fruit pickers, truck drivers, cable installers and other workers.
Williams put estimated back payments to workers at about $200 million, while farm industry officials said their liability could have reached $1 billion or more.
David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders, firstname.lastname@example.org
Women expand their home on the range
By Elizabeth Zach
RUIDOSO, N.M. — Although Laura Jean Schneider comes from four generations of Midwest farmers, she is uncertain sometimes about her agricultural acumen.
For the past two years, she has ranched cattle across 100,000 acres on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in southern New Mexico with her husband. It is, she says, dangerous work compared with the farming she once did in Minnesota with her family. For one thing, should either she or her husband need immediate medical care, it would be a hard ride over 27 miles of uneven dirt roads that flood during monsoon season.
And at age 31, she suffers from debilitating migraines, back pain and ongoing dental work following a near-fatal car accident a decade ago. There are bank loans, and the West’s ongoing drought, that weigh on her. Yet she’s learned the ropes, as it were, keenly observing how cattle learn the landscape they live in, and how not all of them are naturally good at rearing their young.
“I rope, ride and build fence,” she says matter-of-factly. “This is what I do. It’s my job.”
As unique as Schneider seems, she is far from alone. According to the U.S. Agriculture Department, the number of women-operated farms increased from 5 percent to 14 percent between 1978 and 2007. Today, counting principal operators and secondary operators, women account for 30 percent of all farmers in the United States, or just under 1 million.
As striking as those numbers are, particularly when considering the financial risks and physical demands that accompany the work , researchers say they would like to learn more about the full contribution these women make, and what it means for the future of farming and ranching in the United States.
Researchers have observed some possible reasons why more women are farming and ranching. Some women regard themselves less as entrepreneurs and more as gentle stewards of the land, or bulwarks against corporations overtaking family farms and developers sweeping in with seductive offers. Others are drawn to the farm-to-fork movement, where locally grown produce and meat hold much greater appeal. Also, more women are inheriting farms and ranches.
Downsizing and mechanization have also made the work more affordable and less physically demanding — although “smaller parcels tend to require more physical labor because they are typically managed using hand tools and practices,” said Breanne Wroughton, program assistant for the California Farm Academy at the Center for Land-Based Learning in Winters, Calif.
To that end, Green Heron Tools in New Tripoli, Pa., is part of a burgeoning niche industry that customizes farm equipment for women, including a tractor rapid hitch, because the traditional tool for attaching and detaching parts “is at best difficult and at worst impossible for women (and many men) to safely manage on their own,” according to the company’s website.
None of this much matters, however, to Megan Brown, as she leans over her squealing Red Wattle pigs with a fork in her hand so that she can poke and stroke their backs, which, she claims, soothes them and stimulates their appetites. Born and raised on her parents’ sprawling ranch at the base of Table Mountain near Oroville in northern California, Brown, 34, has made a name for herself raising her heritage pigs and selling their savory meat to local residents and gourmet San Francisco restaurants.
With a swashbuckling demeanor that has attracted a loyal following to her Twitter account (@MegRaeB) and made her a regular fixture at agriculture conferences, she emphatically calls for more women to, so to speak, enter the field.
“My mother taught me to develop as many marketable skills as possible, so it’s not just the ranching with me,” said Brown, as she swerved her Polaris ATV across the rocky plateau skirting her parents’ ranch. “I cure olives, make beef jerky. I’ve planted tobacco, I can skin my own deer. I got a tractor, and I can lift heavy things with it myself. . . . I really believe any woman can do what I’m doing.”
According to the USDA, the women who identified themselves as earning their primary income from farming or ranching run the gamut in terms of what they produce. They raise cattle, sheep, poultry, pigs and goats in the West and Midwest. They are viticulturists — or, as they refer to themselves at times, “vit-chicks” — who nurture malbec and pinot noir grapes in California, Washington and Oregon. They grow lavender, melons and seemingly every other delicacy under the sun.Some have taken on teaching roles and find that more and more women are joining their ranks.
“[Women’s] enrollment in the classes has been fairly consistent throughout the last four years of the program,” said Wroughton, “and 51 percent of our graduates have been women.”’
And then there are women like Donna Schroeder, who at 77 was never schooled in ranching but was clearly born to the land and still ranches it in Shonkin, Mont.
She says she has no plans to retire, despite admitting to a small profit margin along with plenty of bank debt and machinery upkeep. “If someone wants to do ranching these days,” she said, “basically someone has to get out so you can get in. There’s only so much to go around.”
One of the few women to be inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, Schroeder is wizened and walks with a slight limp. Her husband died more than 30 years ago; neither of her two children live nearby nor plan to take over the ranch when she no longer can run it.
Cheryl Cosner, 52, who runs a sheep and cattle ranch with her husband in northeastern Oregon, speculates that one of her two daughters could eventually take the reins. She studied agriculture economics and animal science at a time when, she estimates, about only 30 percent of her fellow students were female. She later taught business administration in China and took art classes that proved helpful when she started marketing her farm products.
Last year, Brenda Kirsch Frketich prepared to take over her family’s Oregon farm. When her father retired, he appointed her to carry the torch at this 1,000-acre Willamette Valley farm that’s been in the family for four generations.
She’d proven her mettle: When she was pregnant with her first child, she was out in the fields — long days, long nights, she recalled, when she had to swath and cut the grass into rows so that the dew would hold the seed on the straw stems for when the combine came through. She is now 32 and has a business degree. In taking over the farm, she oversees three employees, seasonal workers and the planting and harvesting of perennial rye and tall fescu grass, wheat, crimson clover, hazelnuts, green beans, Swiss chard, peas, cabbage and radishes.
“When I started with all this, I was 11 years old,” she said. “My feet couldn’t reach the tractor pedals.”
While moving some records and files into her new makeshift office, she came across a weathered leather-bound ledger book, with orderly figures and notes marching across the pages. She marveled at the detailed, pristine penmanship, now fully aware of her grandmother’s essential role in the family’s business and legacy.
“You can learn the dirt, learn the soil, you can learn the tools,” Frketich said, “but you also need to understand the business. She did.”
Zach is a fellow at Stanford University’s Bill Lane Center for the American West.