Ag Today Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Ag Today

Wednesday, June 8, 2016


Sacramento Bee

Appellate court temporarily blocks Delta island sale

By Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler

A state appellate court has temporarily blocked the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s $175 million purchase of five islands in the heart of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

On Tuesday, the 3rd District Court of Appeal granted a temporary stay preventing the sale from closing.

Last month, a San Joaquin County judge refused to grant a request for a preliminary injunction filed by environmental groups, local water districts, and San Joaquin and Contra Costa counties. Those groups sued in April, aiming to halt the sale pending an environmental review. Metropolitan officials have said it makes no sense to do an environmental review before the agency has a firm proposal for how it wants to use the islands.

Metropolitan has suggested the properties could be used to store equipment or possibly “fill” dirt for Gov. Jerry Brown’s controversial tunnels project, which is designed to improve the reliability of water shipments to areas south of the Delta. The project is wildly unpopular among environmentalists and elected officials in the Delta region, and they have taken aim at Metropolitan’s pending land purchase as well. They contend the purchase ultimately will harm the Delta’s ecosystem and water supply, so an environmental review is required.

“We are grateful that the justices have prevented Metropolitan from closing on this unprecedented purchase of five Delta islands while they consider whether to extend the injunction for the duration of the litigation,” San Joaquin County Counsel J. Mark Myles said in an email.

Metropolitan attorney Catherine Stites said the appellate court’s decision is merely a procedural ruling to give the court time to review the case. Stites said that when the appeal was filed Thursday, it included nearly 1,000 pages of documents, and Metropolitan submitted a stack of documents in response.

“We believe the 3rd Appellate District will come to the same conclusion (as the San Joaquin County court judge), when it has a chance to review all the papers carefully,” she said.

In a one-paragraph order issued Tuesday, the appellate court enjoined Metropolitan from moving forward with the purchase pending further instructions from the court. The court gave no explanation for its ruling.

Dante Nomellini, a lawyer for the Central Delta Water Agency and a plaintiff in the case, said the ruling doesn’t mean an end to Metropolitan’s purchase, but that the court could force the Southern California agency to perform environmental reviews before it can complete the acquisition.

Until now, Metropolitan has suggested it wants the islands to help push the Delta tunnels project forward but hasn’t made that explicit. It also has said the islands could be used for wetlands restoration and other purposes.

“We all know they want to get the property … for facilitating the WaterFix,” Nomellini said, using the official name for the tunnels project. “Why would Met come up here and buy land unless it related to their water supply?”

A second suit was filed late last month by San Joaquin County and a group of Delta farmers who allege that the pending sale represents a breach of contract.

Delta Wetlands Properties, a subsidiary of Swiss financial services conglomerate Zurich Insurance Group, bought the islands 20 years ago with the aim of converting them into giant reservoirs that could store water in wet years and ship it to Southern California when supplies run low. Local governments and landowners sued over the plan. In 2013, they negotiated a series of settlements that restrict what can be done with the land.

The lawsuit filed in Contra Costa Superior Court argues that Delta Wetlands signed a contract that requires future buyers to abide by the negotiated settlements.

Metropolitan spokesman Bob Muir said last week that “those agreements are not relevant to the purchase of the property.” Metropolitan officials say they won’t be using the islands as reservoirs.

Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264, @ryansabalow,



Los Angeles Times

State water board drops record $1.5-million drought fine

By Bettina Boxall

State water regulators Tuesday dismissed a record $1.5-million fine against a Northern California irrigation district accused of diverting water last year in violation of a drought order.

The action is the latest twist in the state’s attempts to assert control over water diversions by agricultural districts that hold some of the oldest water rights in California.

The State Water Resources Control Board alleged that the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District in Northern California ignored curtailment orders and took water that it was not entitled to under California’s priority system of water rights.

With the drought slashing flows in the watersheds of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers, the board last summer told districts with rights dating back to 1903 to halt diversions, thereby preserving supplies for districts with more senior rights.

Byron-Bethany, which has a 1914 right to withdraw from the southern end of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, continued its diversions for two weeks after the curtailment order was posted, according to the board.

The agency’s enforcement order proposed a $1.5-million fine, which Byron-Bethany protested, arguing that the water board did not have authority over its rights.

After reviewing the state’s case at a March hearing, board officers found weaknesses in the complicated water analysis used to determine the curtailment and recommended dismissal.

The board voted Tuesday to drop the case, while affirming its authority to stop illegal diversions. The board plans to hold a workshop later this year to discuss ways of strengthening its calculations of water availability during a drought.

The board also dismissed an enforcement order – which did not include a fine – against the West Side Irrigation District of Tracy., Twitter: @boxall



Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

New UC Riverside lab to seek cure for tree disease spread by Asian citrus psyllid

By Mark Muckenfuss

Riverside gave birth to California’s citrus industry. Now it’s hoping to save it.

A new partnership between UC Riverside and the Citrus Research Foundation is generating a unique research facility that scientists hope will lead to a cure for huanglongbing, a so-far incurable bacterial disease that has decimated citrus groves in China, Brazil and Florida. The $8 million new lab will greatly speed that process, scientists say. The plan is to break ground in October and to open the lab next year.

On Monday, officials from both UCR and the foundation, as well as local politicians and industry representatives, met to kick off the new venture with speeches about the history of the local citrus industry and the importance of eradicating the effects of huanglongbing.

Also called citrus greening, the disease is spread by the tiny Asian citrus psyllid. The invasive insect has been found throughout Southern California, and in some northern counties. Two trees in residential areas have been found to be infected with huanglongbing — one in Hacienda Heights in 2012, and another in San Gabriel a year ago – and intense quarantine restrictions were put in place to prevent its spread.

Experts say if it gets into commercial groves, it could ruin California’s citrus industry, which is valued at between $1 billion and $3 billion. The disease has already cost Florida more than $4 billion in lost citrus. More than 26 million citrus trees have been lost in Brazil.

That threat creates understandable anxiety not only on the part of growers, but researchers as well.

“We need a solution for this today,” said UCR plant scientist Chandrika Ramadugu. “We needed it three years ago.”

The disease attacks the trees in several ways. The psyllids themselves feed on new shoots and leaves, causing the leaves to curl and become misshapen. The bacteria impedes the growth of new shoots and roots. Infected trees produce misshapen, bitter-tasting fruit with a thick green peel. The trees usually die within three to five years.

It may take 10 years for the goals of the new citrus lab to be realized, but Michael Pazzani, UCR’s vice chancellor for research, said he thinks the university’s scientists, along with others working at the lab, can solve the problem by creating new hybrids that are immune to the disease.

“You will see resistant varieties coming out in the next decade,” Pazzani said. “That probably is the ultimate solution.”

That solution would take much longer without scientists’ ability to do controlled experiments on actual plants. The 6,000-square-foot lab, with an 11,000-square-foot attached greenhouse, will provide a contained space where researchers can study the effects of huanglongbing without releasing it into the environment.

“It’s very frustrating to have these big problems but it being so difficult to work on solutions,” said UCR geneticist Mikeal Roose.

Roose thinks the answer to the problem is breeding plants that are resistant to huanglongbing with existing commercial species.

Most of the plants found to be resistant to the disease are distant relatives of commercial citrus and don’t produce anything close to a marketable fruit. Researchers say it will take several generations to create a resistant tree that is commercially viable.

“We have made crosses already and we have plants we want to use in the test for resistance,” Roose said.

That won’t be possible until the new lab opens. When it does, he said, “It potentially could facilitate a real breakthrough.”

Pazzani and other UCR officials have been trying to secure funding for such a lab for several years. The mechanisms in place for supporting such research, Pazzani said, typically funnel money into experimentation and not into construction. Partnering with the newly formed industry group, the Citrus Research Foundation, was a way to solve that problem. The foundation, which is supported by the state’s citrus growers, will provide all the funding for the new building, which will be built about a half-mile from the university at Rustin and Marlborough avenues.

“The people in industry said, ‘This is important to us,’” Pazzani said.

Joel Nelsen, director of the foundation, is also president of California Citrus Mutual, a nonprofit industry advocate. He said growers have an urgent interest in solving the citrus greening problem.

“If we want to get ahead of this ballgame, we need to invest in this program,” Nelsen said. “We’re willing to put the money into it.”

Outside of two small research stations, the only other such lab in the state is at UC Davis. And only a small portion of that lab is available for citrus. The UCR lab will be devoted to studying nothing but huanglongbing.

Researcher Ramadugu has been traveling back and forth to Davis to test the resistance of new breeds of citrus. The new lab, she said, can’t open too soon.

“If we have it here, I can do 10 times more 10 times faster and I would have complete control,” she said. “I would love that.”

So would growers, said Nelsen.

“I believe we’ll find a cure in our facility,” he said.



Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Santa Rosa area farmworker housing project underway

By Eloísa Ruano González

A new farmworker housing complex is underway just north of Santa Rosa.

Construction on the 30-unit project started last week on nearly two acres off Old Redwood Highway near Airport Boulevard, west of Larkfield. It’s expected to be completed within a year and will include 30 two-bedroom apartments for low-income families working in agriculture.

California Human Development, a Santa Rosa-based nonprofit that provides assistance and outreach to farmworkers, low-income families and others in the North Bay and Central Valley, received $11 million in federal, state and local funding for the project. It also received donations from various organizations, including the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation and Jackson Family Wines & Enterprises.

“A lot of people stepped up,” said Chris Paige, the nonprofit’s chief executive officer. “They realize how important (farmworker) housing is for sustainability.”

He said there’s a “tremendous” need for affordable housing, particularly in the North Coast. Farmworkers typically make about $18,000 to $20,000 a year and many spend more than half of their income on housing, Paige said. Thanks to a subsidy from the Department of Agriculture, California Human Development will be able to cap rent at 30 percent of families’ incomes, he said.

Efren Carrillo, chairman of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors, said in a statement that the project “offers a significant solution” to the area’s housing problem.

“Many of those who work the vineyards and fields of our county live in crowded, substandard conditions,” he said.

The complex will be named the Ortiz Family Plaza, after one of California Human Development’s founders, George Ortiz. It’ll include a playground, garden spaces and a community center, where the nonprofit plans to offer English-language and financial literacy classes, citizenship workshops, mentoring programs and other services.

“This is a wonderful thing,” Ortiz said while watching construction crews work on the site Tuesday. “But it doesn’t solve the problem.”

Ortiz, a longtime Sonoma County resident who has spent decades working on improving conditions for farmworkers across Northern California, was referring to the larger problem of insufficient affordable housing. But the lower rents will allow families to set aside money for other necessities, such as food and medicine, he said, and the project will provide more stability for their children, many of whom will no longer have to sleep on the floor, as he did when he was a child working the fields with his migrant family.

“They’re going to have their own bedroom,” Ortiz said in Spanish.

Paige said they expect to start taking applications from potential tenants sometime in February or March. To be eligible, tenants must be considered low income, work in agriculture and have authorization to work in the U.S. legally, Paige said.

Plans also call for a second phase, which could include an additional 15 to 20 units just south of the current site, he said. They’re working on finding funding for that part of the project, which they hope to begin building in 2018.

Ortiz called the project and its funding a “mini miracle.” He said, “It’s so complex what California Human Development has done, how it wired this project together.”

Paige said his organization first applied for the $2 million grant and $1 million low-interest rate loan they received from the USDA in 2009. He said they planned to build the apartment complex in Healdsburg, which had earmarked redevelopment dollars for the project. Gov. Jerry Brown and state legislators then dissolved redevelopment agencies in 2012. They lost the money and that set the project behind, Paige said.

However, the USDA stuck with the nonprofit until it could secure other monies to complete the project, he said. That’s when they heard about the Old Redwood property, owned by Marv Soiland, who has since died, from now-Sen. Mike McGuire, Paige said. The land already was zoned for affordable housing a year earlier, he added.

Paige said some residents have raised concerns about the project. They’re worried farmworkers will be constantly moving in and out of the complex. That won’t be the case, Paige contended.

There are still misconceptions in the community that all farmworkers are single men who migrate up and down the state following the harvests, he said. His agency partnered with the county’s health department to conduct a study, which found that 88 percent of the nearly 300 farmworkers surveyed lived year-round in Sonoma County.

More than 70 percent had families, according to the study, which was released this past fall.

Paige said these families already are integrated into the community and have children enrolled in local schools.

“We expect a very stable population once they move in,” Paige said.

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.




Sacramento Bee

California Assembly blows chance to right historical wrong

By Marcos Breton

It’s hard to champion the cause of invisible people, especially when powerful forces are working against them. We saw that last week when the California Assembly voted down a bill to grant additional overtime pay to farmworkers living at or below the poverty line.

That the vote itself barely garnered a rumble from the press is one of the many reasons why the most vulnerable workers in California can be restricted of rights enjoyed by all other hourly workers in the state.

“All I’m trying to do is to give my daughters a little more for their lives,” said Miriam Vieyra, a 32-year-old grape picker who rode four hours in a bus from Delano to plead her case to California lawmakers. “With a little more help from my paycheck, I can buy a house where my children can live. As it is, there is never enough money.”

Vieyra, a member of the United Farm Workers union, estimates she earns $12,000 a year for working the harvest fields in Kern County – poverty wages. Farmworkers like her can sometimes earn overtime after 10 hours of work a day. But the bill shot down at the Capitol last week would have dropped the overtime threshold to eight hours.

The 10-hour threshold has been in place since the mid-1970s, which is worth noting because the ’70s were last time farmworker issues were front-page news in California. It’s been a long, hard 40 years since then. The political environment in the state has flipped. Democrats once allied with the UFW are now in charge. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

It wasn’t Republicans who cast the decisive votes to deny farmworkers a right enjoyed by most other workers in America since the Great Depression. It was Democrats.

The firewall around farmworker pay is maintained by the state’s $54 billion agricultural industry. It’s maintained by lobbyists hired by agribusiness and the Capitol politicians who vote their way.

The reason the bill failed on a 37-35 vote – four short of the needed 41-vote majority – was because eight Democrats voted no and seven abstained. Among the no votes was Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove. His vote was emblematic of the influence agribusiness has in the Capitol.

“I normally vote with labor, but I have a lot of ag in my district,” Cooper said, referring primarily to constituents in Lodi and Galt. “In my district alone, they produce $2.3 billion in commodities. Cherries, pears, apples, walnuts. … I voted for minimum wage, but I didn’t feel comfortable with this bill.”

Farmworkers remain the only hourly workers denied overtime after eight hours of work in a day, said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the San Diego-based Democrat who wrote the failed farmworker overtime bill.

“This is bill is so reasonable,” Gonzalez said last week. It would have been phased in incrementally through 2020. In tough economic times, the governor of California would have been allowed to suspend overtime gains for farmworkers.

But no. The answer is always no.

How is this possible?

In three decades as a journalist in California, I’ve witnessed the erosion of public support for farmworkers in the court of public opinion. Their plight as front-page news is frozen in the 1960s and ’70s when briefly – very briefly – the deplorable working conditions and meager pay they endured was a real public concern.

In the early ’90s, though the issue had faded and grape boycotts by the UFW no longer captivated as they once had, I was part of a series of stories called “Fields of Pain.” It was published on the front page of The Bee over five days in 1991 and detailed the poor pay, impoverished living conditions and health traumas farmworkers experienced due to pesticide exposure in the Central Valley.

The response was overwhelming. My voicemail was flooded with pledges from good people willing to help. They offered food and clothing. But just as important as the donations was the empathy people showed toward the subjects of our stories.

It’s different today. It’s not that there aren’t caring people out there. It’s that workers from Mexico and Central America had been politicized even before Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who uses the term “Mexican” as a slur on a near-daily basis.

Today, stories about vulnerable workers like Vieyra are often met with silence or with anti-immigrant invective.

The irony is that overtime first became law for workers with the passage of the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which also established minimum-wage and child-labor standards.

Back then, some segregationist politicians fought hard against establishing these laws for workers: “There has always been a difference in the wage scale of white and colored labor,” said Mark Wilcox, a Florida congressman as the law was being debated in the late 1930s. “You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it.”

With the denial of the overtime vote, you can keep a largely Latino population from equal access to pay and get away with it.

“The truth is, farms were once plowed by slave labor in the United States,” Gonzalez said. “Even though we freed slaves, we then had a system of sharecroppers. … In the 20th century, the white Southern plantation owners cut a deal, during the New Deal, to exempt the black farmworkers.”

Immigrants began doing the farm labor work, like Gonzalez’s grandfather and my late mother. The exemptions to overtime pay held.

In 2015, there were roughly 440,000 farm jobs in California. According to the 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Labor Survey, field and livestock workers averaged $11.89 an hour, but were usually employed for only about three-quarters of the year.

The arguments against overtime have remained the same – farmers can’t afford it. Farmers barely make it. Farmers work hard, too. They face the whims of weather and the seasons and require more flexibility with workers.

“I think the depiction of what farm work is about is not correct – ‘This bill is bad for family farms. Small family farms are not exempt from this law,’ ” said Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Plumas Lake. “My Irish ancestors who couldn’t get a job in New York because of Irish-need-not-apply laws were farmers. … They earned a living by farming and treated their farmworkers well.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but the reality is that farmworkers like Vieyra barely subsist with what they earn now. “You’re always out there in the fields, stooped over with dirt in your hair and your eyes,” she said. “I’m not asking for anything I haven’t earned. I’ve remained positive and teach my daughters to work hard. I’m getting my GED. But there is not enough money to live. Not enough.”

Her words are powerful. It’s too bad they fall on deaf ears.

Marcos Breton: 916-321-1096,, @MarcosBreton,




Salinas Californian

Electrifying our lives

By Norm Groot

In the past couple of weeks, I have been reading up on proposals to electrify our freight delivery systems as well as our farm implements (i.e., tractors and harvesters). Seems that nearly everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon of using electricity as the alternative energy source, and now we are moving into research into how farm products can be moved to market as well as how they are grown in the fields.

But did anyone stop to think that we are loading up on electric equipment without thought on how we will generate all the needed electricity? We have state mandates that dictate a major portion of our electricity must be generated using alternative sources like solar and wind, yet we constantly see that large-scale projects that could generate megawatts of power are stopped by poor public policy and litigation.

We all want to support solar and wind power generation, right? But just not in our backyards.

Proposals to build large solar facilities in local counties have met with resistance through extensive litigation, particularly the large facility proposed in San Benito County. Public policy supports the generation of power by these facilities, but it fails to support the needed construction and infrastructure to do so.

Supporting alternative energy development means that these projects should be placed in reasonable locations with access to the electrical grid, avoiding prime farmland, and not in environmentally sensitive areas. That limits locations, certainly, but compromise is needed to find the right places for these projects.

So we have a paradox that is now developing for agriculture; how can we save on fuel costs for farm equipment and delivery trucks by electrifying this equipment (if and when the equipment achieves those advances), and yet not overtax the already heavily burdened electrical grid in California?

We already have serious issues with our electrical grid in the hot summer months when nearly every air conditioning unit is spinning at maximum value. I can’t wait until the first call from large numbers of employees who can’t get to work because their cars wouldn’t charge overnight due to an electrical brown out. Remember what happened just a few summers ago where we had rolling outages?

Thus, we may be taking a risk in electrifying our food production. Sure, fossil fuel is a reliable power source and is a (relatively) cheap means of powering our farm equipment. Saving on fossil fuel use is something each and every farm strives to do, every day. Yet, electrifying our farm tractors could mean that we lose efficiencies due to power limitations on battery operational times. Or they don’t run at all due to charging limitations if we have electrical grid issues. Similarly, trucks carrying crops to longer-distance markets cannot be held up for eight hours while they charge up.

Californians refuse to approve any new dams that can provide hydrologically produced power, one of the cleanest forms of energy generation we have in California. The failure of our public policy to not recognize hydro power generation as “green” is a large gap in power generation. In fact, we seem to be moving more toward a public policy that supports removal of these hydro-generation facilities (the removal of dams built long ago as a means to provide power to a growing population decades ago).

Can we take a risk with our food production that we can’t harvest because our electric vehicles can’t be charged? Can we afford to charge all these vehicles without impacting the cost of food products at the consumer level after we make infrastructure investments?

Let’s be sensible about our approach to electrifying our society. Though we may want to be more green as a state, there is a cost related to developing the infrastructure to support such a massive amount of electrification. If we want this as a society, then let’s make good public policy that supports all means of electric generation, including hydro, solar and wind.


Norm Groot is executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau