Water worries dominate talk at YF&R conference


Issue Date: March 5, 2014
By Christine Souza
Mark Larsen, Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District general manager discusses the impact of the drought with California Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers and Ranchers members.
Photos/Christine Souza
Photo shows the low level in Lake Kaweah.
Photos/Christine Souza
Young Farmers and Ranchers members Kelton Fleming of San Joaquin County and Renee Grossi of Sonoma County, from left, talk with David Hobbs, landscape team leader at Monrovia Nursery in Visalia, during a YF&R tour of the facility, right.
Photos/Christine Souza
Monrovia Nursery in Visalia, during a YF&R tour of the facility.
Photos/Christine Souza

Discussion of drought permeated the 2014 California Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers and Ranchers Leadership Conference. The event, held in Visalia, drew record attendance of more than 200 Young Farmers and Ranchers members—farmers, ranchers and agricultural professionals ages 18 to 35.

CFBF Second Vice President Jamie Johansson, in addressing YF&R members, said he recognized the drought is on everyone's mind.

"On the farm, there is a lot of pressure going on with the drought. The bottom line is, we just need more storage," Johansson said. "California will have water security for our cities, for our environment and for our farms when we have water predictability. The only way for water predictability is storage."

An olive farmer and former state YF&R chairman, Johansson told the young farmers and ranchers that it is the consumer who ultimately benefits from farm water use.

"The greatest water transfer in agriculture doesn't happen by the State Water Project; it doesn't happen in the delta; it doesn't happen on the Colorado River; it doesn't happen in Imperial County. It happens between the farmer and the consumer in the marketplace," Johansson said.

During a tour that preceded the conference, YF&R members heard Kaweah Delta Water Conservation District General Manager Mark Larsen describe the 2014 water situation as "very dismal."

"This is all that's come in," Larsen said while pointing to low levels in Lake Kaweah. "It's challenging times. Groundwater is dropping like a rock. Wells are going out of service all of the time. It's a lot of challenges that are only going to get worse in a year like this."

Sixth-generation rancher Levi Gill, whose family operates Gill Cattle Co., a stocker and cow/calf operation in Exeter, talked to his fellow YF&R members about how ranchers are affected by drought.

"In a drought year like this, we're living off of the silage wagon. Many guys are turning it in, calling it quits," Gill said. "This is our second drought year. You can withstand one (drought) year, but not two years in a row."

More than half the water delivered to Tulare County crops comes from the federal Central Valley Project, which told farmers last month that most agricultural customers would receive no water from the project this year.

Tulare County YF&R member Matt Watkins, farm manager for Bee Sweet Citrus, a grower, packer and shipper of citrus in Fowler, said that will affect his business directly.

"Since the majority of our property is on the east side of the valley, it relies on the Friant-Kern Canal and Millerton Lake for our water supply. With a 0 percent allocation, the majority of my water districts currently have no plans to supply me any water," Watkins said. "One water district said they were able to find us some water on the open market, at $1,200 an acre-foot. We bought enough to make sure that our trees would live."

Watkins said some citrus growers who are faced with a shortage of water or a zero allocation are pushing out less-productive trees this year to plant other varieties such as mandarins, but other farmers do not have that ability.

On a more personal level, Watkins described how the drought impacts young farmers.

"Young farmers are the story because we haven't really gone through this before. I've got a lot of supervisors who are young who I hired right out of college and they'll come up and ask, 'Am I going to lose my job?'" Watkins said. "Water is what we need in order for us to continue farming and continue the way of life here in the valley."

Tulare County YF&R member Kyle Robertson, whose family operates a diversified farm near Tracy and grows processing tomatoes, walnuts, alfalfa, dried beans and wheat, said 2014 will be a difficult year regarding water.

"The upcoming year is going to be stressful once we get into the summer months," said Robertson, who added his water supply is relatively good, compared to what some growers face. "If March is wet, we should be OK for the season, but that will put us back for the next few seasons because our water reserves aren't very good at all."

Engagement in the political process will be needed to improve the water system and address other local and regional issues—and the YF&R conference featured a panel discussion about seeking public office, moderated by CFBF Political Affairs Manager Casey Gudel.

Johansson, who served four years on the city council in his hometown of Oroville, said, "I've just always found myself involved. If you keep raising your hand, someone is going to call on you."

"If you have no interest in politics, it doesn't matter—because politics has an interest in you," Johansson said.

YF&R member Mario de la Piedra of Camarillo, who announced his candidacy for state Assembly this week, noted that running for office involves raising money.

"It's nice to see someone will write a check and say, 'I believe in you,'" de la Piedra said.

A rancher and candidate for Tulare County Sheriff, David Whaley, told YF&R members that a candidate should run for the right reasons, such as serving one's community.

"I urge you to become involved because it's going to make a difference in your lifestyle and the life of your kids," Whaley said.

For more information about YF&R in California, see www.cfbf.com/yfr or www.facebook.com/cayfr.

YF&R members earn honors during conference in Visalia

(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.