State legislators take a close look at agriculture


Issue Date: May 6, 2015
By Kate Campbell
Butte County tree crop farmer Rich McGowan, left, tells a legislative tour about challenges growers face as they work to produce crops, manage with water shortages and comply with a growing number of local, state and federal regulations. Those asking questions include 39th Assembly District field representative Ricardo Benitez, seated left, and Assembly members Patty Lopez, Travis Allen, James Gallagher and Jay Obernolte.
Photo/Kate Campbell
Employees at Omega Walnut in Orland sort walnuts during a tour for state legislators. The facility’s sales and marketing manager told legislators how a slowdown at West Coast ports affected employees, creating a backlog of shipments the facility is still trying to clear.
Photo/Kate Campbell

Seven members of the state Assembly, most from Southern California, got out and about in Glenn and Butte counties to learn about growing nut crops, rice and processing walnuts. Sponsored by Butte County Farm Bureau, last week's tour was hosted by rice farmer and Assembly member James Gallagher, R-Nicholas, and offered new members a firsthand look at food production in Northern California.

"My goal for the tour was to help legislators meet the people and families who grow our food," Gallagher said. "By gaining an understanding of how farms work, we'll be able to better understand regulatory requirements and create more effective laws. One thing I hope they saw is that with regulations, one size does not fit all."

At Omega Walnut in Orland, legislators toured a processing facility owned by five farming families that currently processes about 30,000 tons of walnuts a year.

Tim Merrill, sales and marketing manager for Omega Walnut, told the group a number of challenges came together this year for the new facility, including the slowdown at the Port of Oakland, which created a backlog of shipments the plant is still trying to clear.

"We could really use your help in making smoother operations at the port a state and federal issue," Merrill told legislators. "Otherwise, there'll be another labor dispute in five years and we'll be right back in the same boat. We can do a much better job with our ports."

Because walnuts have very high oil content, he explained, it's difficult to hold the crop, which is not the case for other nut crops. Changes in shipping schedules translate into fewer dockings and less flexibility for shipping perishable commodities such as walnuts.

Another problem is the impact of shipping disruptions on the plant's 50 employees, whom he described as the company's most valuable asset. The plant had to use creative schedules and vacation opportunities to reduce layoffs during the strike, Merrill said.

In addition to Gallagher, legislators participating in the tour included Assembly members Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach; Chad Mayes, R-Yucca Valley; Matthew Harper, R-Huntington Beach; Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando; Jay Obernolte, R-Hesperia; and Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita.

Before leaving the grounds of Omega Walnut, Butte County Farm Bureau Executive Director Colleen Cecil pointed to an electric vehicle charging station, installed to meet statewide code requirements—but in the remote, rural area, it has never been used, she said.

Cecil said because of the state's large urban population, Farm Bureau wants urban representatives "to understand the effort that goes into providing Californians with three meals a day."

"Farmers are all for clean air and water," said nut crop farmer Rich McGowan after the legislators settled into folding chairs in his farm shop. "We love to help, but I feel all the regulations are impossible to keep up with."

McGowan took the legislators through the steps needed to establish a new walnut orchard—outlining the risks and the roadblocks—before bringing it into production.

At the final stop, family rice farmer Josh Sheppard said his water situation under the current drought is "as good as it gets, but that being said, we still have a 25 percent cut in our water supply. And all we have to do is drive a quarter-mile south of here and there's a 60 percent reduction of planted acres, because that district has only been allotted 50 percent of their contract water and they'll have to make up the rest."

He said the farm is pumping groundwater to supplement the short contract supply, a situation that hasn't occurred on the family ranch since 1991.

Kelby Sheppard, who is a Butte County Farm Bureau director, took the legislators out to the farm's rice fields to discuss cultural practices and soil quality, as well as infrastructure issues. In addition to farming rice, the family owns and operates a land leveling business.

"It looks like a lot of water spread around," he said, surveying fields covered with a couple of inches of water after planting. "But I assure you, things aren't normal here. There's going to be a patchwork of unplanted fields.

"We know this is an historic situation and that presents a lot of risk," he said. "We've invested in our farm infrastructure as an insurance policy and hope we can get through this crisis and continue to farm."

California Farm Bureau Federation Political Affairs Director Casey Gudel said CFBF and a number of county Farm Bureaus conduct tours for legislators.

"Our goal is to have more elected officials visit farms and ranches, especially members representing urban districts, to give them a firsthand appreciation for what farmers and ranchers do," she said.

(Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at kcampbell@cfbf.com.)

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