Wenger urges unified action from farmers

Issue Date: December 9, 2015
By Ching Lee
Speaking to the 97th CFBF Annual Meeting, President Paul Wenger told Farm Bureau members that by working together, “we will not just endure, we will thrive.”
Photo/Matt Salvo
About 700 people attended the 97th CFBF Annual Meeting, held at the Peppermill Hotel in Reno.
Photo/Matt Salvo

Even with a forecast of El Niño potentially giving California a wet winter this year, California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said water continues to be the No. 1 issue for farmers and ranchers—stressing that they must continue to work together rather than letting the issue divide them.

Wenger made his remarks during the organization's 97th Annual Meeting in Reno on Monday.

"Our time as farmers and ranchers has changed forever relative to water," he said. "That's why we need to work and fight together in a cooperative and strategic manner."

He said though the average person may be able to get by with 50 to 75 gallons of water a day for basic needs such as showering and cleaning, people often overlook that it takes 850 to 1,200 gallons of water to produce a 1,200-calorie daily diet. Water, he said, is not just a California issue but a universal one, especially in light of projections that the world population will grow to 10 billion people by 2050.

"We need to do a better job of managing our water," Wenger said.

Looking back on the 2015 water year in California, Wenger recalled the backlash farmers and ranchers faced in the media after Gov. Brown announced mandatory urban water use reductions of 25 percent, with critics saying agriculture was "left alone" while urban users were asked to cut back on their water use.

"We all know that's wrong," Wenger said.

He pointed out that on his own farm, he had already reduced 10 percent of his permanent-crop acreage because he was not able to buy additional water from the Modesto Irrigation District, even though there was more water in its reservoir this year than during the 1988-93 drought. Because of environmental regulations, he said, more water is being restricted.

"We are losing our water slowly, by regulatory fiat," he said.

Wenger discussed ongoing work to manage the state's groundwater, with the formation of groundwater sustainability agencies at the local level. He urged farmers and ranchers to work together and cooperatively with their county Farm Bureaus in the development of these agencies, to ensure that their local groundwater is managed effectively.

"Put the pressure on the folks in your area to come together … to make sure they can control their groundwater effectively, locally," Wenger said.

With legislators, regulators and others often citing Australia's water model as one that California should adopt, Wenger talked about a recent trip he took to that country and what he learned there (see Comment).

Having faced a 13-year drought, Australia went on to spend $10 billion on water infrastructure, out of which $6 billion was used to build more reservoirs, "so that when it rained, they could capture it." He noted that Australia, unlike California, doesn't have the ability to store water with snowpack.

Australia also used $4 million to define water rights for its farmers—groundwater and surface water—and then segregated those water rights from the land, Wenger said. Australian farmers who later sold their water rights "found out that once that money is gone, they had lost one of the greatest assets they had." As a result, he said, 25 percent of once-irrigated land in Australia has now been taken out of production.

"It didn't need to be," he said, "and it certainly doesn't need to be here in California."

Wenger urged California farmers and ranchers to fight to ensure their water rights are never segregated from the land, as "that is what makes our land valuable."

He said one of the best ways to shore up the water rights of farmers and ranchers, whether riparian or groundwater, is by measuring how much they're using so that agriculture can show critics "we have the capability to squeeze the most crop per drop out of the water we have allotted."

"So our future is going to be about measuring, monitoring and, in some way, reporting," Wenger said, adding that any reporting should be done in aggregate.

He said while Australian farmers became "ineffective politically" by being pulled apart by regional and commodity divisions—so that they became "easy pickings for those who didn't like agriculture"—California farmers and ranchers cannot allow themselves to do the same. He further urged them to "put stubbornness aside and work together."

Political action has to be a part of a farmer's or rancher's "everyday budget," Wenger said.

Wenger said membership growth in Farm Bureau will be key in maintaining the organization's strength.

"We need effective commodity and trade groups, but a strong grassroots organization like Farm Bureau will be critical to defending California agriculture," he said.

Growing Farm Bureau's membership and its sphere of influence, he said, will be "hugely important" in the coming year, with the 2016 open primary and 12-year term limits in effect for newly elected state lawmakers.

"This past year has been a very challenging year. Sometimes when you feel the challenge of this drought and you feel the regulations that are coming down, you say, 'Can we keep going?'" Wenger said.

"Yes, we can keep going," he concluded. "If we will continue to work together, we will not just endure, but we will thrive."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

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