The following article was printed on June 19, 2013 in Ag Alert.
By Steve Adler
This is a very critical time for everyone involved in agriculture, and it is time to unite and fight back.
California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger delivered that message to more than 600 farmers, ranchers and representatives of allied businesses who packed into a special meeting in Chico last week.
Called Ag Unite and organized by Farm Bureaus from seven counties—Butte, Colusa, Glenn, Shasta, Tehama, Yuba and Sutter—the first-of-its-kind meeting focused on the need for greater political involvement through organizations such as FARM PAC® and formation of a legal defense fund to participate in key court cases.
Jamie Johansson, CFBF second vice president and an olive grower from Oroville, noted that the agricultural sector, when viewed within a national economy that is somewhat stagnated, should be seen as a catalyst for fiscal recovery.
“But unfortunately, Washington, D.C., and Sacramento have become so far removed from rural America that they aren’t hearing the message,” Johansson said.
Following up on that theme, Wenger expressed optimism that such Ag Unite meetings will expand to other areas of the state.
The need for agricultural unity was supported by several North State farmers who described in a video how they had been financially hammered by state and federal government regulations. Their stories described onerous regulations dealing with air quality, water issues and the way land was to be farmed.
For example, Irv Leen, a farmer and beef producer in Oroville, described a situation where he bought a piece of ground and sold a portion of it to another farmer.
“That farmer cleaned out a ditch that had been littered with tires, air conditioners, old engines and things (left by a previous owner). A helicopter flew over and saw the pile of debris and sent out a game warden, who gave the man a ticket. And four days before the statute of limitations was up, they also charged me,” Leen said.
“I was charged with four counts: trespassing on my own land, interrupting a free-passing stream, maintaining a public nuisance and not getting a permit to dig in a ditch. When they came after me with those charges, I didn’t feel that it was right,” he said.
Leen said he made the decision to fight a legal battle that lasted eight years and entailed 80 sessions in court.
“I spent over $250,000 in attorney fees and studies to finally be totally acquitted on all four charges,” he said.
Darin Titus, field manager for Hart Farms in Orland, described how regulations hamper the development of an orchard in Tehama County.
“We have a piece of ground that has a farming history and a farm base. The U.S. Department of Agriculture classifies it as farm ground, but what has happened is that they have changed the rules on what kind of crop you can put on that farm ground,” he said. “The issues they have with the orchard, unlike when you are planting a grain crop, is that when you are establishing an orchard you have to deep rip or deep till the ground prior to planting.”
Titus said that even though the proposed site was adjacent to an established orchard, he is being required to do a complete biological study on it prior to development.
Three other farmers—Larry Willadsen of Durham, lawyer and rancher Darrin Mercier of Yreka and orchardist Rich McGowan of Nord—also described frustrations in dealing with confusing or conflicting regulations.
Wenger said that when he travels around the state, he hears similar stories, adding that this underlines the need for everyone in agriculture to speak in one, united voice.
“When I talk with farmers, I ask what bothers them the most: Is it the weather? Is it the markets? They say no, it is regulations that just keep coming. So what do you do about regulations?” he asked. “Unfortunately, a lot of people in this state and Washington, D.C., do take agriculture for granted. We have got to make sure we can go out and fight and protect our way of life. We know what we are doing is good; we just have to convince those other folks.”
Wenger went on to describe how a trip to the coffee shop many years ago led him to become involved in Farm Bureau.
“When I went to the coffee shop, all I did was hear people complain and complain. And what did they do about it? Nothing. That was the last time I went to the coffee shop,” he said. “How many of you have been to a meeting where you hear someone say, ‘Well, things are getting pretty tough, but they are going to miss us when we’re gone’? Oh, really? They will bring the products in from another state, from another country. They won’t miss us. We have got to fight for ourselves.”
The CFBF president said it is important for all active farmers and ranchers within a family to have individual Farm Bureau memberships rather than a single membership for the family.
But joining Farm Bureau is only the beginning, Wenger said, adding that farmers and ranchers should support FARM PAC to help elect individuals to public office who understand agriculture.
“When you think about Sacramento, two-thirds of the Senate districts have little or no agriculture and 72 percent of the Assembly districts have little or no agriculture. Why should they care? The only reason they are going to care is if we can mount an aggressive campaign to make sure we get the right people elected from San Francisco and LA and San Diego. And that means we have to assess ourselves dollars,” he said.
Wenger said one of the greatest strengths of agriculture in California is its diversity, but it is also one of its greatest challenges.
“We are in this together, folks. I don’t care if you are an organic grower or a conventional grower, if you are a fourth- or fifth-generation cattleman in Siskiyou County or you are farming a half-acre of herbs in Alameda County and you’ve got earrings and tattoos all over your body. We face the same issues; we are cut out of the same cloth. We might look different, we might talk different, but we’re farmers,” he said.
Reprinted with permission from the California Farm Bureau Federation