Mar 23, 2022
Growers’ message for lawmakers: ‘Hear our story’

Pat Wirz saw a chance to do something important and ran with it. The San Benito County cattle rancher and winegrape grower dropped everything for a couple of days and traveled to Sacramento to meet with Assembly members and state senators.

“If agriculture’s going to go forward in the state, our legislators need to hear our story,” Wirz said. “That’s the reason I took time off from what I do every day to come here.”

Farm Bureau’s annual Capitol Ag Conference  – canceled in 2020 and held online in 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic – returned to its regular programming March 15, with one twist. With legislative offices still closed to the public, Farm Bureau invited legislators and their staffs to a restaurant across the street from the Capitol.

Some 130 Farm Bureau members and 33 legislative offices participated in the day’s events.

“Making connections and telling our story is critical for the success of our members,” said Steven Fenaroli, California Farm Bureau’s political affairs director. “Having the ability to interact on a personal level and let legislators know the issues farmers and ranchers are facing daily is the best way to accomplish change in the political process.”

Estelle Clifton, a registered professional forester from Mendocino County, spoke with Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Santa Rosa, about the Jackson Demonstration State Forest in her county and Wood’s district. The forest is the subject of a dispute over timber harvesting.

“I’m really happy he came to speak with us,” Clifton said. “My takeaway is that he’s more in line with my views than I thought. It was good to get reassurance on some specifics from him, to know that he understands my industry and has given his support to the issues that I care about to help sustain our lumber and timber industry.”

Clifton said she wants to see legislators “put their actions where their mouth has been on forestry. They have a lot of forestry goals, and we need to build the capacity of our industry to achieve those goals.”

Elsewhere amid the gathering, Trelawney Bullis met with Assemblyman Carlos Villapudua, D-Stockton.

“We really wanted to make sure he understood that, one, we appreciate him going on the farm tours and talking to people on the ground, but two, to encourage other Assembly members and legislators to do the same thing,” Bullis said.

Bullis, a water-supply manager whose territory ranges from Fresno County to Kern County, is a member of the state Young Farmers & Ranchers committee. This was her first Leaders Conference, part of the Capitol Ag Conference.

“I would encourage everyone to be active in their Farm Bureau,” she said, “not only at the local level but the state level. And don’t be afraid to call the people that are making these decisions and writing these bills.”

Asked what the most important issues he heard about were, Villapudua said, “Obviously, cost is going to be one. What is going on right now with cost of fuel is going to be a domino effect. When it comes to pesticide, to fertilizer, to water, all that’s going to trickle down to the consumer.”

He also listened to concerns on port congestion impacting agricultural exports, and he said he wants legislative committees handling agriculture and ports to work on solutions together.

Solano County farmer Daniel Jones said the event connected farmers and ranchers with some legislators who don’t come from farming backgrounds. One of the non-farmers Jones talked to was Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove.

Jones, who also was attending his first Leaders Conference, said Cooper told him he learned to love agriculture through representing constituents in his district.

“Here’s someone who didn’t come from it but respects it, because that guy has to eat, too, and provide for his family,” Jones said.

In the morning, before heading downtown, Farm Bureau members and staffers heard from Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, as well as Villapudua and Sen. Anna Caballero, D-Salinas. Darry Sragow, publisher of the California Target Book, gave an update on the state’s ethnic and political demographics, while Amanda Hansen of the California Natural Resources Agency spoke about climate change (see story, Page 4).

Caballero said three items came up when she was preparing her speech: “The first issue that hit my mind was water. And then the second issue that hit my mind was water. And then the third issue that hit my mind was water.”

She said California’s water system “is old, it’s broken and full of internal tensions.” Caballero said the problem needs to be addressed on multiple fronts – such as resolving competing water-supply and flood-control needs and addressing new water-storage demands.

She said the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act needs time to do its job, adding that should include voluntary agreements that balance agricultural and environmental needs. She also expressed support of addressing water needs through desalination, recharge, and recycling and reclaiming.

“We’ve got to look at what are the best practices and then bring them to our state, instead of deciding ahead of time that we don’t like those particular technologies and dismissing them out of hand,” Caballero said. “We have an opportunity, I think, to make our state drought-proof if we do it right.”

Ross noted that CDFA budgeted $50 million for water-efficiency grants, the highest ever. She said the agency also administers programs dealing with methane reduction, healthy soils and pollinator habitat.

“The pressures are on for us to meet the challenge of this century and doing our part,” Ross said, “but never losing sight of the importance of what you do, which is meeting the food-security needs of our citizens here, across the country and around the world.”

Wirz said the drought – and the health of his vineyard – inspired his legislative visits.

“I’m a dryland vineyard guy,” he said. “I have the capability to irrigate my vineyard, but this year I’m going to have to spend the extra time, effort and money to pump water that usually falls from the sky.”

Farm Bureau’s engagement in Sacramento caught the attention of some visitors from Washington, D.C. Jessica Cabrera, managing director of member engagement at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said AFBF staff is touring state Farm Bureaus and took the opportunity to attend the Leaders Conference.

Cabrera said, “I feel like the members have been actively engaging in that discussion, raising their hand, asking questions, and then when they do, they’re very informed and articulate and they understand the issues that they’re facing. And they’re willing to say that to their elected officials.”

– Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau; Photo: Kevin Hecteman

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