Ag Today Thursday, December 3, 2015

Ag Today

Thursday, December 3, 2015



San Jose Mercury News

Drought relief held hostage to trashing the Delta

The Dec. 12 deadline is approaching for Congress to act on legislation to provide relief for California’s drought.

But given what’s on the table now, it’s entirely possible that the best course is to do nothing — and stopping bad legislation may require a presidential veto.

Central Valley Republicans want to strip out essential environmental protections for the Delta to quench Big Ag’s thirst for more water for questionable orchard crops such as almonds and pistachios.

The Bay Area delegation has to fight this — but there are signs that Sen. Dianne Feinstein will go over to the dark side with House Republicans to, in essence, destroy the Endangered Species Act. They could do this with a rider to the omnibus appropriations bill.

Senate Democrats, with or without Feinstein, and President Obama need to make it clear that they will shoot down any move in that direction.

Battles over the health of the Delta are nothing new for Feinstein, who has close ties to billionaire Stewart Resnick, the corporate agribusiness mogul who oversees 50,000 acres of almonds and pistachios.

All told, California almond and pistachio growers use 15 percent of the state’s available irrigation water. Then most of the nuts are shipped to China and India.

Northern Californians could live with the Senate bill introduced this summer by Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

They struck a reasonable balance between providing drought relief and maintaining crucial elements of the Endangered Species Act. The bill offers $200 million for recycling projects and $100 million to advance desalination projects.

Feinstein and Boxer spent months trying to work out a compromise between their Senate bill and the shameful House Republican bill authored by Hanford Rep. David Valadao, but the talks went nowhere.

The House bill carries outrageously unacceptable provisions — including Republicans’ insistence that the state do away with environmental regulations and build dams that don’t come close to penciling out. The dams would cost taxpayers a huge amount of money while providing marginally more water for California.

The bill also would suspend the effort to restore the San Joaquin River, which in the summer still runs dry. Environmentalists, farmers and federal water regulators reached a settlement in 2006, after battling for 19 years, aimed at restoring year-around water flows to the river and reintroducing salmon and other wildlife. It would be crazy to undo all that work. It’s doubly worrisome because, if House Republicans think nothing about sucking the San Joaquin River dry, it’s only a matter of time before they take aim at the Sacramento River.

Scientists have studied the Delta over time and repeatedly have concluded that the only way to maintain its long-term health is to pour more water through it, not less.

It’s a sad commentary that Congress wants to make financial drought relief contingent on a plan to destroy the Delta ecosystem.

If that’s how this bill ends up, it will be better to defeat or veto it and do nothing at all.


U-T San Diego


California wasting water due to fish and inefficiency

By Erik Telford

It’s quite astounding that California’s water officials weren’t better prepared for the four-year long drought they are currently in. The Golden State is well-known for being dry, and scientists familiar with the region’s history will tell you that over the past 1,000 years the area that is now California has faced several hundred-year long “megadroughts.” Despite the well-documented reality of California’s climate, every year, even in drought years, state officials waste millions of gallons of precious water to protect a fish and they prevent markets from efficiently allocating one of California’s most desired and vital resources.

Wtate officials waste millions of gallons of precious water to protect a fish and they prevent markets from efficiently allocating one of California’s most desired and vital resources.

California’s drought has been devastating to the state’s environment, economy and its residents. This year, it will cost California about $2.7 billion and over 10,000 agricultural jobs. Nearly 600,000 acres of farmland in the state lay fallow because of the drought. The Sierra Nevada snowpack, which is responsible for one-third of California’s water supply, is also at record-low levels.

The water shortage has led to severe water restrictions in the state. Before the summer, Gov. Jerry Brown ordered a reduction of water use by residents and businesses of 25 percent. Californians did their part, responding to the governor’s dictates by exceeding the reduction target and reducing water use by 31 percent.

Much of the blame for California’s water crisis has been put on farmers. You may have heard some of the misleading statistics being thrown around, like that 80 percent of California’s water supply is being used by farmers. But it is unfair to point fingers at California’s farmers considering that they are simply playing by the rules that California’s policymakers have given them. The fact is, the state wastes much more water on “environmental conservation” than farmers use on thirsty crops.

The 80 percent figure is deceptive because it omits environmental uses of water, which account for more than 50 percent of the state’s flows. Since 2008, 1.4 trillion gallons of water has been flushed into the San Francisco Bay to protect the Delta smelt, an endangered species of fish, from water pumps. That’s enough water to sustain over 6 million people for six years. In April, California’s bizarre water priorities led state officials to demand that the Oakdale Irrigation District, near Modesto, release “pulse flows” of water from a small reservoir to help 12 fish swim out from the reservoir and down the Stanislaus River into the Pacific Ocean. Year after year, trillions of gallons of water are wasted like this in California, even in drought times, to save a few fish.

Don’t blame the fish, blame the politicians. State and federal officials claim their hands are tied by the federal Endangered Species Act, but laws can be changed — especially in dire situations. California policymakers have had years to come up with a more common-sense approach to dealing with trapped endangered fish, but they haven’t.

The state is also holding up ways of making water more readily available for all residents.

Environmental concerns have held up the development of a privately planned water desalination plant in Orange County. The California Coastal Commission, a powerful agency with control of development along the shoreline, is holding up the desalination plant over concerns about its impact on plankton. It’s not just fish over people in California; it’s also plankton over people.

In its current state, California’s water market is extremely inefficient at allocating resources. Water for farmers is heavily subsidized, which is why you have farmers growing water-intensive crops even in times of drought. With a more active water market in place, if the cost of water were to go up when times were tough we would see water used more efficiently. Decisions on water flows in California are left to bureaucrats when they should actually be left to consumers and businesses. In the 1990s, reforms were undertaken in Australia that among other things created an electronic trading platform, like a stock exchange, for buying and selling water in the country. Water is treated as a commodity that farmers buy and sell to meet their economic needs. The reforms in Australia have been considered successful by many and should’ve been considered in California a long time ago.

Californians have responded to Gov. Brown’s calls for water conservation, but the state needs to do its part, too. Instead of subsidizing farmers and saving a few fish, the state should focus on empowering farmers, businesses and citizens to buy and sell water on the open market, like Australia has, in order to ensure more efficient water use. California’s water policy has long favored fish and farmers, now it’s time for the Golden State to put the average citizen first.

Telford is the president of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.



Santa Barbara Independent

‘Ugly Year’ for Avocados

By Melinda Burns

Catherine Epperson, co-owner of the Parks Land & Cattle Co., the most productive avocado operation in the county, cannot remember a shorter harvest or a time when the future was more uncertain.

The fruit was small because of the drought, the picking season ended three months early because of record summer heat, and the ranch in Las Varas Canyon lost several hundred thousand dollars, Epperson said. On top of that, she said, they’ve been hit with $135,000 in drought surcharges from the Goleta Water District since July 1.

Epperson’s not counting on a bailout from El Niño storms. If Lake Cachuma goes dry next year, she said, the ranch could run out of water — if it doesn’t run out of money first. As it is, she’s cut back the trees to stumps on 100 acres, taking a third of the ranch out of production — twice as much as planned.

“2015 has been a very ugly year,” Epperson said. “This is like the worst ever. The surcharge is making water pretty much unaffordable. Over time, the trees will die without water.”

Parks Land & Cattle and 21 other ranches between Glen Annie and Las Varas canyons on the Gaviota Coast form the backbone of the county’s $60 million avocado industry. Much of their fruit goes to S.B. markets. In dry weather, they rely heavily on cheap water from Cachuma, which comes to them through a pipeline called the West Conduit.

Now, the surcharge has tripled the cost of their lake water; and Cachuma is at near-record lows. This Tuesday, the Goleta water board will consider a new ordinance regulating suspensions of Cachuma water to the Gaviota Coast.

By Paul Wellman

Scorched: Catherine Epperson shows leaves affected by “tip burn” caused by high soil salinity.

“It’s a sad situation we’re in now,” said Frank Alegria, who coordinates the South Coast avocado harvest for Calavo Growers, Inc. “Our water’s more expensive in Goleta than anywhere else in the state for avocados. If we don’t get rain, there will be a lot of people who either lose their ranches or will have to remove a lot of their trees.”

District officials note that the ranchers could have started cutting back on their water use sooner. The district’s 87,000 urban customers are among the thriftiest in the state, but as a group, the West Conduit ranchers have increased their water use during every year of the drought except this one. In 2014, they accounted for 12 percent of district water deliveries.

“We’ve always said, ‘You can pay less if you use less,’” said Ryan Drake, district water supply and conservation manager. “Once we adopted the surcharge, then they achieved the reduction.”

In August, Goleta-area farmers and ranchers filed a lawsuit, demanding that the district reimburse them for the surcharge. But Drake said the surcharge was necessary because district revenues have plummeted as residents conserved. Between July 1-October 31, the district collected $4.4 million in drought surcharges, including $628,000 from the 22 ranchers on the West Conduit.

“I would not say they’re treated unfairly,” Drake said. “The surcharge is uniform across all customers.”

In 2014, the district set an overall water conservation target of 25 percent. Goleta residents cut their use by 27 percent, on average, compared to the 2012-2013 water year, but the West Conduit ranchers increased theirs by 5 percent. Since May of this year, the district has been asking them to cut their use by 40 percent: They have conserved 29 percent.

The faster the ranchers use up their water, the sooner their supply could be “interrupted,” Drake said. Unlike 135 farmers operating within the urban Goleta area, the ranchers on the West Conduit do not receive groundwater or state aqueduct water from the district. Surcharges aside, they pay rock-bottom water rates — less than a third of the lowest rate for urban residents — in part because their Cachuma water is not fully treated.

“They always said they want the lowest rate possible, and what comes with that is interruptibility,” Drake said. “Our remaining supply is a finite supply. Right now, we’re in a major crisis mode, and we’re just trying to keep enough water available for health and safety. There isn’t water for them to continue business as usual. It isn’t realistic.”

The district is helping ranchers by pumping groundwater around the clock for its urban customers, extending the Cachuma supply, Drake said. On Tuesday the board will consider whether to “rent” state aqueduct water from the Antelope Valley in 2016. This water is expensive and must eventually be returned, but it would help stretch the Cachuma supply, Drake said — and the surcharge would help pay for it.

“We do value agriculture,” he said. “We’re not just saying, ‘Tough luck.’”

Some of the ranchers on the West Conduit have their own wells — Epperson, for example, recently refurbished six that have been dormant since 1991 — but the water tends to be salty and less than optimal for trees. For their homes, the ranchers get free bottled drinking water, at a cost to the district of about $35,000 yearly.

Paul Van Leer, general manager of the Las Varas and Edwards ranches, with 165 acres in avocados and 30 in lemons, said he lost a couple hundred thousand dollars in this year’s avocado harvest. He said he has paid more than $80,000 in drought surcharge fees to date and stumped 40 acres of avocado trees — about half a million dollars’ worth of production — cutting his water use by more than 30 percent. Van Leer signed the lawsuit on behalf of Goleta ranchers in August.

“Charging us is not going to make us conserve any more,” he said. “We have cut way back.”

Epperson said Parks Land & Cattle had achieved a water savings of 45 percent, going well beyond district targets. The district failed to plan for an extensive drought, she said.

“I believe the district’s mentality was, ‘The drought’s going to go away: It won’t last more than three years,’” Epperson said.

During the last drought, from 1987-1991, the district gave each customer a water allocation: For ranchers, it was based on the number of trees in their orchards. Water use that exceeded the allocations was billed at four to 10 times the highest rate. There were no district-wide surcharges.

“Rather than do something that was going to put farmers completely out of business, we said, ‘This is how much water you have to keep your orchard alive until it rains again,’” said Kevin Walsh, a former Goleta Water District engineer who now serves on the Santa Ynez water district Board of Trustees. “They understood and lived within it and came out of the drought just fine.”

Alegria believes allocations would have been preferable this time to blanketing all users with a surcharge. “If everybody had gotten the allocation, it would have been an incentive for them to save,” he said. “It would have put each grower in charge of whether he would save or spend more money. Now, even if they conserve, they’re spending more.”

But Drake said the allocation system was “too inequitable: In the last drought, it was a universal thumbs-down.”

“We don’t want to tell them how to run their business,” he said. “They’ve been through this before, and we saw a lot of the same issues and struggles. Then the rains came back and they were operating again.”



Chico Enterprise-Record

Head pesticide regulator shares tips with Butte County growers

By Heather Hacking

Chico >> The rules keep changing for the use of pesticides in farming, and that fact is not going to change.

Hundreds of farmers gathered Wednesday for Grower Day, held at the Silver Dollar Fairgrounds and hosted by the Butte County Farm Bureau.

The special guest was Brian Leahy, director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, who gave an overview of what growers should expect in the near future.

Growers view pesticides as a tool, Leahy said, but there is increasing pressure to find ways to manage pests without harsh chemicals.

People care how pesticides are used, and they don’t want pesticide residue on the food they eat, Leahy said.

One job for his agency is measuring pesticide residue and most fruits and vegetables have “nothing on them,” Leahy said. When pesticide residue is present, it is within a tolerance level set by regulators.

One job of the DPR is to find violations. A recent example has been cactus imported from Mexico, Leahy said. Some recent imports contained organophosphates used in the 1960s.

Another part of the DPR’s priorities is checking new pesticides introduced for use on farms.

Leahy estimated it costs $200 million for a new pesticide to make it to market, which includes testing and the regulatory process. With 300 specialty crops in California, it might be tough for a product to be introduced that focuses on a crop grown on only a small number of acres.

The number of crops also makes it trickier to apply pesticides. In particular, he talked about pesticide drift. Some product may work very well on a pest that infests a particular crop. Yet, that same chemical could do harm to a crop grown nearby.

In the future, there may be more drones used in farming for precision applications, Leahy said later in the conversation. Japan is ahead of the United States, and uses thousands of drones on farms, he said. Yet, things are more slow-going in the United States and the use of drones on farms is infrequent.

As the population grows, proximity will continue to be more of an issue. Recently, the location of schools near active farms has become a problem in some areas of the state, he said.

Another regulatory hotspot has been fumigants. Gaseous pesticides are used on strawberry farms, for treating homes and in places where grain is stored. When people see workers in “space suits, they get concerned,” Leahy said. Fumigation is not as common in Northern California, he noted. Growers might use the practice primarily when orchards are pulled out after two or three decades.

The alternatives are to find ways to keep pests at manageable numbers, including using integrated pest management, IPM.

“Is there a way to grow strawberries with no fumigants, or with less fumigants?” Leahy asked. Scientists are working toward solutions.


In the very near future, Leahy said his agency will be tasked with new regulations for pesticides used in growing marijuana. The rules, however they evolve, will be wide-reaching. In pure numbers, there are more marijuana growing sites than there are farms in California. A first step will be determining how much residue is acceptable for marijuana that is smoked as well as marijuana that is eaten.


California has the most pesticide regulations of any state, and more regulations than required by the federal government. The goal of DPR is to “protect human health and the environment by regulating pesticide sales and use and by fostering reduced-risk pest management.”

In many ways, these tasks are easier for the crops grown in Northern California. Leahy said he was in Salinas on Tuesday, where hundreds of workers might be working the land each day.

Strawberries, for example, could require up to $40,000 a year in cost, when you count cultivation costs and labor. In the case of strawberries, the DPR would be very involved in protection of workers from harm from pesticides.

In contrast, Northern California grows crops with only a few workers per acre and an entirely different set of pesticides, he noted.

Contact reporter Heather Hacking at 896-7758.



Del Norte Triplicate

Residents, county sound off on elk

By David Grieder

County residents and officials are hoping a public-access program from the state Department of Fish & Wildlife will help to remedy ongoing issues of elk management on privately owned lands.

“Roosevelt elk conflicts…are occurring at an exponential growth rate in the county,” wrote Del Norte County Supervisors in a recent letter to the California Department of Fish & Wildlife (CDFW) and the Fish & Game Commission.

The Shared Habitat Alliance for Recreational Enhancement (SHARE) will selectively permit elk hunting on approved lands in the county as approved by CDFW assessments.

“Because of the abundance of elk there, landowner interest in Del Norte is higher,” said SHARE state coordinator Victoria Barr, “If we enrolled 10 landowners, that would be a bigger percentage of private landowners in (Del Norte) county than any other county in the state.”

Barr said she has already heard from up to 17 local landowners seeking to enroll in the program, with a dozen applications in progress.

The deadline for program applications in Jan. 1, allowing CDFW to advertise in the spring for fall hunts. Eligibility requirements are simple – species availability and property safety.

“The program is still fairly young. We’ll take anybody,” she added.

The elk angle, specifically, is new for SHARE – only about one year old. Yet for the past five years or so the program has offered cash incentives to private landowners in exchange for public-access hunting and birdwatching rights on their property for other kinds of wildlife, including wild pig and waterfowl.

Statewide, SHARE currently has eight properties registered in its elk program, including two in Santa Barbara County, one in Merced County, and one in Solano County.

A landowner seeking enrollment will have his or her property subject to inspection from a regional biologist to confirm claims of wildlife residence.

If approved, CFW will pay the landowner per acre for public access and determine, by its own processes, the time frame and distribution of hunting tags for the parcel.

“Each SHARE contract is very contract specific,” said Barr, explaining that the designation of SHARE lands in the county only influences the access or distribution, rather than the quantity, of elk hunting tags per season.

For many private landowners, the potential value of SHARE is more in its mitigation of property damage by elk rather than per-acre payments for program enrollment.

“The big problem with the elk is that they’re beautiful, but not in my backyard, is my philosophy,” said Helen Ferguson, who owns land in the county and works closely with other concerned landowners in voicing concerns to local and state leadership.

Ferguson said she and her peers have documented numerous cases of elk destroying plants, eating grass, and sometimes injuring livestock on local properties.

“They tore up several greenhouses of people in the Bertsch-Tract area,” she added.

Previous efforts to address wildlife overpopulation on local private lands include fencing, depredation permits, rubber bullets, and herding with cars.

In every case, said Ferguson, those attempts proved cost-prohibitive, logistically “impossible,” or simply ineffective.

“These animals are not choosing to come down and have human contact. They’re doing it out of necessity. Everyone thinks they’re beautiful, which they are,” she said. “This is a community problem. It’s not a residential problem, it’s not an agriculture problem.”

Others identify stale or absent data as a leading obstacle to meaningful management of elk populations.

Linda Crockett of the Del Norte County Farm Bureau pointed out that previous successful management of Aleutian geese populations in the county did not happen until officials were able to establish recent population numbers.

So, too, it must be for elk, she suggested.

Those population estimates have not been updated since 2010. CDFW Elk and Pronghorn Antelope Specialist Joe Hobbs told the Triplicate those figures will likely not be updated until the department hires additional regional personnel, a process only approaching interview stage as of mid-November.

Though more than a dozen landowners of smaller properties have expressed interest in the SHARE program, a couple others are attempting to resolve a similar issue through CDFW’s Private Land Management program (PLM).

Del Norte County Supervisor Chris Howard, who works for the Alexandre Family EcoDairy Farm outside Crescent City, said the farm was approved for PLM designation in June.

He said a herd now exceeding 150 elk moved in “literally overnight” to their property in recent years, and they impose substantially on the grass allocated for the farm’s dairy cows.

“These guys could eat their weight in gold, and the gold for us is grass,” he said, pointing out that an elk cow will typically outweigh a dairy cow by 250 pounds, and a bull will reach 1,400 pounds.

The programs differ in that PLM includes a habitat improvement component while SHARE is strictly private access.

For the Alexandre dairy, that means the creation of 25 new acres of wetland property, of which the farm has already made more than 13 acres.

Crockett said there will be another SHARE meeting before the Fish & Game Commission on Dec. 9.

Until then, county supervisors wrote last week to voice their continued support for SHARE and other efforts to “find solutions to landowner/elk conflicts within the County.”

Reach David Grieder at



Visalia Times-Delta

Organized thieves targeting nut producers

By David Castellon

The theft of $500,000 worth of pistachios last month from Horizon Nut Company south of Tulare was just a latest in a series of high-value nut thefts that have occurred across California in recent years.

And the theft from Horizon on Nov. 13, along with another attempt 10 days earlier to steal $280,000 worth of pistachios from Setton Farms in Terra Bella has prompted meeting today in Visalia for members of the tree nut industry to discuss the problem, share information and find out how to prevent such thefts.

“What you’re seeing now, this is a more sophisticated crime ring,” committing these thefts, said Roger Isom, president and chief executive officer of the Western Agricultural Processors Association, a Fresno-based trade association for the tree nut industry.

His organization, along with American Pistachio Growers, are putting on the Tree Nut Theft Emergency Summit this morning at the Visalia Wyndham Hotel — formerly the city’s Holiday Inn.

“We literally put this together in two weeks,” after word got out about the incidents last month at Setton Farms and Horizon, Isom said.

He said members of California’s nut tree industry haven’t shared a lot of information in the past, and the purpose of the Visalia event is to change that, he said, adding that while organizing the summit he learned about nut thefts in California that he previously hadn’t heard about.

Among the speakers at the summit will by Tulare County Sheriff Mike Boudreaux, who said that at in Tulare County he knows of two successful, large-scale pistachio thefts on July 20 and 21 from Setton Farms in which the thieves made off with a combined $452,000 worth of nuts, and last month’s Horizon Farm theft.

“We have pretty much an organized crime syndicate operating up and down the state of California, as well as nationally” stealing nuts, he said, adding that the thieves involved aren’t just stealing small amounts of nuts to make a few hundred dollars but instead are making off with a couple of semi-truck trailers full of nuts at a time.

And they’re a sophisticated bunch, in some cases hacking a U.S. Department of Transportation website where truck drivers bid to haul loads and later calling the unsuspecting drivers and telling then to take their loads of nuts to alternate locations.

Another method is to hack into the nut buyers, including Costco, and change the delivery destinations there, while a third method has involved forging manifest documents and giving them to truck drivers who are complicit in the thefts, Boudreaux said.

Whatever the method, truck drivers are showing up with legitimate-looking manifests, and the unknowing nut processors have loaded the trucks, unaware that thefts were occurring until the loads failed to show up where they were supposed to a few days later, he said.

Boudreaux said the nuts stolen from Horizon were supposed to go to Costcos in North Carolina, while the ones stolen in July from Setton Farms were supposed to go to Costcos in Washington State.

As for the Nov. 3 theft attempt at Setton Farms, Boudreaux said that because his department had worked with the company to improve security after previous thefts there, including another one last year, workers determined something was amiss with a pistachio pickup, and sheriff’s deputies were called, resulting in the arrest of a truck driver.

The sheriff wouldn’t disclose his name, but he said information from the man helped investigators confirm they are dealing with a nut theft ring.

These sorts of high-dollar nut thefts are relatively new, said Isom, noting that they started occurring across the state about three years ago, after prices for nuts — including walnuts, pistachios and almonds — jumped significantly, as demand for them grew in the U.S. and overseas.

Domestically, that demand has been fueled by news of the health benefits of these nuts, while overseas the demand is being fueled by growing middle-class populations in some countries, including China and India, and those people are buying more nuts, Isom said.

“What you were seeing before, that is what I wold call a ‘common criminal’ — somebody trying to make a quick buck, $100 to $200” stealing small amounts of nuts, he said. “What you’re seeing now, this is a more sophisticated crime ring.”

Calls Wednesday to Horizon Nut Company weren’t returned.

As for where the stolen nuts are ending up, that’s not clear, said Isom, noting that he has heard of some stolen walnuts ending up in Detroit, and Boudreaux said his deputies have tracked a truck hauling stolen nuts of New Mexico.

In some cases, stolen trucks and trailers used to steal nuts have been found abandoned and empty in Los Angeles, Isom said.

Boudreaux, whose department has been working with the FBI and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Cargo Task Force, said some of the nuts have been loaded onto ships for transport overseas.

In fact, he said, and last year a load of pistachios stolen from Setton Farms was tracked to the Port of Los Angeles, where half the load had been loaded onto a ship headed to Saudi Arabia before authorities arrived. They arrested four suspects and recovered the other half of the load.

“Pistachios is a huge commodity. We have a couple of large drying and distribution plants, They are among the largest in the nation, running a couple of hundred trucks a day,” said Boudreaux, estimating that large pistachio thefts have probably totaled about $1 million this year in Tulare County.