Thursday, November 19, 2015
Water leaders debate post-drought future during Clovis symposium
By Andrea Castillo
Some of the state’s top water officials, along with local farmers and activists, convened in Clovis on Thursday to talk about agriculture and the impact of the drought.
Los Angeles Times reporters hosted the conversation, called “Water in the West,” as part of a series of talks around the state.
Around 100 people showed up at the Clovis Veterans Memorial District building to listen to experts including Karen Ross, secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, and Mark Cowin, director of the California Department of Water Resources, give an overview of the issues that have emerged during the drought.
Cowin said the past four years have given California a crash course in how to adjust to limited amounts of water. But he said the state still needs to become more efficient and invest more in its water systems.
“It’s a matter of preparing for the future,” he said. “These past few years have given us, I think, a preview of what we can expect more of in the next century. If scientists are correct, if global climate change affects California the way we now expect it to, we can expect more of these extended dry periods.”
Nikiko Masumoto is already preparing for climate change on her family’s organic peach, nectarine and grape farm in Del Rey. The Masumotos have experimented with deficit irrigation (limiting water) but grew smaller peaches as a result.
Masumoto said the marketplace isn’t in favor of small fruit. She said she hopes the drought leads people to understand that size doesn’t dictate value of food.
“We have a very narrow definition of what a perfect peach, for example, is,” she said. “It might not always be pretty.”
Times correspondent Peter King, a Fresno native and former Bee staff writer, moderated a separate question-and-answer session with Ross. He asked her to address the paradox between people hearing about the suffering of farmers and rural communities, while at the same time California is experiencing record crop production value.
Ross said farmers are resilient and becoming more productive with the water available by focusing on higher economic uses, such as nut trees. That adaptation cloaks the harsh reality that some have felt during the drought, she said.
“Agriculture is very site-specific and where the drought has impacted is very site-specific. We can’t let those numbers be a one-size-fits-all.”
But Sarah Woolf, a farmer and president of the water management service Water Wise, said there isn’t enough water to meet the demands of a growing population, environmental protection and the agriculture industry. She stressed the importance of being more efficient in water use and improving storage and groundwater supplies.
“There’s land not being farmed,” she said. “I don’t think, as a farmer and someone who recognizes the high demand of California food products, that we should decrease our agricultural footprint.”
Cowin agreed about the need for better drought preparation, but he said there’s no way to avoid its effects completely.
“I don’t mean to sound pessimistic here, but I do think it’s not likely that we’re going to make such investment that we’re going to be able to withstand a four- or five-year drought of the nature we’ve seen the last few years without some level of impact,” he said.
Andrea Castillo: 559-441-6279, @andreamcastillo, firstname.lastname@example.org
Los Angeles Times
What’s behind a bid to shift dollars from the bullet train to water projects
By George Skelton
Grab billions from Gov. Jerry Brown’s bullet train project and spend it on generating more water. Build some dams. Many Californians have been shouting for that.
Now two Republican state politicians are backing a proposed ballot initiative to make that a reality. Scuttle the train and store more water.
But there’s significantly more to it.
While high-speed rail certainly will draw the headline focus, the proposal’s primary purpose apparently is to reduce water for the environment and provide more for agriculture.
It would amend the state constitution to make domestic use and crop irrigation the top priorities for California water. And those would be the only listed priorities.
The water priorities provision is wonky and less rousing than train-terminating. But it would be historic.
“It’s a very sneaky attack on the environment,” says Doug Obegi, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
“It overturns long-standing law, some of it dating to when the state was first created. It potentially undercuts environmental statutes. It seems intended to reduce protections for rivers and fisheries.”
The sponsors don’t necessarily disagree.
“We’ve made a lot of decisions to protect species that are struggling to stay alive,” says Sen. Bob Huff (R-San Dimas), who will be termed out next year and is running for Los Angeles County supervisor. Huff and George Runner, a member of the state Board of Equalization, are co-sponsoring the ballot initiative.
“The average person believes he should be high on the food chain” for water, Huff says. “The reality is he’s not. Of all the species that ever existed, 95% are now extinct. We didn’t do that. How much do we spend on nature when it has a way of adapting to the times and evolving?”
In many cases, however, we did do that — or at least chased the species out of our habitat. Salmon and steelhead runs have declined dramatically.
In the 20th century, we dried up 95% of California’s native wetlands. It’s almost laughable when business and agriculture, with straight faces, call now for “balancing” what’s left, the final 5%.
“The drought has caused an environmental crisis for native fish and water birds, which was aggravated in some places by the relaxation of environmental standards to allow for an increase in water for cities and farms,” the non-ideological Public Policy Institute of California reported Tuesday.
The institute recommended that the state water board designate “an environmental water budget” for each river and allow local officials to implement it. But that wouldn’t be possible under the proposed ballot measure.
“If you’re down to your last 50 gallons,” Huff asks, “would you give it to a person who’s thirsty or a fish so it could migrate upstream? People should be No. 1, agriculture No. 2 because it’s feeding people.”
But many of our water-gulping farms — especially the nut orchards — are feeding people in Asia. Californians also like to eat fish. And on the coast, that puts food on the table for commercial fishermen.
A reminder: Agriculture uses 80% of California’s developed water. Only 20% goes to urban use.
Agriculture thinks that has a bad ring. So it spins different figures: 50% of all California water goes to the environment, 40% to farms and 10% to cities. Same difference: Agriculture uses four times as much water as urban areas.
And “environmental use” includes every drop in the rivers. In normal years, that water isn’t “wasted” to the sea. It repels salt and keeps our water supply fresh. It also flushes poisons out of bays, sustains the coastal fishing industry and allows Californians to enjoy some recreation.
But farmers, especially in the San Joaquin Valley, complain of being “dust bowled” by environment protectors. Never mind that Gov. Pat Brown 55 years ago sold Californians on his landmark state water project by promising that only “surplus” northern water would be shipped to the arid south. There isn’t much surplus these days.
But back to the choo-choo.
“What Californians voted for on high-speed rail isn’t being delivered,” Runner says correctly. “It’s so different, they should have a shot at stopping it.”
Basically, the bullet train’s projected cost has doubled since its approval in 2008 and the rail line was significantly shortened.
The price tag is now at least $68 billion. Voters authorized $9 billion in state bonds. They were told the line would stretch from San Diego to San Francisco and Sacramento. Now it’s just Los Angeles to San Francisco.
The initiative would take what’s left of the train bonds — $8 billion — and spend it on water facilities. Also, $2.7 billion in storage money approved last year as part of a $7.5-billion water bond would be added. The total $10.7 billion would be used for two new dams, expansion of current dams, recharging aquifers, capturing storm water and updating other facilities.
An agriculture-rooted organization, the California Water Alliance, originated the initiative. The measure was unveiled last week. It’s targeted for the November 2016 ballot.
Sponsors will need to raise a minimum $2 million for signature collecting, then at least $8 million more for the campaign.
“Everyone likes to pop off” about the bullet train and water shortage, Runner says. “We’ll see whether people actually step up.”
If they do, it could trigger a wild free-for-all. email@example.com, Twitter: @LATimesSkelton
PG&E pitches major project
By Alex Breitler
Pacific Gas and Electric Co. wants to build major new transmission lines connecting infrastructure in northwest Stockton with the communities of Lodi and Lockeford.
The new 230-kilovolt lines will help accommodate future urban and agricultural growth, the utility says. The project, still in its early stages, also has the support of the publicly owned Lodi Electric Utility whose customers could see fewer power outages and perhaps smaller rate increases in the future.
At the same time, the towers for the new transmission lines will have to be planted somewhere amid the vast farmland north of Eight Mile Road. The route may be controversial.
“Anytime you start talking about new transmission lines, you start talking about the potential for impacts,” said Bruce Blodgett, head of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation. “We’re definitely aware, and we’ll be working on this as it goes through.”
No route has yet been determined. A series of public meetings is planned for early December to gather insight and suggestions from the public.
“That information is so important to us. That’s going to help us shape this project,” PG&E spokeswoman Nicole Liebelt said.
Smaller 60 kV power lines serve the area around Lodi today, leaving a gaping hole between the high-powered lines that run parallel to Interstate 5 near Eight Mile Road, and similar lines that currently terminate in Lockeford.
The plan is to somehow connect those lines via three existing substations. This would create a new avenue to bring power to the area.
“There is a need for redundancy,” Liebelt said. “It’s like a detour on a street. If there is an issue between point A and point B, you use an alternate route.”
For Lodi Electric, that alternative route might also save some cash. Right now, the utility must pay access charges for a variety of transmission lines, said Director Liz Kirkley. If a new 230 kV line is built, Lodi Electric could stop making payments on the smaller power lines, she said. That could save the utility about $3.5 million per year.
At first the money would be used to pay down the debt that the utility will accrue from having to build a new substantiation and two new transformers, Kirkley said. But eventually the money could be used for other things, including helping to ease the pain of future rate increases.
“It would also increase our reliability,” Kirkley said.
While it’s not yet known how tall the poles would be, transmission lines are usually much taller than lower-powered distribution lines. They often are hoisted atop large lattice towers or steel poles.
Linking all three of the substations would likely require about 16 to 20 miles of new line. Easements would be negotiated and purchased from landowners. It’s not just a matter of where to put the towers; the corridor itself will require an easement of perhaps 25 feet on each side to account for the potential for power lines to sway in the wind, PG&E says.
Nobody wants these in their backyard, the utility acknowledges.
“We haven’t built a lot of brand new (projects),” PG&E spokeswoman Shannon Koontz said. “We try to do as much as we can with our current infrastructure, but at some point, it’s time” to expand.
The extra infrastructure and reliable power may even help to attract new businesses to the area, PG&E says.
The California Independent System Operator identified the project as a need three years ago. Any decision on the route will have to go through standard environmental review process, and the California Public Utilities Commission will make a final decision.
— Contact reporter Alex Breitler at (209) 546-8295 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at recordnet.com/breitlerblog and on Twitter @alexbreitler.
San Diego County To Create Incentive Zones For Urban Farms
By City News Service
The San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Wednesday to start the process toward creating incentive zones for urban agriculture in the region.
Supervisors Diane Jacob and Ron Roberts brought the policy forward, calling it an extension of the county’s “Live Well San Diego” health initiative.
“It’s providing more opportunities for people to learn about food and to have healthy food,” Roberts said.
“There’s collateral benefits, in that we have blighted lots and we can turn them into something that produces food and that involves a safer cleaner environment,” Roberts said. “This just fits in with everything that we’re doing and a healthier, happier, safer community will result from this.”
Under the program, owners who dedicate vacant, blighted or unimproved land for farming use will be assessed at a lower property tax rate, which was authorized by state legislation two years ago.
According to a county staff report, the property tax assessment would be based on the average per-acre land value of irrigated cropland in California. In August, that figure was $12,700 per acre, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
San Diego County Farm Bureau Executive Director Eric Larson said the incentive program would help part-time farmers build their business while deciding on the future of their agriculture operation.
He also said the average age of a San Diego farmer is 61. The high cost of land and barriers faced in getting acquiring farmable land has led to a dearth of young farmers, according to Larson.
San Diego County has the highest concentration of part-time farmers in the United States, according to Larson.
Diane Moss, with the San Diego Food Systems Alliance, said the program could help grow community gardens throughout the neighborhoods of southeast San Diego.
Kristin Kvernland, youth garden manager for local nonprofit Second Chance, echoed Moss’ support.
“The main goal is to keep access flowing in different communities, to help transform and beautify neighborhoods and to help employ community members,” Kvernland said.
Supporters of the incentive program also say it provides tangible financial incentives for a landowner who may not be interested in immediately developing vacant land.
Roberts said the program makes financial sense for the county.
“I’m a big supporter of sustainable urban farming and believe incentivizing small scale urban agriculture in our urban cores will be good for the environment and ultimately serve to promote better food choices for our residents,” the supervisor said.
Roberts said he comes from a farming family on the East Coast, and as a parent, he’s realized how important it is to educate children and young people about food systems.
The program can be applied to both unincorporated county areas and the region’s 18 cities.
County staff were directed to create a framework for evaluating urban agriculture proposals by identifying eligible properties, providing notice to agencies that set taxes and fees based on assessments, and preparing a fiscal analysis.
Staff will report back on the feasibility of the program in six months.
Woodland Daily Democrat
Farm Bureau hosts ag roundtable to discuss county farming issues
By Fabian Garcia
Farmers across Yolo County were able to have their concerns addressed this week as a small group of agriculture officials came together for a roundtable meeting on issues important to the industry.
The Yolo County Farm Bureau hosted its gathering under the roof of the Yolo Fliers Club Tuesday night, where guests were encouraged to arrive early for a social hour followed by a dinner buffet and a series of presentations covering local agricultural news.
While a crowd of no more than 30 guests helped themselves to a hearty Thanksgiving-themed meal, the first of four speakers was introduced to begin the evening’s reports.
Farm Bureau President Jeff Merwin stepped to the podium first and kept his speech brief with general announcements regarding future meetings coming up in the new year.
Faculty member Brandi Asmus was brought up next to speak on behalf of Woodland Community College, at which point she announced a significant upward shift in funding for the campus’ agriculture department.
Asmus said the college had received more than $500,000 in both non-competitive and competitive grants over the course of the year, much of which would be used for new farm equipment, updating existing department infrastructure, streamlining high school FFA student transfers as well as the hiring of a second full-time agriculture faculty member.
Woodland Community College had been given a great opportunity to bolster its agriculture curriculum, Asmus added, “and with that comes a lot of work.”
Morgan Doran of the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources eventually made his way to the front of the room to introduce Tuesday’s featured speaker: Yolo County Administrator Patrick Blacklock.
Once at the podium, Blacklock guided guests through a summarized PowerPoint presentation outlining a number of issues his office was prioritizing as part of its “flourishing agriculture” goal in the county’s overall strategic plan over the next four years.
Some of the focus areas in the county’s strategic plan for agriculture included land preservation, facilitating connections between growers and buyers, developing strategies to nurture new businesses in the area and aligning a workforce with agriculture and food system employer needs.
Blacklock also disclosed the county’s 2015-16 budget and current credit rating — an A- under the S&P 500 Index — as well as allocations on property tax percentages — with 10 going to the county — and sales tax percentages — 0.79 percent — for every dollar spent by residents.
Perhaps more important, though, he briefly addressed one larger issue of rural road maintenance — something Supervisor Duane Chamberlain has openly expressed concern about in recent board meetings. Blacklock explained that he wasn’t expecting much state assistance in long-term care for roads, adding the county needed to find alternative ways to secure at least $96 million to repave damaged roads throughout the county.
“We face a serious road maintenance challenge,” Blacklock said, explaining that county staff was investing significant time and energy on the matter. “We’re working on it.”
On a more positive note, Blacklock had a chance to reflect on some of the county’s success stories in agriculture — namely crime efforts.
He described a task force that had been formed by the sheriff’s department, which was created to focus on reducing recurring crimes in rural areas of the county such as burglary. Trackers, he added, have become widely used to map common items being stolen from farms and ranches, providing data which sometimes have even led to discovering more extensive crime rings.
Blacklock commended the county’s criminal justice department for relying no data-driven evidence, saying he was proud to be involved in a system that appeared to be working efficiently and having a positive effect on Yolo County agriculture.
“I’m heartened to be part of a team of public safety professionals that all work together, that have already implemented some of these things and are seeing positive results,” he said.
Contact Fabian Garcia at 530-406-6232. , email@example.com, @freelancelot_ on Twitter
New York Times
The American Turkey Farmer Takes On Mother Nature and Wins
By James B. Stewart
If the doom-saying turkey pundits had been right, we’d all be eating ham this Thanksgiving.
Last summer, after a devastating outbreak of avian flu in the big turkey-producing states of Iowa and Minnesota, the media was full of predictions that prices for the surviving turkeys would soar. Holiday turkeys “will be hard to come by,” one expert told Reuters in June.
In case you haven’t done your shopping or reserved a turkey yet, rest assured: There will be a turkey for you. Not only is there no shortage, but turkeys are selling for some of the lowest prices in years.
For that happy outcome, we can give thanks to the resilience of American agriculture and enterprising farmers like Brad Moline.
Mr. Moline, 36, is a third-generation turkey farmer in Manson, Iowa, about 80 miles northwest of Des Moines. On May 19, one of his workers reported a “problem” in one of the barns. When Mr. Moline arrived, he found 90 dead turkeys among a flock of thousands.
That same day, he drove a carcass to Iowa State University, his alma mater, where researchers tested it and confirmed that the deadly H5N2 strain of avian flu had reached his flock.
No one is quite sure how the virus, which originated in Asia, made it to the American heartland. Mr. Moline had to kill every one of his 56,000 turkeys — half of them were seven weeks old; half were 14 weeks.
“The outlook was pretty dismal,” Mr. Moline told me this week. As an independent family farm, which he operates with his brother and father, “we only make money if healthy turkeys come out of these barns. We’ve never experienced anything like this, and we’ve been in business for 91 years. We’ve dealt with a lot that Mother Nature has thrown at us, but nothing like this.”
Northwest Iowa and adjacent southern Minnesota were hit especially hard, but eventually the virus reached 15 states, attacking chickens, ducks and turkeys. More than 48 million birds had to be killed, including 7.5 million turkeys.
“Our goal was to get back in business as soon as possible,” Mr. Moline said. “Our adrenaline really kicked in.” After thorough cleaning and disinfecting, his farm was cleared to restock on July 23. But poults, the day-old turkey fledglings that he buys from a hatchery in Minnesota, were in short supply. Finally, on July 31, Mr. Moline welcomed a shipment of 28,000 poults, making his the first affected turkey farm in Iowa to reopen.
Still, Mr. Moline says he will be taking a hit to his annual income, which he estimates will be cut this year by two-thirds. His flocks weren’t insured. (There’s no insurance available, he said.) He was grateful that the federal government, through a program that compensates farmers for losses incurred by infected livestock, reimbursed him for birds that were killed and paid some of the cleanup costs. “But the payments didn’t cover our costs,” he said.
None of Mr. Moline’s turkeys will be on anyone’s Thanksgiving table. The 40- to 50-pound tom turkeys that Mr. Moline raises, typically produced for their breast meat, take an average of 18 to 20 weeks to reach maturity. And, in any event, they’d be too big. Most turkeys destined for the Thanksgiving centerpiece are much smaller hens.
But because of the pluck of Mr. Moline and his ilk, the retail price for turkey has already dropped in anticipation of a resumption in supply from reopened farms. He expects to harvest the first of the new flock the first week in December and to sell the birds to the local farm cooperative.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, for the week ending last Friday, the average retail price for frozen whole hen turkeys was 90 cents a pound. That’s down sharply from the $1.08 a pound the week before and is a penny less than the 91 cents a pound turkey was selling for a year ago. Toms were an even better deal: 87 cents a pound, compared with 93 cents a year ago. Fresh turkeys, always more expensive and in shorter supply, were $1.54 a pound for both hens and toms, 10 cents more than last year.
Better deals can be found at many supermarkets, especially during the week before Thanksgiving, when promotional pricing reaches a peak. Walmart is offering a 16-pound frozen Butterball turkey for an average of $10.64, or 64 cents a pound — 16 cents less than last year.
“As soon as we started hearing reports about the avian flu, our buyers moved quickly to lock up supply,” said John Forrest Ales, a spokesman for Walmart. “We’re offering more birds than we ever have before,” he said. Walmart is also offering fresh turkeys at a lower price than last year.
The American Farm Bureau Federation said this week that its annual survey of the cost of a classic Thanksgiving feast for 10 was $50.11, slightly more than last year’s $49.41. It attributed the rise to a 6 percent increase in turkey prices that offsets declines in other items, especially dairy products like whipping cream and butter.
But the Farm Bureau’s survey may already be out of date, since it missed some of the recent price drops for turkey.
“We had to do our survey early, when wholesale turkey prices were consistently higher than last year,“ said John Anderson, deputy chief economist for the Farm Bureau. “Turkey prices have really come down in the last few weeks.”
Consumers who take advantage of holiday promotions can do much better than the Farm Bureau estimate. Some chains were even offering free turkeys, if customers spent a minimum on other items. Mr. Ales, the Walmart spokesman, said shoppers at Walmart can replicate the Farm Bureau menu for 10 this year for $32.48 — 16 cents less than last year.
Supplies of turkeys, both fresh and frozen, have also been plentiful. Overall turkey production through the first nine months of the year dropped less than 2 percent, despite the avian flu outbreak. That’s because producers who weren’t affected were able to step up production, and much of this year’s Thanksgiving supply had already been harvested and flash-frozen before the outbreak.
The 7.5 million birds lost to the epidemic, while a large number in absolute terms, accounted for just 3 percent of the total annual United States production of 228 million birds, according to the American Turkey Federation.
Even in high-priced Manhattan, turkey prices this year are flat. Trader Joe’s and Fairway were both offering whole fresh turkeys this week at $1.99 a pound, the same as two years ago.
Of course, you can spend more: For turkey purists, California-based Exotic Meat Markets was offering a 10-to-15-pound heritage Red Bourbon turkey, a breed first cultivated in Kentucky and Pennsylvania in the late 19th century, for $149.99. Even more expensive is an Eastern Wild Turkey — “the turkey species first encountered in the wild by the Puritans, the founders of Jamestown, and the Acadians” — for $199.99.
Mr. Moline said he hadn’t been paying any attention to current turkey prices. “It’s been so long since we sold any, I can’t really tell you what they are,” he said. “I’m just happy to be back in business.”