Ag Today Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Ag Today

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

 

Central Valley Business Journal

What California could learn from Oregon’s minimum wage compromise

By Kent Hohlfeld

STOCKTON — This is a story about two similar states, one problem and two very different ways the state legislatures found to deal with the issue.

California and Oregon, despite their population differences, share more than just a border. Early in 2016, both states’ legislatures decided their minimum wages were too low. Both states had ballot measures that threatened to raise the wage to $15 per hour across the state.

Both Oregon and California have many of the same political dynamics. Both are heavily Democratic, labor-friendly, have wide regional wage and cost-of-living disparities and a political divide between agricultural and urban regions.

Despite the similarities, the ways the two states dealt with their minimum wage laws were vastly different.

“This legislation [in California] was passed in the dark of the night without full transparency,” said Greater Stockton Chamber of Commerce CEO Doug Wilhoit. “It was done with political malfeasance.”

In California, Gov. Jerry Brown negotiated with labor and Democratic leaders to come up with a bill that would avoid a costly and protracted ballot fight. Labor leaders got most of what their ballot initiative called for.

What emerged was a statewide $15 per hour wage that would be phased in by 2022, one year later than in the proposed ballot initiative. Small businesses with fewer than 25 workers get until 2023 to reach the $15 mark.

The legislation also allows the governor to postpone wages increase in the event of an economic downturn. The bill was signed exactly one week from its introduction by the governor.

“I think the context of it was the proposition,” said Bob Alvarez, chief of staff for state Sen. Cathleen Galgiani “If we ever want to change the proposition, we would have had to go back to the voters. This law has the off-ramps and can be changed by future governors and legislatures.”

Polls showing broad support for the proposition also motivated wavering legislators to act quickly.

“There was a likelihood that the ballot initiative was going to be passed,” said Alvarez. “That outweighed everything. There was really no opportunity to present other formulas.”

One other formula might have been examined was Oregon’s approach to the issue. Like the Golden State, Oregon had a ballot initiative that would have imposed a statewide $15 wage which drove legislators to act. But that is where the similarities end.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown met with labor leaders and business trade groups to hammer out a deal that would have paid a those working in high-priced Portland a minimum of $14.50 while minimum wage workers elsewhere in the state would have earned $13.25 by 2022.

The plan was introduced in a “short session” of the state legislature where agricultural interests and those from rural eastern parts of the state balked at the idea.

After nearly a month wrangling, what emerged was a three-tiered system. The minimum wage for those working in the high-priced Portland area would be $14.75 per hour. Residents working in mid-sized cities such as Eugene and Bend would be paid at least $13.75 per hour.

In a concession to rural, largely agricultural eastern sections of the state, workers in so-called “frontier” counties would have their minimum wage set at $12.50. The raises would be phased in between July 2016 and Jan. 2022.

While the proposal enraged some labor groups and led to demonstrations outside the Capitol in Salem, the new formula passed and was signed by the governor.

According to Alvarez, even if there had been an opportunity to look at options in California such as a tiered rate, the governor’s preference was clear.

“You knew what the governor was gong to support,” said Alvarez. “Usually when the governor comes out with a deal, that is what you are going to get.”

That decision will have a big impact on the Central Valley. A study by the University of the Pacific’s Center for Business and Policy Research found that  51 percent of jobs in San Joaquin, 50 percent in Stanislaus and 59 percent in Merced counties will be affected by the wage hike.

“The legislators completely ignored their own district and supported their union-cut deal,” said San Joaquin Farm Bureau Federation Executive Director Bruce Blodgett.

He said the decision to raise the wage will impact the agricultural sector in a variety of ways. The increase will also hurt employees currently making $15 per hour.

“Everyone in that range will get increase as well,” he said. “It will spread throughout the entire industry. It will be tough considering who they will be competing with.”

The fear is that in especially labor-intensive industries, such as agriculture, crop prices from places like Central and South America will be more attractive.

“The consumer usually buys what is cheapest not what’s local,” said Blodgett. “You will see more  growers move to mechanized systems. They will go to commodities based on reduced labor.”

The argument about a minimum wage hike costing jobs is one of the most hotly contested talking points of the debate. Advocates of a $15 minimum wage argue that economic research has shown little or no job losses when the floor is raised.

The U.S. Department of Labor cites a letter by more than 600 economists that says past increases have led to no job losses. However, those economists were advocating for a $10.10 wage, a far cry from those enacted in California and Oregon.

Fears over the impact of such a large and sudden increase (Oregon’s minimum was $9.25) was among the reasons Oregon enacted its tiered system. Blodgett said that a similar tiered system would have been preferable to what California’s legislature passed.

“Anything would have been better than what they did,” he said.

Blodgett said he had little hope that future legislators would modify the deal to lessen its impact on rural and agricultural areas.

“[Usually] the feeling is that that issue is behind us, and we aren’t going to deal with it again,” he said of future modifications.

It was a tough choice for area lawmakers who had to decide whether to vote against the law and risk the ballot proposition or go with the governor’s plan.

“You had a governor that was really adamant about this bill,” said Alvarez. “It was a vote for a law that can be changed, had a couple of off ramps and had the extra year for small business or take the chances with the ballot proposition.”

The choice between the ballot initiative or the law was not popular among business leaders either.

“It’s like asking do you want to be shot with a .45 or .44,” said Blodgett. “There is no good option there.”

Still, some area business leaders wish California’s legislature had taken more time and studied other options.

“There was no transparency,” said Wilhoit. “Our law should have looked more like the Oregon model.”

Kent Hohlfeld can be reached at (209) 477-0100 or email khohlfeld@cvbizjournal.com

 

 

San Diego Union-Tribune

Growing water crisis in Borrego

Years of overdrafting from underground aquifer have state pushing for community action to restore sustainability

By J. Harry Jones

The water crisis in Borrego Springs is as simple to understand as it will be difficult to solve.

The elephant in the room is farming.

Citrus and palm ranches in northern Borrego Springs are sucking huge amounts of water from the underground lake beneath their land — far more than the state is likely to allow in the future.

The problem: Borrego Springs, home to about 3,000 permanent residents in the desert of northeast San Diego County, has no feasible way to import water. It relies completely on an underground aquifer that on average is replenished by nature each year to the tune of about 1.8 billion gallons.

But for decades, the amount of water that has been pumped out of the aquifer has been far greater — most recently, 6.1 billion gallons annually.

The result of years of overdrafting in the Borrego Valley has caused the water table to drop by as much as 119 feet in some areas, including a 26-foot decline in the past decade.

It’s not that Borrego Springs is running out of water. There are, in fact, three aquifers beneath the valley, one atop the other. But as the water table drops, it becomes more and more expensive to pump water out of the ground. If nothing is done, the cost of pumping the water will eventually exceed any economically feasible rationale to continue living there or working the land.

For comparison’s sake, the city of Poway, home to nearly 50,000 people and hundreds of businesses, distributes a bit more than 4 billion gallons of water to its users annually. Borrego pumps 50 percent more water than that, even though its population is minute in comparison.

In the northern part of town are farms, roughly 2,000 acres of grapefruit, lemons, tangerines, tangelos and palm trees.

Many of the farms have been in operation for more than half a century and all have clear rights to the water beneath their land. The farms use 70 percent to 80 percent of the water pumped out of the ground.

The rest is consumed by five golf courses, resorts and residents, most of whom get their water from pumps controlled and distributed by the Borrego Water District.

Sustainability plan

It’s been known since the early 1980s that an overdraft problem exists. Comprehensive studies have put hard numbers to the staggering issue.

What has changed recently is a threat from the state, which last year enacted laws aimed at communities that rely on underground water.

There are more than 500 such sole-source basins in California, including 127 that have been determined to be of medium and high priority.

Borrego is placed in the medium category not because its problem isn’t immense, but because relatively few people are affected. More important, the Borrego Valley has been designated to be in “critical overdraft,” one of only 21 basins in the state (most are in the Central Valley) and the only one south of Los Angeles.

The state is demanding that the community — in this case it will be the Borrego Water District in conjunction with the County of San Diego — come up with a plan by 2020 to bring the basin into sustainability. If no plan is promulgated, the state will take over.

“You know the saying, ‘I’m here from the government. I’m here to help you.’ That’s usually not a good thing,” Borrego Water District General Manager Jerry Rowling told a town hall gathering in late March.

The plan must then be implemented and progress has to be shown up until 2040, by which time the amount of water being pumped out of the ground can be no greater than what is naturally recharged.

During the town hall gathering, Borrego Water District President Beth Hart was asked what the chances are that farmers will cut back usage to anywhere close to the levels that will be needed.

“I wouldn’t have had a good answer three years ago,” Hart said.

That was when the Department of Water Resources drew together a group of the largest pumpers in the basin — farm owners, golf course heads, state park representatives, local business owners and residents — a group that eventually called itself the Borrego Water Coalition.

Hart said initially the farmers’ positions were intransigent.

“What we initially heard was that no one was going to do anything except sue somebody else,” she said. “But what we found after talking with them is business people — business people (who want to either) continue their business or make themselves an exit strategy that would work.”

She said the farmers can see the reality. Because of the new water sustainability rules, they will either have to leave the valley or find some way to sell their crops at high enough prices to cover the costs.

The district has already been approached by nonprofit land acquisition and environmental groups that are waiting to see if an opportunity arises, Hart said.

Borrego Springs is surrounded by the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The Anza-Borrego Foundation, which for decades has been purchasing land to add to what is by far the state’s largest park, is one of those groups.

“We certainly know how to do it,” said Paige Rogowski, the foundation’s executive director. “This would be new territory for us specifically with agriculture land. But if we can work it out, we’re glad to help.”

Wealthy part-time residents with vacation homes in the area and their own foundations have also expressed willingness to help with the problem, Hart said.

One idea in its infancy could involve UC Irvine, which has a desert research station in the area.

“They are interested in taking farmland that is fallowed and seeing what it would take to restore it,” Hart said recently. “I don’t know if that’s anything more than an idea at this point, but it would certainly be a wonderful opportunity for folks in the valley to figure out what it would cost, how it would work, whether its doable and putting an academic aspect to it.”

Hart said there is also a question of whether the park system would want fallowed farmland.

“The park historically has not wanted disturbed property. They prefer property that is native or can be put back in a fairly inexpensive way. I’m not quite sure if any of us have an answer about how everything is going to happen when it comes to the fallowed properties,” she said.

It will also be difficult to get donations to buy farmland until the legal ramifications of the new rules, and challenges to any sustainability plans, have been litigated, presuming such challenges are forthcoming. Donors are less likely to give cash to buy land if the threat of litigation might consume those funds in legal fees.

Other options include people buying a farm, fallowing it, and then using a fraction of the water credits for their own projects. Such is how the recently reopened Rams Hill Golf Course got permission to turn its pumps back on.

Farming’s role

At the northern terminus of Borrego Valley Road sits Seley Ranch where Rio Red grapefruit and lemons, among other citrus products, have been grown on 376 acres since the late 1950s.

Jim Seley is active in the water coalition and has implemented water-saving techniques in recent years.

Ryan Fancy, the ranch manager, takes pride in what is being grown. As he cut into a grapefruit and squeezed, he said the Seley fruit is shipped all over the world.

“We’re not watering grass,” he said. “We don’t have 50-foot sprinklers shooting up in the sky to water a golf course nobody golfs on four months of the year (when Borrego Springs is all but shut down because of summer heat).

“We’re feeding people here!”

Fancy talks about the intricate irrigation methods that make sure each tree receives just the right amount of water without any being wasted. He shows how detection devices allow him to monitor on his cellphone exactly what the weather and moisture levels of the ground are at any given moment. Seley can follow along on his computer in his Pasadena office.

The ranch recently installed filtration backwash equipment from Israel, which flushes sediment from the water being pumped using less than one gallon instead of hundreds each time. And workers are constantly repairing leaking pipes and malfunctioning sprinklers, Fancy said.

They use “micro-jet” sprinklers Fancy calls super-efficient. “With frequent shallow irrigation you’re just putting a little bit of water on every other day. And you’re targeting exactly where your root zone is.”

Still, the ranch — indeed all the farms — use a great deal of water.

There are three active pumps on the Seley ranch property. Each draws about 1,700 gallons a minute from the earth. On average, each pump is run 10 hours a day — less in the cooler winter months, much more in the summer.

That’s more than 1 billion gallons of water annually.

Seley recently said he’s not convinced the overdraft figures are accurate, and as farmers and others start to reduce consumption during the first part of the sustainability plan, he will be eager to see what happens to water levels.

“It’s still an art and not a science yet,” he said.

Seley and others said the overdrafting has slowed as farmers and others have put conservation techniques into practice.

Right now, the farmers are being told they will have to cut back on their operations 70 percent by 2040. But he said that figure could go up or down once the plan is in place.

He said he expects some farm owners will give up, tired of the fight and fed up with rising electricity costs to power their wells. He said he would expect to see a 20 percent reduction in farming in five years and maybe another 20 percent in 10 years.

There will also be regulatory pressure in the form of fees and fines.

Under the sustainability rules, the water district/county group that will oversee the plans will have the power to force farmers to install meters on all pumps to know exactly how much water is being used. Then a reduction schedule will be established and if the goals aren’t met, fines will be levied.

End isn’t near

Hart told the town hall gathering that there are some in Borrego Springs who think time is running out, that its water problems are insurmountable and the town may simply cease to exist.

“That is not how this board views are current circumstances,” Hart told the gathering. “Instead, our message is one of hope along with a realistic approach that says, it’s not going to be easy, but it will be worth it.

“… Instead of waiting for the state or some other governmental agency to apply a ‘one-size-fits-all’ remedy for the overdraft with little or no consideration as to the local reality that is here, we are working to retain local control, address local issues and create practical resolutions to local problems.”

 

 

Associated Press

INSIDE WASHINGTON: Ag groups seek exemption from scrutiny

By Candice Choi and Mary Clare Jalonick

NEW YORK – Congress is pushing the Agriculture Department to exempt the groups behind promotional campaigns like “The Incredible, Edible Egg” and “Pork, the Other White Meat” from public scrutiny of their internal operations despite recent controversy.

The push comes after organizations representing eggs, pork, potatoes and even Christmas trees pressed for an exception from the federal Freedom of Information Act for programs that promote agricultural products. A provision supporting their push was part of spending legislation approved by a House panel last month.

The familiar campaigns are overseen by USDA but paid for by the industries that vote to organize them. In a non-binding report accompanying the agriculture spending bill, the House Appropriations Committee urged USDA to recognize that the campaigns are “not agencies of the federal government” and therefore should not be subject to information requests required by federal FOIA laws.

The move comes after some so-called “checkoff” programs have been dogged by controversy. Last year, The Associated Press reported that the American Egg Board tried to stop the sale of an eggless mayonnaise alternative at Whole Foods, based on documents obtained through a public records request.

The head of the egg board subsequently stepped down and the USDA launched an investigation into the board’s activities, saying it does not condone “efforts to limit competing products in commerce.”

On April 11, a group of 14 trade associations sent a letter to Rep. Robert Aderholt, R-Ala., chairman of the House Appropriations agriculture subcommittee, and Rep. Sam Farr, D-Calif., the subcommittee’s top Democrat, asking them to urge USDA to recognize that the promotional programs are not subject to public records requests.

The rationale was that the programs are funded by producers, according to a copy of a letter obtained by the AP.

The House Appropriations Committee approved the legislation on April 19, including the report language urging USDA to recognize the programs are not subject to FOIA. Congress often uses such non-binding directions to put a department on notice that lawmakers will push back if officials ignore them.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said Monday that the panel has no comment.

The industry associations that signed a letter seeking FOIA exemption include the American Mushroom Institute, the National Potato Council, the National Christmas Tree Association, the National Watermelon Association and the United Egg Producers.

The letter was not signed by the checkoff programs themselves, such as the American Egg Board and the U.S. Potato Board, which are not supposed to engage in lobbying.

“The American Egg Board had no role or involvement in the request by trade organizations for an exemption to the Freedom of Information Act,” wrote Kevin Burkum, an egg board representative.

Details of the letter were first reported last week by Capital Press.

The push underscores the gray area occupied by the checkoff programs, which have operated with little oversight.

The checkoff programs were established by the government at the industry’s urging as a way to collect mandatory fees from producers for promotional efforts. That has resulted in considerable marketing muscle for agricultural products. Last year, the egg board had revenue of more than $22 million; the pork board’s revenue topped $98 million in 2014.

The catch is that these programs are subject to government oversight to ensure they stick to generic promotion, and avoid lobbying that some producers might not agree with.

Still, the programs’ activities have been challenged in court. In 2008, a judge barred the egg board from spending money to campaign on a proposition in California. In 2012, the Humane Society sued the USDA over allegations that the National Pork Board cut a deal to improperly funnel money to a pork industry association that lobbies lawmakers, a case that remains unresolved.

In 2012, USDA’s inspector general issued a report saying departmental oversight should be improved. Specifically, the audit said USDA should better detect the misuse of board checkoff funds and gather more information from the boards to assess their activities. The report cited examples of improper employee bonuses and travel expenses.

Chase Adams, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, said he did not know if public records requests with the checkoff program have been increasing but said it is an issue “we’ve been cognizant of.”

Adams said the associations believe the money that producers contribute to the checkoff programs is intended for research and promotion, not carrying out FOIA requests.

“It’s really pretty cut and dry,” Adams said.

Not everyone agrees.

Matthew Penzer, special counsel to the Humane Society, says the groups are “trying to have it both ways” by saying the boards should not be subject to records laws, even though they rely on government authority for the mandatory collection of fees.

“The only thing that makes them constitutional is that they’re government programs,” Penzer said.

Penzer pointed to a Supreme Court decision in 2005 that upheld the boards’ collection of fees from producers as being protected as “government speech.”

Associated Press writer Mary Clare Jalonick reported from Washington.

Follow Candice Choi at www.twitter.com/candicechoi

 

 

CBS News

When farm to table is really fraud to table

By Jonathan Berr

As more consumers become interested in locally sourced foods and sustainable farming, restaurants are racing to oblige. Many now offer detailed pedigrees of the ingredients they use to create the dishes on their menus. Unfortunately, some of those claims are misleading or outright fabrications.

According to a recent expose in the Tampa Bay Times, one restaurant in the Tampa area advertised “Florida Blue Crab” that actually came from the Indian Ocean. Another eatery claimed to get pork from a farmer that didn’t sell to it, while a third, which prided itself on avoiding GMO ingredients in its salads, probably used them.

Given how many consumers are seeking out fresh and healthy food choices, the risks businesses take in lying about where they get their products are huge.

“Today’s operator needs to avoid serving ingredients that differ from what’s being promoted on the menu,” said Darren Tristano, president of the restaurant research firm Technomic. “If they disclose the substitutes verbally or in a manner that communicates to the customer, this should be OK. Doing so without communication will be viewed as dishonest and untrustworthy, and negatively affect the brand.”

Brendan Walsh, a dean at the Culinary Institute of America, experienced the problem first-hand a few years ago when he owned a restaurant. A “very wealthy, famous actor,” whom he didn’t name, opened an establishment near his that featured goat cheese from supplier Rainbeau Ridge, which also supplied his establishment. Rainbeau Ridge, however, hadn’t sold to the celebrity’s restaurant in months. A spokesman for Rainbeau Ridge couldn’t be reached.

“How could they have fresh goat cheese from them?” said Walsh, whose school has trained many of the country’s top chefs. “Even the affluent use this as a marketing ploy.”

The “farm to table” movement, which had its origins in the hippie culture of the 1960s, has spread from a handful of progressive cities such as Berkeley, California, and Austin, Texas, to the mainstream over the last decade or so. According to a recent survey by the National Restaurant Association, 57 percent of consumers said the availability of local food is an important factor in deciding where to dine out. Another 68 percent said they’re more likely to visit a restaurant that offers locally produced items.

According to Richard McCarthy, executive director of farm to table advocate Slow Food USA, consumers have a hunger for “authentic” food — and some restaurants and market operators are willing to cut corners to meet it.

“It was totally unexpected 20 years ago that we would be at this place now,” he said. “The farm to table movement has given many farmers their first leg into new market, a new way of building their business and growing product that consumers will pay more for.”

But if the public doesn’t trust the quality of that food, the results could be disastrous, which is why Slow Food USA advocates a third-party verification system it has dubbed its “Snail of Approval.” Restaurants, farms and stores are eligible for the certification. Though other organizations offer such seals of approval, all of these efforts are in their early stages.

The farm to table trend is also squeezing profit margins of restaurants as increased demand for already-scarce supplies of locally grown products drives up prices.

Addressing the issue of food fraud is tricky. For one thing, regulators haven’t defined what’s meant by “local” and “sustainable.” And food labeled “organic” may not be as pristine as some consumers might imagine, according to Laura MacCleery, an attorney with the Center for Science and the Public Interest.

“In a market where the lowest-cost provider wins,” said Culinary Institute of America’s Walsh, “there’s going to be a lot of pressure on buyers and sellers, and chefs are included in that mix to try to find ways to compromise.”

 

 

Wall Street Journal

Grain Traders Rejecting New Soybeans Developed by Monsanto

Monsanto continues to expect EU approval for new soybean seeds in the ‘near future’

By Jacob Bunge

U.S. grain companies plan to reject Monsanto Co.’s new genetically modified soybeans because of concerns that they could disrupt international trade without a key regulatory approval from the European Union.

Trade groups representing Cargill Inc., Archer Daniels Midland Co., Bunge Ltd. and other grain companies blasted the biotech seed company’s decision to sell the seeds before first securing an approval required to ship the crops to the EU, according to a letter reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

They are pressuring Monsanto to detail how it plans to keep the new soybeans from entering export channels.

The grain companies’ stance is a potential blow to a product that Monsanto has touted as a blockbuster for U.S. farm fields.

The St. Louis company this spring aimed to sell to U.S. farmers about 3 million acres’ worth of the new soybean seeds called “Roundup Ready 2 Xtend.”

Grain traders could decide to accept the soybeans if EU officials approve them for import before U.S. farmers begin harvest this fall.

Monsanto expects approval in the near future, a company spokeswoman said. Representatives for the EU didn’t respond to requests for comment Monday.

“Monsanto’s actions with respect to RR2X soybeans are an unacceptable and very troubling development, and we urge that it not be repeated,” wrote the heads of the National Grain and Feed Association, the North American Export Grain Association, and the National Oilseed Processors Association in the letter.

The private dispute reflects commodity traders’ increasing concerns about seed companies’ efforts to market new genetically engineered crops.

Agribusiness groups estimated that grain traders lost hundreds of millions of dollars after Chinese authorities in late 2013 began rejecting shipments of U.S. corn that contained unapproved genetics developed by Swiss seed firm Syngenta AG, which led to lawsuits by traders and farmers.

The latest Monsanto seeds contain new genetic technology that allows soybean plants to withstand a new and more powerful herbicide, as farmers battle weeds that have evolved to resist Monsanto’s signature Roundup spray.

Monsanto projected that by 2019 two-thirds of all U.S. soybean fields will be planted with seeds containing the new genes.

Soybeans are the second most widely-grown crop in the U.S. after corn, and the EU is the second-largest foreign market for the oilseed, accounting for about 9.8% of all 2015 exports, the Agriculture Department estimates.

The letter comes after Bunge, Archer Daniels Midland and Louis Dreyfus Co. recently notified farmers that their U.S. facilities wouldn’t buy soybeans grown from seeds that contain Monsanto’s new crop genes. The companies sent letters and posted signs at grain elevators.

U.S. farmers officially began soybean planting, sowing about 8% of this year’s anticipated crop as of May 1, according to the USDA.

A Monsanto spokeswoman said the company has “regularly and transparently communicated” with farmers and grain companies about the soybeans’ regulatory status, and will respond to the grain groups’ concerns “as appropriate.”

Monsanto and DuPont Co., which has licensed the new herbicide-resistance genes from Monsanto for DuPont’s own soybeans, began marketing the new seeds to farmers this year under the assumption that the EU would have approved them by now.

Both companies are offering to replace the new soybean seeds with other versions that have been approved by global import authorities, according to their spokeswomen.

Hugh Grant, Monsanto’s chief executive, said last month on a conference call that the European Union’s review continued to drag on despite EU food-safety authorities signing off on the soybeans last June.

Soybeans are Monsanto’s second-biggest source of seed sales, generating about 15% of the company’s revenue in 2015.

“For that [EU] administrative process to follow on behind that would normally be months,” Mr. Grant said. “We’re sitting here in the spring of a new year still waiting, so an unusually slow delay even for Europe and very frustrating.”

Write to Jacob Bunge at jacob.bunge@wsj.com

 

 

Opinion

San Jose Mercury News

Panoche Valley solar project a bad deal for farmers, ranchers and wildlife

By Kim Williams and Kim Delfino

Farmers, conservationists and anyone else who values sustaining a healthy, vibrant community in San Benito County’s Panoche Valley have a common concern: the industrial-scale Panoche Valley Solar Project, which is owned by New York-based Con Edison and RET Capital.

This massive project could break ground as early as this week.

As California builds a sustainable, clean-energy economy, we must also continue our proud tradition of protecting our lands, wildlife and natural heritage. The Panoche Valley Solar Project is the antithesis of this approach.

Vigorously opposed by local, state and national organizations, the project would threaten our tight-knit farming community and destroy the last remaining intact habitat for several of California’s most endangered species, including the federally endangered San Joaquin kit fox, giant kangaroo rat and blunt-nosed leopard lizard.

The developer has already started attempts to move the kangaroo rat from the more than three square-mile site.

A conservationist and a local farmer, we share the goal of keeping this special place thriving.

One of us operates a flourishing, small, family-owned livestock farm, part of a growing agricultural community that provides the Monterey and San Francisco Bay areas with sustainably-grown food.

The other is proud to work with that farmer and with many local groups to maintain a healthy ecological community.

The farmers and ranchers of Panoche place great emphasis on being good stewards of this land, maintaining most of the valley floor as grassland with small pockets of vegetable, fruit and livestock farming. This protects space for wildlife, conserves water and protects the valley from decertification in times of drought.

But this land, and the groundwater that is essential to our agriculture and the survival of threatened wildlife, is under attack. The Panoche Valley project has received most of its state and federal permits to move forward, but we are fighting back, together.

Covering half of the valley floor, the project would exacerbate drought conditions at the worst possible time.

Panoche Valley contains San Joaquin Valley grassland habitat, which supports many rare birds and, for this reason, is designated an Important Bird Area of Global Priority by the Audubon Society. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified it as one of three core areas necessary for the survival and recovery of its endangered animals.

It has become even more important because the other two core areas have already been developed.

We both support solar and other forms of clean energy, and we want to be part of the solution to climate change in California and around the world. But protecting ecosystems like the Panoche Valley is part of that equation. Not only is the valley important for biodiversity and sustainable agriculture, it is also instrumental in removing greenhouse gases from the air and slowing climate change.

At least one endangered species, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard, will need this area as a future climate refuge as temperatures warm.

California has many other locations that would allow for sustainable, clean energy development, including others in our region, that are not as ecologically significant or vulnerable as this one. For example, there are hundreds of thousands of acres of degraded former agricultural lands in the San Joaquin Valley that environmental and agricultural groups have identified as “low conflict” areas suitable for solar.

Developing the Panoche Valley is not necessary for California to meet its clean energy goals, and protecting it is necessary to keep our air clean, produce food and provide valuable wildlife habitat for some of California’s most imperiled species.

Kim Williams owns and operates Your Family Farm in Panoche Valley. Kim Delfino is California Program Director of Defenders of Wildlife, Sacramento.