Sunday, August 30, 2015

Patience on the Farm

Another busy week on the farm. We cut off water on the cotton. Now we wait for it to mature. 

Almonds are picked up and we started giving them some water. They are very thirsty. The last regular irrigation was July 15th. How would you feel if you hadn't had a decent drink in the summer heat since mid-July? Last year the almonds toasted. We are learning how to use the drip system. This year we gave them a couple of sips during harvest.

In the photos below you can see how much the almonds we planted in January have grown. All we had were sticks and eight months later here you go. The fact that I have two wait two more years before we harvest our first crop reminded me of a radio piece I did years ago.

Patience on the Farm
By Paul H. Betancourt
Copyright September, 2011

I’ll tell you a family secret, I am notoriously impatient. When it comes to making salsa, mine is always chunky. I don’t have the patience to carefully mince everything. But, there are other kinds of patience.
                  Most people think in terms of the work week. That is an industrial model, we think of the work before us this week. That makes sense when you work in industry or in an office. On the farm we think in terms of seasons. Sure, I lay out each week’s work for myself and the men who work for me; but, our real time frame is the year long season.
                  Last year was a bad year on the farm. Crops were a bust and prices were not that good. Last February my daughter asked me when I would know how this year was going to turn out. I told her, “November.” We won’t really know until the last bale of cotton is picked. Sure, the wheat was fabulous and prices are high. The almonds look good and corn prices are near historic highs. The cotton look good, but I have seen that before. Experience tells me I need to be patient. We won’t really know until the last bale of cotton is picked, ginned and shipped.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Even Apple Gets It

Back from vacation.
Over jet lag...finally.

The guys did a great job. Everything is fine on the farm.....except the bugs will not die. Arrrgh.

One of the things I read on vacation was Isaacson's biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs. Did you know Apple has 7000,000 employees in China? 30,000 are engineers. Can you imagine what it would do for California's economy if only half of those jobs were here in the state. Jobs argued with President Obama that there are too many regulations for manufacturers to produce here in the US. Even Apple gets it. It is not just farmers complaining about over-regulation.
    Unlike Apple farmers cannot just move their operations overseas. We are kind of attached to their land. The answer isn't moving anyways. We need safe and sane rules, not this silliness we have now.

Farmers and Paperwork
By Paul H. Betancourt
Copyright August, 2011

            It is no secret that farmers hate paperwork. Do you know why? Because we make our living growing things, not filling out forms.

            Have you noticed we have this huge cadre of intelligent, educated people in this country whose job is to regulate the producers. I understand that we have to have regulations. But, do you see my point, we have some of our brightest and best who spend their days not helping us be productive, but actually slowing us down from what we do best- produce food and fiber for the rest of you.

            My favorite example was when I called to find a poster the state wanted me to post at our work site. The guy who answered the phone didn’t have one, couldn’t mail me one, but he wanted me to shut down the farm until we had his form posted. Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?

            I know we need regulations. But filling out forms is not an end in itself. Let me and my neighbors do what we do best – grow food.

Isn’t It Ironic?
By Paul H. Betancourt
Copyright January 2013
                  Isn’t it ironic? Everyone says they support family farms, but environmental and government policy are squeezing out family farmers.
            I make my living producing food and fiber, not going to meetings or filling out forms. But, thanks to government agencies and our environmental friends I get to spend time doing both when I should be out in the field or the shop.
            Large farms can afford to hire environmental compliance officers. I have a friend that does that for a large operation south of here. It works pretty well for them. He takes care of the environmental paperwork, and it is a full time job. But, he works for the same kind of large farming operation everyone says we want to avoid.  

            I am not saying that these things are bad. What I am trying to say is that some of our government regulations and some of our environmental friends are making it harder and harder for family farms to survive. Just keeping the farm going can take everything you’ve got. Adding new stuff to make paper pushers happy can push smaller farmers over the edge. The land will still be farmed- but now it will be by larger operations. Isn’t that ironic?

In case you are wondering- the photo is of me in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. 

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Water Law 101

Another busy week on the farm: Almonds are down on the ground and melons are coming up out of the ground. We are starting to cut off water in the onions. The sheep are moving off the wheat ground so it is time to break out the tractors and work some ground.
After last week's brouhaha over the State fining a Northern California water district I thought I would dust off an old op-ed I did on water law. My water lawyer friends said it could not be done. Water law was too complex to boil down to one page. Well California water law is dizzyingly complex. But, here are the basic pieces. Please note the original publishing date. Apparently Solomon was right three thousand years ago- there is nothing new under the sun.

Water Law 101
By Paul H. Betancourt
Copyright August 30, 1999

            Mark Twain was right when he said, “Whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.” Today’s Californians might prefer a glass of wine, a beer or some healthy sports drink, but we still fight over water. In fact the details of the legal battles since Twain drank his last whisky fills libraries.
            In that mass of legal minutiae are the key principles that shape water law in California. Tracing these principles can help us make sense of what often seem to defy logic.
1850-The California Constitution

The section of the California that deals with water law was last updates in 1976. However the roots go back to the original Constitution of 1850. There are two key points here-

-water users are required to exercise, “Reasonable and beneficial use…in the interest of the people and for the public welfare” (Art. X Sec. 2).
-all water is, “subject to the regulation and control of the
         State” (Art. X Sec. 5).

These two principles are the foundation of water law in California.

1887- The Wright Act

In the 1800s there were numerous lawsuits involving water. Many of these suits revolved around the famous Miller and Lux Land and Cattle Company. Many bills also passed the California Legislature. One of the most important of these bills was the Wright Act of 1887. Named after Modesto attorney-turned legislator C.C. Wright, the Act’s main points were:

-the establishment of public irrigation districts superseded the private districts that had begun to spring up.

-water rights were bound to the land to be irrigated.

-irrigation was defined as a ‘public use.’

1902-U. S. Reclamation Act

The grand-daddy of Federal water law is the 1902 Reclamation Act. In his Autobiography Theodore Roosevelt, the President who signed the Act into law, clearly states the intent of the law was, “reclaiming the vast areas of the arid West by irrigating otherwise useless land, the creating new homes upon the land.”
            It may be hard for us to visualize what the country was like before these Reclamation projects. It is even harder to imagine what the West would be like today if it were not for these projects. Can you imagine the Central Valley without irrigation? It is not just the Valley, LA and San Francisco would not exist in their current form either.
            Whatever criticisms of Reclamation projects there are today, we must remember it was a different age. Their decisions changed the face of the West which they saw as a vast, barren wasteland. Reclamation law has been highly successful in achieving its intent- the West if fertile and inhabited because of irrigation projects.
            The original 1902 Reclamation Law has been updated by Congressional reform in 1982 and in California, in 1992 by the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

1937- Central Valley Project (CVP)

The CVP was authorized under the River and Harbors Act of 1937. Today it stretches from Shasta Dam in the North to Bakersfield in the south. The project includes 23 dams and reservoirs, hundreds of miles of canals which supply 7 million acres feet to 2.8 million acres as well as providing some water to cities in California’s great Central Valley.

1959- The Burns-Porter Water Act

            In 1960 California voters ratified a $1.75 billion bond to create the State Water Project. A distribution system that could handle the projected needs for the next 60 years was created and storage capacities for the next thirty years was also created. Additional storage was scheduled to be built in an orderly fashion as the need arose.
            Subsequent case law and the beginning of environmental legislation such as the Federal Clean Water Act have had their impact on water law in California.

            May water law attorney friends will be calling after this is published to remind me how inadequate 750 words are to describe the libraries full of water lass and the resulting case law decisions and they are right, in a sense. However, these are some of the basic building blocks of California’s water law.

            Governor Edmund G. “Pat” Brown said, “as long as California continues to grow and develop, each generation will face and must resolve a new set of water problems. At intervals of about 30 years, the dynamic of the state’s development has demanded new appraisals of recently created water needs. Renewed action to meet those needs [is] essential.”

            Until someone wins a Nobel Prize for developing low energy desalinization so we can tap in to the vast Pacific Ocean, we will continue to fight the water wars. It is important for all the players and the public to understand the ground rules as clearly as possible.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

My Farm. My Family and the Drought

Hi there. Sorry I missed last week. It's been a little busy around here. 
   The cantaloupes are planted. The almonds have started to go on the ground. We are spoon feeding the cotton a little fertilizer. The solar system for the house is up and running. One more week of summer school. Go, go, go. 
I am working on a photo book of Kerman history. This is a 1908 steam driven tractor. We've come a long way baby. Where do you connect the GPS on this thing?

By the way, one neighbor noticed a surprise in his property tax bill. He put in a drip system and the tax man raised his property value then raised his taxes. 
   So, let me get this straight- they cut off our water, they beg us to put in drip systems and then they tax us for doing it? Can you at least see why we get a little frustrated?

I was asked by a local daily paper to write a piece on how the drought is affecting our farm. I thought I would share it with you-

My Farm, My Family and the Drought
By Paul H. Betancourt
Copyright July 2015

The roots of our family’s farm go back over one hundred years. Sheryl’s great grandfather came over from Switzerland in 1880. After working as a hired hand in different places around California, he and his family settled in Kerman in 1912. Sheryl’s grandfather farmed fifty acres of cotton and hay. Today we farm 765 acres. This year’s crop includes Pima cotton, wheat, almonds, cantaloupes and onions.

The most common question I have heard over the last year is some variation of, “How are you doing with the drought?” I usually make some crack about, ‘No water? No problems.’ But, it is a problem.

Last year we had to put $40,000 into fixing wells and installed a $112,000 drip system in our orchard. This year we put another $35,000 into fixing a well. Some day I would like to be out of debt. I hear that is nice. In addition to those costs, each year I have had to pay over $40,000 in taxes to support the water district bureaucracy that gives me no water.

Last year the state passed groundwater regulations. They cut off the surface water then find out, “You have a groundwater problem.” I want to jump up and down and yell, “That is why we put the surface water systems in years ago.” My point is not to pick a fight over last year’s groundwater bill. My point is that groundwater is our reserve system. As a farmer we have the wells as a back up system. The first five years I farmed we never turned the wells on. Then we used them during the 1986-93 drought. Then we turned them off. Surface water is higher quality water.
            In addition to the quantity issue, surface water is higher quality than ground water. Groundwater has more salt than the surface water. I cannot tell you how much we would rather not use the wells. They are only for emergency backup.

Drip systems are precise, but they are not simple. They take a lot of management. Instead of having someone in the field once every week or two when we would irrigate the old fashioned way, we have to have someone in the field every day check lines. If the lines are above ground coyotes can chew on them. If they are underground they can pop apart.

            We had all our wells tested last winter. If we are going to have problems I would rather have problems in January than July. We cannot test the well Grandpa put in seventy years ago because of the condition of the well casing. So I am on pins and needles about that one. The others are fine. In fact, one well has come up sixty feet in the last five years. That was a surprise. The only explanation that makes sense is that so much ground has been fallowed that it has allowed the aquifer to re-charge. This does confirm the idea behind last year’s groundwater legislation that there might be a sustainable level of groundwater use. Of course, I will be on pins and needles about that too.


            When I started farmer 34 years ago there were two welding shops within ten minutes of our ranch. The first one closed down a few years ago. The second one closed down last month. There isn’t enough business to keep them open. It may not mean much to you and it isn’t the end of the world for me. But, it is an indicator that the vendors and suppliers I rely on are slowly fading away.

How the Drought Affects My Future

We are looking at how to change our crop mix. I have grown Pima cotton and wheat in rotation. It is a great rotation. I can water wheat in the winter and cotton in the summer. Rotating with wheat has increased my yields over half a bale per acre. But, wheat is probably not the best bang for the gallon of water. We are growing onions for the first time this year. But, there are two problems with fresh market produce. The markets are volatile and they use water in the summer. My wells have only so much capacity. I could not replace my wheat with vegetables without some surface water to use at the peak of summer. It is a complicated equation.

Without a reliable water supply how can I make decisions about the future? Why should I invest in a drip system that costs over a thousand dollars an acre if I will not have water to run through the drip system? Why should I invest in a new well for the dry years, if the state will not let me turn it on? I have to make decisions now that will take years to implement. The wrong decision now and I could be hung out to dry.

So, how are we doing during this drought? We did ok last year. This year looks ok, so far. Next year?