Saturday, July 26, 2014

The World Needs MORE Irrigation

The World Needs Irrigation
By Paul H. Betancourt
Copyright May 2012

                  At a recent regional economic summit, Dr. Robert Whample from Fresno State said, 50% of our food is grown on 16%of the land-the irrigated land. Did you catch that? The majority of our food is grown on the minority of our land!
            As a farmer I have enough trouble with bugs, weeds and weather as variables. Irrigation allows me control in an important variable-water. For example- irrigating my wheat I can average over 3 ½ tons per acre. When neighbors try to grow dryland wheat, their yields don’t come even close to a ton per acre-in wet years. Yields get worse in dry years. So, it’s not surprising we grow 50% of our food on 16% of our acres. Irrigation works.
Irrigation is criticized by the environmental community. While I understand their concerns, the fact is we need more irrigation, not less. We have more people and less farm land every year. We now have over 7 billion people on the planet and projections have us getting to 9 billion before numbers level off.  We need to make each acre of land more productive not less productive. The world needs irrigation. The world needs what we do here in the Valley.

California Forward Regional Economic Summit
Fresno, California

March 29, 2012

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Making A Poor Region---Poorer

This week's excitement included planting cantaloupes. We rented the field behind the house to a neighbor who grows melons. We used to plant melons by seed. Daniel transplanted seedlings. Amazing. This will shorten up the season a few weeks. So, in September we should be enjoying fresh cantaloupes and there is nothing like sweet, field fresh and sun warmed cantaloupes. Mmmmm. Sheryl is already getting excited just thinking about it.
Elsewhere on the farm, we have already started shaking almonds. That is ten days ahead of last year and last year we were a week ahead of normal. Crazy times. Quality looks good so far. We will see what yields look like next week when they pick them up.

I don't know if this will come out right, but I have been thinking of this for some time.

Making a Poor Region---Poorer
By Paul H. Betancourt
Copyright July 2014

            Every so often we read an article about our Valley being the Appalachia of the West, or like a third world country. What is ironic is that our government seems intent  on making a poor region poorer.

            Farm regions generally struggle with seasonal income and weather dependent income makes it hard to build wealth for farmers and for farm regions. What is gained in one season can easily be lost in the next season.

            What is ironic in all this is how, instead of helping, our government seems intent on making a poor region poorer. Instead of creating a secure water supply, they are slowly strangling it. On top of that they bleed farmers with environmental fees and other regulatory costs. Again making a poor region poorer.
            I talked with one regulator who was so happy that farmers were paying over a million dollars a year in fees for their water programs. We are all for clean air and water. But, look carefully at what happened- over a million dollars a year was taken out of our economy and used to pay for bureaucrats in Sacramento. We are enriching Sacramento and making our area poorer. Of course, this is all done with the best of intentions.
            If they are not going to help, fine. But, at least take a page from Hippocrates- “first do no harm.” I don’t expect the government to solve my problems and I surely don’t expect them to add to my problems.
            One of the points I try to make in my book, “Ten Reasons: Finding Balance on Environmental Issues” is that we must find ways to create a healthy environment and a healthy economy. All the government programs in the world cannot out perform a healthy economy. We do not need politicians flying in holding a press conference, dropping tax dollars and flying off.

            I guess what I am saying is, I wish the folks in Sacramento and DC would take a look at the bigger picture and see how what they are doing really is making a poorer region poorer. I don’t think that is there plan, but there is a famous saying about the road to hell being paved with good intentions.

I hope you all have a great week. Be careful, it's kind of warm out there.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Is California A Failed State?

Is California a Failed State?

            In my American Government class the other day we were discussing foreign policy. One of the concepts we discuss is ‘failed states.’ A failed state is one the cannot provide basic goods and services to its people. In extreme cases failed states lose control of their territory and lawless groups can operate freely within the failed state’s borders.
            Less extreme is when a state starts failing. The early indicators of a failed state is that it cannot provide basic services to its people. Now we are getting back to California.
            Is California a failed, or failing state? We have been talking about the drought for the past six months. We know farmers are struggling and tens of thousands of acres have been fallowed. We are starting to see more cases of failing water supplies in urban areas. A Madera community made national news this week as their water supply failed. My students from Madera are mad because families are told to stop irrigating their yards, but the city and county landscaping is still getting watered. Stories like this are coming in from all over the state.
            In the modern world, one of the responsibilities of government is to provide a safe and reliable water supply. California does not seem to be able to do that one simple thing. Don’t blame the drought. I have quoted before and I will quote again Dr. Amartya Sen, winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize in Economics, ““droughts may not be avoidable, but their affects can be”. Dr. Sen won his Nobel by proving governments cause famines. Government policy is powerful stuff.

            Back to the question- Is California a failing state? There is more than water in question. Our roads are falling apart. Our school systems are struggling. Our prison system is stressed out. The cost of living stretches many families. What do you think?

            I love California. It is more than home. California is a special place. I have been fortunate enough to have done a little travelling. I have seen no other place in the world with the amazing diversity of natural wonders or opportunities as California. I would like to think California’s best days are still ahead, but not if we keep going down the road that dries up our water. We must demand more from our political leaders than more taxes and less public services. We must find a way to balance our prosperity and cares for the environment. Strangling our economy and piling on taxes is not the way to go.

What do you think?

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Death of a Family Farm?

The Death of A Family Farm?
By Paul H. Betancourt
Copyright June 2014

In the 1880’s Frank Xavier Von Flue came to America from central Switzerland. As the second born son of a small farm family he had no future in the depressed economy of that time. For thirty years he worked milking cows or as a farm hand in the Sacramento foothills, the Santa Clara Valley and San Luis Obispo area. In 1912 he, his wife, Lulu,  and their four sons were homesteading out between Firebaugh and Los Banos. By 1916 they had settled outside Kerman.
            Their son Wes graduated Kerman High School in 1923, start farming and raising a family with his wife Helen. Wes rotated cotton and alfalfa for hay. He also trucked hay all over the area.
            Wes and Helen’s sons, Walt and Ralph started farming together in the early 1970’s. Some of their grandchildren continue to farm. I married into the family and started farming in 1981. But, in 2020 the string may be broken. Not by global competition, bad weather or bad management, but by bad government regulation. Cutting off water, raising the cost of doing business and the final straw will be the requirement to buy all new tractors for the farm by 2020. That will be a capital cost that is un-survivable.
The first irony is the government will do what Nature couldn’t and kill off a family farm that has lasted generations. The next irony is the land will probably still be farmed. Now it will be farmed by a large operation. So, while we say we want to protect small farmers, our policies are driving small farmers out. And finally, who benefits economically? Tractor manufacturers in other states and other countries will reap billions of dollars from our economy. So, once again, in the name of the environment we will further impoverish an already poor region.

Farmers are the original recyclers. We reduce, recycle and reuse everything we can. We have to. The margins in farming are often very thin. I have tractors that are forty years old. Replacing my older equipment with new tractors and harvesters will cost around a million dollars. We have a small operation. Our annual gross income is around a million dollars a year. What business can survive a capital replacement like that? How would non-farm families react if they were told they had to make a purchase equal to their annual income?
We have survived bugs, weeds, drought and flood over the decades. I cannot see how we survive this one.

Air advocates have a program where the Air District covers a portion of the capital cost of new tractors. It maxes out at about 35% of the capital cost. That still doesn’t answer the question- why am I being forced to replace equipment that gets that is already working? I have equipment that works and is already paid for.

If you answer air quality, that opens a few other questions.

First, when are we going to admit that air quality is getting better in the Valley? We have more people driving more miles every year and the air is measurably better. But, you would know that from the news.
Second, the common number is that cars and trucks create something on the order of 70% of the air pollution. If that is true, why are we balancing the equation on the backs of the farmers?

 For the record, I have started converting our tractors. We bought a small orchard tractor last winter through the Air District program. But, I don’t see how I can replace every thing by 2020 and survive. Some day I would like to be out of debt. I hear that is nice.
I am not asking for permission to pollute.  Our equipment is well maintained and cared for. Remember, we make our living with these tractors.

There is a very simple solution to the tractor problem. Just grandfather in all the old tractors. I get it. We all want clean air. But, they don’t make you sell your old car do they? No, they just crank up the requirements on new cars. As we buy new cars the older cars are taken out of the fleet and the air gets progressively cleaner. Why not do the same with our tractors?

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Some Random Thoughts-Heat, Fertilizer and Lettuce Seed

We are gearing up for a warm week. The weatherman says it's going to get hot, a little too hot for this farmer.
    When I first got up here people would say things like, 'the heat makes the cotton grow.' Well find find out the cotton plants are kind of like me- they shut down when it gets warmer than 95 degrees. [That's about 36C for those of you who are reading this overseas.] Cotton does like warm weather, but it is the warm nights, not the hot afternoons. The cotton plants physiologically shut down when it gets over 95F. The stoma on the leaves close off to keep moisture in the plants. You can see them drooping in the late afternoon. When it cools back down they open again.

This week we will be starting the second round of water on the cotton. Our petiole samples show the cotton is a little low on nitrogen so we will be applying some more fertilizer.
   Some folks are getting worked up about fertilizer use. I know there are groundwater issues in some areas. There is a simple solution- take a soil or plant sample before applying fertilizer. The cost of fertilizers is so high now that if all I save is one ton of fertilizer I have paid for my sampling for the season. 

Things are moving right along. Bloom in the cotton is about two weeks ahead of normal. Hull split in the almonds is also about two weeks ahead of normal.

The photo above is not from a Rothko painting. It is a lettuce field near Tranquillity. This is actually a lettuce seed field. They will let the plants bolt and produce seed. Lettuce seed is so fine it is almost like dust. Those seeds will be planted to grow lettuce for your salads soon. It is an amazing process.
   The whole food system is amazing. I have long thought someone could create a TV series on how out food is produced. The innovations of the last century have freed so many from the farm. It has also made our work on the farm so much easier.
   Farming is still hard work. But, when I think of complaining I remember a letter one of Sheryl's great grandfathers wrote about riding his horse to w job site, hooking up a Fresno Scraper and leveling land by hand and horse all day. Somehow, my work doesn't seem so hard after all.

Be careful out there. Remember to stay hydrated. It is summer time.


Sunday, June 22, 2014

There May Be Hope in This Drought

I was down in San Diego for my nephew's graduation this past weekend. I had heard our Southern California neighbors were unaware of the drought. I was pleasantly surprised to find at least some awareness of how serious our water situation is.

Some of Mom's neighbors are taking extreme measures and completely abandoning their lawns. Years ago many converted to low water use yards.

(In this picture the lawn in farthest yard has been cut off. The yard in the front has been beautifully re-done.)

There was report on the San Diego news last night about a family in Madera Ranchos and the problems they are having with people stealing their water. The reporters used the story to remind everyone about how serious the drought really is.
   Today's an Diego Union had a report that mentioned pre-1914 water rights. That is getting pretty deep into the policy weeds.

I was asked last winter if I thought this drought would bring any real and lasting change. I said, this may be cruel, but there won't be any change until more people are hurt. We are not going to get any real and lasting change while the whole problem is balanced on the necks of the farmers.

So, the drought is bad.
How bad is it?
It is so bad even our neighbors in Southern California are paying attention. Ba Dump Bump.

It has not always been that way. During the 1986-1993 drought there were immediate changes Northern California residential water users. In the last year of the drought there was a request of Southern Californians for a voluntary 10% cut back and they protested like it was the end of the world. By that point we were down to 25% allotments on our farm.

So, the drought is bad.
How bad is it?
It is so bad even our neighbors in Southern California are starting to pay attention. And, that is a good thing because we really are all in this together. We are not going to get good solutions from our politicians as long as we are divided.

I hope you all have a great week.