Roger Isom says he’s always up for a good challenge, but after the past several months as the new president and CEO of the California Cotton Ginners and Growers Association (CCGGA), Isom joked that he’s looking for the “rewind button.”
This was Isom’s first annual meeting as the new chief executive of the association he assumed after the retirement of long-time president and CEO Earl Williams. The meeting room at Harris Ranch near Coalinga, Calif. was filled with at least 300 grower members and industry representatives including Ag commissioners and extension farm advisors. Aside from the typical association reports common to meetings like this the formal meeting agenda included a panel discussion on water – or the distinct lack thereof.
Inside Isom’s notes that he would share in his president’s report was the news that California cotton acreage would likely plummet to 188,000 total acres this year if estimates hold that state and federal water officials will deliver on their promise of zero surface water for California agriculture. This is 100,000 acres less than last year’s harvested totals.
The last time California cotton acreage was that low was before the Great Depression.
“That’s our best-case scenario,” Isom said. “If the state holds true to its zero water allocation those numbers will go lower.”
Isom was referring to the optimistic estimate of 130,000 acres of Pima and 58,000 acres of Upland cotton that could be planted this season.
It’s all due to California’s epic drought.
Lint prices good
“What makes this so amazing is you look at the lint prices right now for Pima, plus the demand for California Upland and this is a great time to grow cotton,” Isom said.
Couple the good lint prices with the return to growers from whole cottonseed sales to dairies and cotton could remain profitable to California growers if irrigation water was available.
But it’s not. Hence Isom’s humored request for a mulligan.
While water remains the topic du jour in association meetings like this, it’s not just that which has Isom animated and concerned for the industry. Regulatory issues related to greenhouse gas emissions, worker safety and the ever-present threat of lawsuits by agriculture’s antagonists over a host of common practices keeps Isom and his staff busy.
“Anybody who’s been in California has to know the regulatory challenges we face are difficult,” Isom said.
For instance, Isom said worker safety and heat illness issues continue to be discussed by regulators and lawmakers in Sacramento, in spite of the monumental efforts growers have made over the years to increase worker access to water and shade.
“You’ve all had the training; you’ve all provided the shade and you provide the water,” Isom said. “The problem is that the United Farm Workers (UFW) and the California Rural Legal Assistance group want even tighter regulations. They’re not necessarily going after those who aren’t doing this already; they’re just trying to make it worse for everyone.”
Last fall Isom attended a meeting of the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, commonly known as CalOSHA. At the meeting officials were proposing farming operations have water within 10 feet of all workers and shade within 200 feet of all workers, plus the added restrictions on all work when temperatures reached 100 degrees, including the operation of a tractor or other motorized farm implement.
“I’m not making this stuff up,” Isom said. “It’s the kind of stuff they proposed in that hearing with a straight face.”
When agriculture pushed back hard on those recommendations and demanded data to prove that current practices were not working Isom said CalOSHA relaxed its recommendations somewhat but lowered the shade threshold to 80 degrees.
Through all of this, Isom said CalOSHA has not been able to show agriculture the data to demonstrate that current practices are insufficient or harmful to worker safety.
CalOSHA under suit
Isom said it was later learned in a private meeting with the California Department of Industrial Relations and the head of CalOSHA that the only reason the state is pushing this hard against agriculture is because of a lawsuit against the state by the UFW and the state’s overwhelming desire to settle the suit.
“They don’t have the money to fight it; they don’t want to fight it; they simply told us that we need to just do something so the state can settle the lawsuit,” Isom said.
The business portion of the meeting welcomed Tulare cotton grower Steve Wilbur as the new board chairman. Wilbur is a partner in SBS Ag and has farmed for more than 40 years. SBS Ag currently farms cotton, alfalfa, black-eye beans, corn, pistachios and wheat. Wilbur follows Los Banos cotton grower Cannon Michael as board chairman. In his departing remarks, Michael said he owed his success on the board to other board members such as Wilbur and to cotton industry leaders like Williams.
Wilbur is actively involved in a number of community organizations including Mid-Valley Cotton Growers, Inc., the International Agri-Center, the California Cotton Alliance, Cotton Incorporated and Tulare First Baptist Church.
He is a life-long Tulare resident and graduate of the College of Sequoias in Visalia.
In addition to Wilbur, the following were also elected to leadership positions on the CCGGA Board of Directors: Kings County grower Phil Hansen, first vice chairman; Kern County grower Bryan Bone, second vice chairman; and, Fresno County grower Gary Martin, secretary/treasurer.
A big draw for the meeting was the invitation to several key water officials, who each shared some of the issues behind agriculture’s zero allocation for surface water by state and federal regulators.
For her part, State Water Resources Control Board Chairperson Felicia Marcus was praised by Isom for her willingness to address such a large group of growers when her board is not all that popular with agriculture right now. Isom said Marcus is the only state water chair to ever visit cotton operations in the state.
Feast or famine
Gary Bardini, deputy director of the California Department of Water Resources repeated the same idea throughout his speech, saying California water officials are continually forced into “managing too much, too little while protecting the environment,” a phrase which he repeated several times throughout his speech.
It’s the environmental protection part that rubs growers raw because of allegations that officials refuse to account for the human condition and cost those decisions have. In their defense, officials cite federal law and the Endangered Species Act which codified environmental concerns as more important than human needs for water.
Pablo Arroyave, deputy regional director of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s Mid Pacific Region defended his boss’s absence from the meeting as necessary because he was accompanying Interior Secretary Sally Jewell on an extended tour of Delta pumping facilities at the time. Late March storms and significant political pressure led to increased pumping from those facilities in early April to San Luis Reservoir.
Arroyave defended high Delta outflows of water to the Pacific Ocean – a bone of contention with growers who argued that increased runoff from the few rain events this season should have been stored in San Luis Reservoir – as necessary to prevent salt-water intrusion at the pumps that move water to agricultural and urban users.
“Losing the salinity fight in the Delta is not an option,” he said.