Farmer-politician Bill Jones talks water, Westside

Farmer-politician Bill Jones talks water, Westside

Westside growers Bill Jones and Darcy Villere of Firebaugh, Calif. focus on new permanent crop plantings as to improve the family farm and offset the effects of zero percent surface water allocations. About 1,400 acres of J&J Farms' 4,000 acres are fallowed due to drought. New plantings include pomegranates, almonds, pistachios, and wine grapes.  

Today, Westside growers Bill Jones and his nephew Darcy Villere are focused on survival tactics including new permanent crop plantings to improve the family farm and offset the effects of zero percent surface water allocations this drought year in the Westlands Water District (WWD).

Founded in 1949, J&J Farms LLC is located in Firebaugh in western Fresno County and includes about 4,000 owned and leased acres. The crop mix includes pomegranates, tomatoes, Pima cotton, safflower, wheat, alfalfa, almonds, pistachios, and red and white varietal wine grapes.

About 1,400 acres of J&J Farms are currently fallowed, including about 600 acres with drip irrigation.

Jones, a second-generation grower, is no stranger to the state’s agricultural industry or to California politics.

“I was busy in California politics for quite a while,” reflects the former California politician who served two decades 20 years in public service.

As a Republican, Jones served as a member of the State Assembly for 12 years (1983-1994), including the Republican leader in 1992.

Perhaps Jones’ most memorable legislative mark while an Assemblyman was the author of Proposition 184 – California’s three-strike law - which was later scaled back by Proposition 36.

Secretary of State

The farmer-politician served as California’s 27th Secretary of State for two consecutive terms (1994-2003). Over his two decades in California politics, Jones served four California governors and four U.S. presidents.

The political leader came up short twice in more recent political contests – including a Republican bid for governor in 2002, and a 2006 U.S. Senate challenge against incumbent Barbara Boxer.

Today, Jones is not only a farmer but the Chairman of the Board for Pacific Ethanol, a company he co-founded in 2006. Two of the company’s ethanol production facilities are located in California - Madera and Stockton, plus two out-of-state facilities in Boardman, Ore. and Burley, Idaho.

Jones was born in Coalinga, Calif. and earned his Bachelor’s degree in plant sciences and agribusiness from California State University, Fresno in 1971.

With politics in the rear mirror for nearly a decade, would Jones prefer to be a farmer or a politician?

“I don’t think my wife Maurine and I miss the politics as much as the people,” Jones shared. “We miss the people a lot after serving in statewide offices. Over the years, we made a lot of friends across California.”

Historic mark

J&J Farms was founded in 1949 by Bill’s parents - father C.W. “Bill” Jones and mother Cora Visman Jones. C.W. was involved in water issues when the federal water projects were constructed to bring water to the Westside. He served as the first president of the San Luis Delta Mendota Water Users Authority.

C.W. worked on the California State Water Commission under Ronald Reagan as the projects were built. When he passed in 2003, the federal pumps at Tracy were named after C.W. by an act of Congress.

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The Jones’ family’s first crops were mostly cotton and cereal grains. Tomatoes were added to the mix in the 1970’s.

Their three children – Bill, Ron, and Sue (Darcy’s mother) – operate the family farm today where Bill serves as manager. Five family members have managed J&J over the years. Some employees have been with the farm for decades.

Crop shift

The first phase of permanent crop development was pomegranates (Wonderful and Sweetheart varieties) planted from 2008-2012. The second phase last year included 75 acres of Rubired wine grapes planted on Villere’s watch as the farm’s director of planning and research.

This spring, 75 acre blocks of Chardonnay wine grapes were added to the permanent crop mix, plus about 80 acres of Nonpareil and Wood Colony almonds and 140 acres of Golden Hills and Randy variety pistachios.

“Darcy has done a fine job moving our operation into the future with permanent crops, along with Ron Jones and Gary Davis and his team” Jones said.

The second shift to permanent crops was largely based on major surface water cutbacks in recent years on the Westside. While most growers in Westlands have wells, J&J Farm’s first well will come online this fall.

Talking water

Turning to water, the Westlands Water District this year started out with a 10 percent water allocation estimate and then moved to zero allocation before the water year began.

Other delivery rates in recent years include: 2013 – originally estimated at about 35 percent and then reduced to 20 percent; 2012 – 40 percent; 2011 – 80 percent; 2010 – 45 percent; 2009 – 10 percent; and a full 100 percent allocation in 2008.

“The water districts have done an amazing job under very difficult situations,” Jones said. “Anyone attempting to create a three-year crop map in this environment has a real challenge.”

The long-range farm plan is to have a diverse crop mix – having enough ground in subsurface drip to take advantage of high allocations years, yet enough flexibility to keep permanent crops alive without having to pay extreme water costs in low allocation years.

There is no plan to move to 100 percent permanent crops.  

Jones added, “We enjoy farming especially with the next generation (Villere) coming along who wants to continue the family operation. The idea is to make crop changes to keep the farm in business and in the family.”

Top challenge

Jones has been around the block a few times on the controversial water issue – both as a farmer and politician.

“Water is the biggest challenge, although it’s always challenging in California with the increased regulatory environment and the higher taxes we have,” Jones said.

Water has progressively grown to be a larger issue, he explains, as droughts in the Golden State become more prolonged in length and closer in occurrence; coupled with increased regulatory burdens brought on by state and federal governments.

Villere added, “Different political interests want to do different things with water. Everyone is fighting over the same bucket of water which makes the issue even harder.”

Jones recalled President Obama’s visit to the Westside earlier this year and other parts of the San Joaquin Valley to witness the first-hand effects of this year’s drought.

“I remember when President Kennedy flew over our ranch during his trip to dedicate the San Luis Reservoir more than 50 years ago.

Sitting behind the same desk his father sat behind decades before, Jones added, “The problem then, as now, is getting people to join together on the water issue.”

The water issue in California, while always contentious, is probably an issue that only the governor can provide the necessary leadership to accomplish comprehensive water policy.

Jones on water bond

Farm Press’ visited with Jones and Villere in mid-July – before the legislature and Governor Brown reached a compromise on a $7.5 billion water bond that Californians will weigh as they go to the ballot box on Nov. 2.

Jones said, “Bringing all parties together to force a water compromise and to provide the vision and leadership necessary to achieve long range solutions requires the governor’s focus and attention, along with the cooperation of the legislature.”

In a follow-up question after the water bond approval, Jones responded favorably to the mid-August agreement which will be weighed by California voters entering the voting booth Nov. 2. 

“The agreement is a good effort but we need additional money for water storage,” Jones said. “This should be a priority over other bond requirements in the years to come.”

The key question now, Jones emphasized, is how fast can new reservoirs be built. Planning has been underway on these projects for years. He urged California agriculturists to work hard to inform voters on agriculture’s need for bond passage.

He calls the fight for California water a “growth or no growth” issue where extreme environmentalists want to limit growth and inhibit any increases in water storage to accomplish this goal.

“There has to be a compromise on the environment versus the economy,” the former lawmaker said. “It is possible to do both if good science is used to set realistic standards for fish and the environment.”

Government manufactured

Jones calls the current drought “government manufactured” since the current operations of the Jones Pumps are based on poor science developed by the federal government.

He hopes current discussions in Washington, DC can provide additional flexibility during drier periods.

“I am suggesting that this water problem is not a water district problem, but rather a statewide lack of leadership that has kept us from using the waters of the state appropriately.”

According to the WWD, up to 815,000 acre feet of water should have been captured during the 2012-2013 winter – when instead it flowed out to the ocean - which might have helped mitigate some of this year’s drought.

“Mistakes like this are dramatic when you consider that many reservoirs could be empty next year.”

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