San Joaquin Valley wine grapes
California farmer Don Cameron has been flooding his wine grapes since 1982 as a long-term project to replenish the aquifer under his farm.

Kawamura, Cameron: Regulations threaten California agriculture's sustainability

Farmers say regulatory challenges becoming too difficult to overcome

Two California growers with ties to the state’s main agricultural agency say farming practices in America’s highest grossing farm state will change – how much so and to what extent depends largely, but not solely, on regulatory challenges foisted on farmers.

Don Cameron and A.G. Kawamura farm in completely different areas of the state with different microclimate concerns, but similar marketing issues and under regulatory challenges shared by all farmers across the Golden State.

They also share the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) on their resumes as Cameron is on the current board and Kawamura served as secretary for the agency under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Terra Nova Ranch

Cameron is a first-generation grower with roots in Redding, Calif. who fished as a kid in the Sacramento River. Today, he manages about 25 crops grown across 7,000 acres of farmland in western Fresno County.

Restrictive regulations and dozens of different agencies affecting his cropping decisions continue to make him less of a farmer and more of a water manager, human resources expert, and record keeper - a few of his daily tasks.

“We know we’re going to have more regulations as we go forward; that’s a given,” Cameron says. “We know that the California Legislature will pretty much tell us what to farm and how to farm it.”

Water has long been an issue for Cameron who learned decades ago that water from wells on his farm were insufficient at times to grow all his crops. Long before the recent drought caused California lawmakers to pass the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), which regulates how much water farmers can pump from underground, Cameron tried to provide a sustainable balance to his aquifers by flooding farmland from the Kings River.

First it was grapes in the early 1980s and more recently he began flooding almonds, pistachios and olives – not only to irrigate them, but to recharge the groundwater in his region.

“We started groundwater recharge a long time ago because we knew our water table was dropping and at some point we’d run out of water,” he said.

He is now embarked on a progressive project to use Kings River flood flows to recharge his region. Though the project has been green-lighted by the appropriate agencies the permitting process continues to slow project completion.

Cameron figures that once SGMA is fully implemented with its pumping restrictions and wells metered he will be forced to idle some of his land as the law requires regions to sustainably manage their groundwater resources.

He won’t be the only one as farmers across the state will face pumping restrictions.

“I’ve talked to some growers in Kern County and they talk about idling 25-30 percent of their ground because of SGMA,” he continued. “I think you’re going to see a shift in what’s grown.”

Cameron believes popular high-value crops like almonds will likely continue, though he doesn’t believe the rapid acceleration of acreage seen in recent years can be sustained under the state’s water restrictions and supply.

Orange County Produce

Kawamura is a family partner in Orange County Produce, an Irvine, Calif.-based company that direct ships produce grown on current and former military installations, and on land as small as three acres close to upscale apartment complexes and major freeways.

Kawamura is a former CDFA secretary and grandson of a farmer forced off his southern California land and into a Japanese internment camp in Arizona during World War II.

The only reason the family did not lose its farm at the time was because Kawamura’s grandfather was able to give his farm to his local banker, a trusted businessman who once the war was over returned the farm to the family.

Like Cameron, Kawamura believes water availability will be the largest driver in the success of farming in the state. Aside from the available unpaved space to farm in Orange County, water is the single-most important factor in his choice of land. By itself, picking land can be as easy as spotting open parcels with ample weeds.

“I know if the weeds are doing well there then the soil is good enough to grow crops,” he says.

Kawamura primarily farms organic and conventional strawberries and fresh market green beans on about 1,000 acres in the southland. In some cases, his decision to farm certified organic crops has more to do with local ordinances and neighborhood perceptions than it does pure business decisions.

SGMA

While perhaps necessary to protect groundwater resources, SGMA is a hurdle that Kawamura says can put a farmer out of business.

“SGMA without a rudder of where we’re heading as a nation or a state is more than troubling - it’s disturbing,” Kawamura says.

“We need to have a dialog over the idea that California rules and regulations are designed to impede agriculture, shut it down, or even eliminate certain kinds of agriculture based on land use or value,” he continued.

For Cameron, the necessity of preserving aquifers should be considered in concert with the state's abilities to produce food and fiber. For instance, he once looked at food produced on his farm and discovered that it could sustain the caloric needs of 200,000 people.

“It’s kind of fun to put it in those terms because people will think you’re eliminating 25 percent of your land to save water. It really means you’re cutting out food to feed a lot of people,” Cameron said.

No agricultural policy?

While California has a “California Agricultural Vision” document to set a purpose, vision and goals for the state's multi-billion farming industry it might be a moot point, according to Kawamura.

“It’s as if agriculture is unwanted in this state by the current administration and even more by this legislature,” the former Ag Secretary says.

Over the years, Kawamura has considered different things that could put him out of business. Water constraints, quarantines, export and trade sanctions, fuel prices and labor shutdowns can have the same net effect on his business, yet at least some can be mitigated with careful policy that promotes business and farming in a state that celebrates the foodie movement and locally-grown produce.

For instance, he once farmed certified organic strawberries in a field wrought with disease that conventional treatments could help. Due in large part to the regulated loss of methyl bromide plus concerns from neighbors about conventional farming practices he lost the field to disease within months.

Another example he calls a “microcosm of California business practices. Kawamura was caught in a political battle between a particular city which he says has anti-business and anti-agriculture views and the property owner who leased it to him to grow produce.

“It was pretty ugly,” he said. “They were basically trying to extort money out of a developer and we just happened to be the tenant on the property.”

The future of California agriculture?

Both farmers agree that changes in the state's political climate do not bode well for California agriculture's sustainability, though neither is completely bearish about California agriculture.

Both talk about the impact of labor access and costs on farming. The hourly rate Kawamura must pay workers in his fields is close to the daily rate for workers 90 miles south of him in Mexico.

For Cameron, staying in business now is a matter of choosing profitable crops with a contract before planting. In some cases he leases land to companies testing seed varieties in his climate.

Kawamura remains “nimble” - always looking for opportunities to grow crops on parcels that will probably be developed in a few years. 

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