The California Farm Bureau Federation wants to see “partnerships for restoration” with governmental agencies supporting both commercially viable agriculture and habitat for endangered species, according to CFBF managing counsel, Brenda Jahns Southwick.
These, she said, would preserve farmland as a valuable resource, not only for production of food and fiber but as a preferred wildlife habitat based on the natural movement of animals, without human manipulation of the environment.
During her talk during the recent 22nd Annual Agribusiness Management Conference in Fresno, Southwick said her 95,000-member, Sacramento-based organization identifies closely with environmental concerns.
California farmers and ranchers, as they struggle with “a litany of laws” to stay in business, “need to capture the hearts and minds of society” and convince their urban neighbors of shared values and interests for a healthy environment, she said. “Farmers are committed to preserving resources for generations ahead.”
CFBF has been working toward the restoration partnerships systematically with an eye on ensuring that farmers who voluntarily participate are not subject to liability if agency mismanagement results in harm to wildlife.
Difficult to cope
Against a curious backdrop of increasing agricultural output combined with sagging net farm income, she said, the state's farmers must cope with laws for water quality, air quality, wildlife, pesticides, and land use at the local, state, and federal levels.
Particularly burdensome are the endangered species laws, both federal and state, that govern use of land by those who receive water from the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation.
Noting that these species tend to follow farmland and California has more than it share of them, she said one might assume, given the emphasis on protecting them in California, that all such wildlife in the eastern U.S. must have already been killed off.
CFBF also challenges the science used to support regulations, all of which require “valid science” as a basis for implementation. It is in a pitched battle with environmentalists over the quality of land, water, and air, whether that is achievable, and how to get there.
Does is make sense, Southwick asked, to blame farming for problems in environmental quality, eliminate it and grow food somewhere else?
Or does it make sense, she added, to look at the whole problem, identify what are the real contributing factors, and make choices to meet the desired environmental quality?
Farmers want to be considered viable and a part of California's future “the same as any urban dweller and any of the critters we are trying to save though environmental programs.”
“If we don't have land and water and at least adequate air quality, we can't grow crops,” said Southwick, who formerly held posts as a water-law attorney with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and with several private law firms and as a deputy attorney general for the state of California.
Do more with less
“And we are losing land and are expected to do more with resources available to us,” she added, noting that land is being lost to farming because of redistribution of water supplies to urban and environmental uses.
Some of the redistribution is voluntary, but much of the pressures to do so stem from the very laws designed to protect the environment.
“This is more a sledge-hammer approach rather than using other tools to put together programs that will allow farmers to remain commercially viable while at the same time improving the quality of air, land, and water.”
Noting that more than three-quarters of the farmland in the state is owned by individuals or families, she rejected as a myth of agriculture's detractors the notion of giant corporate farms abusing water resources.
Southwick said another “bane of our existence” is the CalFed Program, the consortium of 24 federal and state agencies assembled in the mid-1990s to resolve land and water issues in the state.
Farm Bureau, she said, initially advocated the plan and lobbied for legislation to establish it. In time, however, CalFed decided that farmers should bear most of the burden of solving the problem.
The CalFed position, she asserted, was to take agricultural land out of production and then redistribute the water formerly allocated for that farmland to urban purposes.
“We are currently in litigation with CalFed over that approach because we think it is neither environmentally sound nor in keeping with the principles we agreed to. If we don't have the resources, we can't put the food on the table.”