Erik Wilson is not what one might consider a “big time” farmer. From his operation in the Dos Palos area of the San Joaquin Valley he farms a few acres of row crops each year while maintaining a custom spray business that services about 30,000 acres of row crops and permanent plantings.
When he’s not doing that, you can likely find him online.
Earlier this year Wilson received a call from Steve Malanca, a tractor salesman friend who’s sold Wilson his spray equipment. Malanca wanted him to look at a decal he was doodling. That phone call led to a decal now found on a growing number of vehicles in California.
As the California-shaped “My Job Depends on Ag” decals spread to cars, pick-ups, SUV’s, store fronts and big rigs throughout the Golden State they are morphing into the shapes of other states as they carry the same simple message: “My Job Depends on Ag.”
When he’s not farming honeydews or spraying crops in the region Wilson is filming short videos on his smart phone and moderating discussions on a Facebook page that since its inception in May has gained nearly 48,000 members. Many of those numbers came within the first month.
Wilson is passionate about the story of California and its ripple effects in the economy. He’s quick to point out that employment tied to agriculture goes well beyond the farmer and his laborers. He says the challenge in central California and beyond is to find a job that does not depend upon agriculture in one way or another.
Still, Wilson has set forth to educate people about agriculture that goes beyond the sound bite and the social media meme.
Shortly after he and Malanca started the Facebook group Wilson says he received a call from the head of a trucking association in the upper Midwest. The trucking association leader was impressed with Wilson’s attitude of how trucking jobs in the United States depend upon agriculture.
“I tell people to look at all the refrigerated trucks and milk tankers rolling down our highways and then tell me how much agriculture depends on these guys,” Wilson says. “I’m really behind all the truckers out here. It’s all really impressive if you think about it.”
Wilson is a first-generation farmer in Dos Palos. He grew up in nearby Madera where his father was a preacher.
Much of Wilson’s agricultural activities centers on spraying crops for others, though that’s not how it started.
It all started in 1997 when Wilson went to work for his father-in-law, Keith Porter, who farmed land in the region with his father for a good part of the 20th Century.
“About five years go by and my father-in-law calls me one day and asks if I want to farm 50 acres over here,” Wilson said. “I jumped at the chance.”
That was the same time property values in California were skyrocketing and equity was easy to come by. Wilson used some of the equity in his personal home to borrow money and get started into agriculture.
“It scared my wife at the time,” he admits.
At the time Wilson was still working for Porter while trying his hand at growing alfalfa. Too busy himself to handle some of the chores of growing the forage crop; Wilson hired someone else to spray his alfalfa.
“I saw this guy out there on a quad and got to thinking that I could do some winter spraying with quads,” Wilson said. That led him to tap his new line of credit to buy some spray equipment, a quad and a trailer to move the quad around with.
That’s when things got interesting for the young family man.
The pair had their first child and his wife, Kelly, wanted to stay at home. “That cut our income and put an extra burden on me,” he said. “I was getting to the point where money was tight then I’d get a call from somebody to go spray over here and I’d get a little money to help pay down the line of credit.”
Business picked up for Wilson and soon he was custom spraying more acres of farmland in the region. Eventually he had to give up farming the 50 acres of land near Firebaugh that he acquired from Porter early in his agricultural career.
The decision to give up the farmland near Firebaugh was partially related to time spent spraying for clients and partially out of its location. The 50-acre parcel was at the end of the irrigation ditch which meant getting a head of water out there could take much of the day and more time than Wilson could afford to spend managing.
His wife has since returned to teaching math at the local junior high school.
Conversations among California farmers typically start and end on the same topic these days.
“I tell my city friends that if we could farm with the water they get we wouldn’t be complaining at all,” he said.
“Most people are more worried about who’s starting in their fantasy football league than they are about water,” he continued.
Wilson uses the example of his own area to teach a point.
“You won’t find a lot of wells in this area because we’ve got a lot of exchange contractors out here,” he said.
In Wilson’s region, an “exchange contractor” is someone with pre-1914 water rights who normally would receive much or all of their irrigation water from surface sources. Canals, delivery ditches and drain ditches line the countryside. In a normal water year these can provide all the water a grower needs to irrigate his crop.
“We’ve never really had a need for wells out here because we always had an ample supply,” Wilson continued.
Because of the use of surface water and the hydrology in the region groundwater has typically been within a few feet of the surface – too high for permanent plantings like trees and vines but far enough down to allow row crops and rice to be grown. The labyrinth of unlined canals and irrigation ditches in the region helped to keep the aquifers charged.
Today that is different for Wilson and other farmers in the region. A water table that was once a few feet away could be 50 feet or more from the surface. This has enticed some to plant some tree nuts in the region – a move Wilson is not entirely sure is wise if water tables recover to historic levels.
Wilson uses his Facebook page to help others understand how water is used in the region. He oftentimes posts videos he narrates from the driver’s seat of his pick-up as it rolls along an irrigation ditch.
“Even with flood irrigation where people see it running off the fields it’s not being wasted,” he points out. “If it’s not getting reused it’s replenishing the groundwater.”
He continued: “That’s why I’m kind of torn between drip and furrow irrigation; I think there needs to be a balance of it. It’s a no-brainer that furrow or flood irrigation helps tremendously with the groundwater.”
Wilson admits that drip irrigation has greatly improved yields in processing tomatoes, a key rotational crop grown in the region.
“Instead of getting 35 tons (per acre) you’re now getting 60 tons or more, so in a sense you could farm a smaller area of ground and get the same yield and use even less water,” he said.
Wilson is not interested in the conversations about water and issues that do little else than simply complain, though he jokes about the irony of regularly meeting with a group of farmers over beverages to “solve the world’s problems.”
His no-nonsense demeanor and ability to communicate positively with nearly everyone he comes in contact with allows him to connect with people via social media in ways that associations and public relations firms have for years attempted to achieve, somewhat successfully, somewhat not.
He shares the story of one large agricultural organization that contacted him with polling data they had suggesting that urban residents favored the idea of allowing farmers greater access to water.
Wilson believes that if the agricultural organization had this polling data, so too did agriculture’s opponents, which is why he believes there was an immediate and continuous effort in the media earlier this year to recite and repeat falsehoods about agriculture using 80 percent of the state’s water and being merely two percent of the state’s economy.
“I believe it was a choreographed move in the media,” Wilson said. “Messages like this and phrases like California is farming in a desert simply implied to the people who are uneducated about agriculture that it really isn’t even necessary.”
He continued: “This polling data suggested that the public was getting real close to understand our need for water.”
“When we had 15,000 members in two weeks we had their attention,” Wilson said of the agricultural organization. “Their social media contacted me and Steve and put us on a speaker phone and asked us ‘how did you do this’?”
Wilson sometimes doesn’t understand himself how he and Malanca are able to draw an audience like they have. For Wilson the attraction seems to be in the every-day, unpolished language that tends not part of measured public relations campaigns.
He also thinks it could be as simple as the underdog or the little guy telling his story in his own way.
“I’m just a small guy out here with no land and Steve is selling tractors,” Wilson says.
“In five years I would love to be in a position where we’re making headway to reintroduce agriculture to Americans in a way where they stop and appreciate it,” Wilson said.
Wilson says he and Malanca continue to seek ways to grow the movement. They already filed their tax-exempt status under the Internal Revenue System Code and are awaiting official notification of their nonprofit status. They are also working on recruiting a board of directors and securing office space.
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