By Vicky Boyd
Photo by Goff Photography
With a backdrop of full reservoirs and a massive Sierra snowpack, the three incoming San Joaquin Farm Bureau officers say unequivocally that water remains the top issue facing area agriculture.
“We’ve been talking about it a lot and we’ll continue to talk about it – water is obviously at the top of the list,” said President David Strecker.
Unfortunately, many of the solutions to water issues, such as building new water storage, have been in the works for years and continue at a snail’s pace.
“We need water now,” he said. “We need it today, but it’s going to be weeks or months or years or possibly generations before it’s figured out.”
Although legal challenges have delayed proposed unimpaired flows of up to 40% on the San Joaquin River and its tributaries, Strecker said he fears that stay won’t last forever. A proposal to implement even greater unimpaired flows on the Sacramento River isn’t far behind.
And talk of building a water conveyance through the Delta, whether one or two tunnels, continues.
Joining Strecker as SJFB officers are First Vice President Ken Vogel and Second Vice President Jake Samuel.
In addition to water, the three say increasing labor costs and availability as well as urbanization and changing land use will continue to challenge county agriculture.
Prime farm ground continues to disappear as expanding urban development gobbles it up, Strecker said. Currently, several large residential and mixed-use projects are planned for Tracy, Manteca, Lathrop and Ripon.
“That’s also going to play into the politics of the county and are they ag friendly?” he said. “And how will that play out for us, as farmers? I think one thing that’s important as I see some of these changes in the county is engaging the public, regardless of whether it’s people going into the farmer’s market, in the grocery store or online.”
A former Young Farmer & Rancher member and chair, Strecker is the fourth generation to farm Strecker Ranch and a fifth-generation Delta farmer. As ranch manager, he grows a diversified row crop mix.
Vogel echoed Strecker’s concerns about the myriad water issues converging on the region. “Unimpaired flows are extremely important and how they’re going to affect agriculture, along with the implementation of the groundwater legislation,” Vogel said. “Those are coming at the exact same time period and will have a major impact on us. Water is one of the things you have to have in ag.”
The groundwater legislation to which he referred is the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. It requires groundwater sustainability agencies in severely overdrafted groundwater basins – including one covering most of San Joaquin County -- to develop plans that balance groundwater withdrawals with recharge.
By Jan. 31, 2020, those groundwater agencies must submit their draft groundwater sustainability plan to the State Water Board for review.
The challenge for California is the state’s perennial drought that is periodically interrupted, as it was this year, with unusually heavy precipitation.
“It’s not a consistent climate,” Vogel said. To that end, the peaks and troughs in precipitation need to be leveled out, and that can be achieved by building additional water storage to capture and store rain during wet years and save it for dry years.
Not only would new storage aid agriculture, it also would help residential users, other industries and the environment by providing more consistent flows, he said.
Vogel, who grows cherries and walnuts in the Farmington and Linden areas, spent 36 years as a teacher, vice principal and principal for the Lodi Unified School District before retiring in 2004.
A long-time SJFB board member, Vogel served two terms as a San Joaquin County supervisor from 2006-2014. One of his main responsibilities was water issues, which he has carried over to his role as a Farm Bureau officer.
Even within the industry, agriculture’s changing composition will prompt Farm Bureau to hone its message, Samuel said.
“Something I brought up to the nominating committee is our membership and our voice as San Joaquin County,” he said. “We have a very diverse county from nuts to processing tomatoes to dairy to grapes to melons to farmers’ markets. But we all need to have the same voice and the same talking points – you can’t be divided.”
A previous vice-chair of San Joaquin Young Farmers & Ranchers and a SJFB board member, Samuel grows cherries and walnuts with his father, Jim, and brothers Zach and Case near Linden. The family also operates Sunrise Fresh Dried Fruit and Nut Co., which dries and packs dark sweet cherries.
When Samuel was approached by the SJFB Nominating Committee to throw his hat in the ring for second vice president, he asked himself what more could he do to advocate for agriculture. He’d been involved with YF&R for more than four years and also was a SJFB board member.
“Now is as good as any time to do something like this, so I decided to take the plunge,” Samuel said.
As a cherry producer who needs a large number of harvesters for a six- to eight-week period, Samuel said he has been worried about labor availability and the rising costs for the past several years.
“What’s scary coming into this year, I thought we would have enough people to pick everything, given the crop size and the timing of everything,” he said. “I think we still have cherries on the trees not being harvested because of a lack of labor – and not from the rain. It’s not just the lack of labor but the price of labor. We’re paying so much more these days.”
He said a skilled harvester who hustles could make $250 to $320 per day picking cherries. Growers of some other crops have moved toward more mechanization, such as machine pruning and suckering of grapevines or mechanical harvesting of onions. But Samuel said fresh-market cherries are still picked by hand because of their delicate nature.
And he doesn’t see labor costs decreasing as the minimum wage is scheduled to rise to each year until it hits $15 per hour.
Ag overtime requirements also are adding to labor costs. Currently, field workers must be paid overtime after 9.5 hours in a day and 55 hours in a workweek. By 2022, they will receive overtime after eight hours worked in a day and 40 hours in a workweek