Air Conditioned Agriculture, Josephine Devanbu, Painting, ’16
California farming gets an authentic new look. Like it or not.
In my Maharam Fellowship proposal, I pledged to “meet farmers on their own turf” – to get myself to the physical place where issues were unfolding. Given this commitment, my first invitation to visit a grower’s property brought with it a heady mix of excitement and trepidation. I was a month into the project and finally things were about to get real. Here’s a journal excerpt from the day before:
July 28 2016,
Tomorrow, I drive to a vineyard in Denair, California, to interview Al Rossini, a grape grower.
A month ago, I set out to write about grower’s experiences navigating groundwater regulation. This is my first trip to a functioning farm.
It’s not that I haven’t been reaching out. I’ve cold called, chased down and interviewed a dozen people so far. Half of them are part time growers or ranchers. But we’ve met in their offices, or the halls of meeting rooms and conferences, not their farms. I’ve even put a couple hundred miles and a stubborn layer of dust to my folks’ Honda Civic, plowing through the Central Valley. But I’ve parked at farm bureaus, not farms.
Several hundred miles, months and parental favors later, I can see that things were already real before I set foot on a farm. My experience on the vineyard the next day was indeed formative, but it didn’t mark a sudden turn to the authentic.
I now see the large amount of time I’ve spent in meetings and offices not as a failure of my project, but as a point of entry into the story of a changing industry. I wasn’t the only one in those meetings surprised by the amount of time I was spending indoors.
Over the past 25 years, environmental regulations have reshaped the California agriculture industry. They have brought with them an ever increasing need for oversight, meetings, and paperwork, not to mention consultants, legal counsel, and lobbyists to keep further regulation at bay.
This shift is deeply trying for many farmers and landowners. Not only do regulations add another expense and source of uncertainty, they also threaten to interfere with established lifestyles. More and more of the work required to maintain a farming operation takes place in the office. Keeping pace requires engaging in meetings, paperwork or hiring someone to do so on your behalf – and often both. For people who may well have chosen their line of work to avoid sitting at a desk all day this can be depressing.
As one of the nation’s biggest food producers, California agriculture has a lot on its plate. CA agriculture operates at massive scale to meet demand. At this scale, the management decisions that farmers make have wide reaching societal consequences. Much is at stake- protecting against the contamination or depletion of groundwater reserves that other communities rely on for drinking water.
These are the kind of consequences that state regulation seeks to prevent by holding farmers accountable for their impact on the land the farm and the resources that flow through it. But for many farmers, the lived experience of working the land at scale fosters a narrative of self reliance and independence, not one where the minutia of one’s management choices belong in the public domain. Farmers have to be independent enough to choose the relative solitude of rural life, and bold enough to take major financial risks- and live with the consequences. They’ve got to be self-reliant and, unsurprisingly often believe they have a right right not to be interfered with. It makes sense that a farmer would expect the right to be left alone– just as it makes sense that government would intervene.
As much as it hurts, the new regulations -and the types of work and spaces they force into the agricultural life- are not going anywhere. This work they require is not a distraction from the real work of farming. It is real farm work. However frustrating, it can only be understood as a new authentic part of the farming experience.
The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, described in my second blog post, will usher in new level of cultural challenges between regulators and farmers. Whereas previous regulations have constrained farmers by making them measure and report on the levels of various pollutants on their property, SGMA goes beyond patrolling contamination, inserting itself into matters of volume pumped. For the first time, an outside force will have the ability to impose sanctions on growers for removing water from their own property, effectively forcing a grower to fallow some of his or her land.
In anticipation of sizable resistance, SGMA is founded on the principle of grower self-governance. SGMA explicitly calls for the formation of grower-run Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, or GSAs. This is a government enforced call asking farmers to incorporate meeting with each other and watching each other’s pumping into the hardwired rules of doing business.
Al Rossini, the grower I visited in late July, gets whats at stake here. Now is his 70s, Rossini is a third generation Italian farmer in the central valley. He’s served on boards and committees for the past 25 years, witnessing first hand the regulatory changes underway. He’s part of a team working on forming a GSA. He comes from a family that prioritized participation in meetings, town events – a value he noticed other families did not share.
“I know a lot of good growers who don’t show up for these kinds of meetings” he said. He gets that going to meetings takes time away from the farm and can be frustrating, but to him, as a property owner, its crucial: “If you want to stay in business you’ve got to stay involved.”