Madera County is the 13th largest agricultural county in California, but urbanization, regulations, lack of water and importation of agricultural products continue to batter farm families.
"For the first time in history, the United States has imported more ag products than we exported," said Julia Berry, executive director of the Madera County Farm Bureau. "That should concern every American."
For the past 20 years and more, farmers, dairy producers and ranchers have battled not only low prices for their products, but also an onslaught of regulations that are slowly crippling the industry.
"The agricultural community has learned more about water conservation than anyone else," Berry said. "Their operations are highly efficient, more efficient than most other industries. They are highly cautious about any chemicals they use, primarily because they are stewards of the land. They are also careful with chemicals because of the high cost and regulations. With margins so tight, it doesn't make sense to liberally apply expensive chemicals."
The efficiency of American farmers has helped to provide Americans with very low cost food supplies. Berry showed charts that show the average American family spends about 9.7 percent of their annual income to fulfill their nutritional needs. The United Kingdom spends 16.4 percent and Mexico spends 26.6 percent of their income for food.
"Water, of course, is a key issue to all California farmers," Berry said. "The Madera County Farm Bureau has voted to support the Madera Irrigation District's proposal for a water bank in Madera. We don't feel this bank will provide all of our needs, but it is a step in the right direction. We still need to build Temperance Flat Dam and work toward building more underground storage.
"When Enron proposed a water bank, many people were against it, but the plan proposed by MID is different and addressed the problems with Enron's plan. We are very happy to support them."
Farmers are continually facing more regulations when it comes to water. Farm waivers for agricultural discharge are only available for a fee now, and farmers have been encouraged to become members of a water quality coalition. Farmers who are not members of a coalition pay higher fees for their waivers.
"Our members have joined he Eastern San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition," Berry said. "The coalition has complied with the state regulations and reported to the State Water Resources Board. The major functions have been water sampling and analysis, preparation of regional water board reports and soliciting members. But then the state told us we would have to collect the waiver fees for them. Most coalitions fought this, feeling they were doing enough work and that the state should be responsible for collecting their fees. The state then said that non-coalition members would face higher fees for their waivers, members of the coalition would have reduced fees, but if the coalition collected the fees for the state members would pay the lowest fee possible."
The coalition decided to take on the responsibility of collecting the waiver fees in order to save money for their members. Non-coalition members pay about .30 per acre for their waiver fee. Members pay 20 cents per acre, but members of a coalition who collect the fees for the state only pay 12 cents per acre.
At present, the ESJWQC is not charging members for collecting the fees.
"The state wants to track every drop of water in the state, regulate it and get people to pay for it," Berry said.
Regulations that are hurting the agricultural industry go beyond water issues.
"Right now there is a bill called the 'heat stress bill'," Berry said. "Assemblywoman Judy Chu introduced the bill as a way of helping all outside workers during summer days. But, by the time the bill went through the legislative process, it has been reduced from all workers to only agricultural workers. This bill will require farm workers, working in temperatures of 90 degrees or more, to have a 10 minute break after every hour of work. It also requires having several gallons of water on hand for each worker. If this bill passes, farmers will have to place bottled water trucks out with every picking crew."
Berry believes many of the problems agriculture faces are due to the urbanization of California.
"The further we get from agarian society, the more society will create myths about agriculture," Berry said. "This is due to a lack of understanding what actually happens on the farm. The more metropolitan we become, the more people take food for granted. They begin to believe everything the agricultural community does is bad and that as long as Vons continues to have full shelves that everything is fine with agriculture."
Some residents of urban areas have created difficulties, and added expenses, to the agricultural industry. When someone from the city drives around in the country and spots a spray rig spraying crops, they often call the agricultural commissioner's office and claim that a farmer is spraying poison. By law, the office must send someone out to investigate.
"Most of the time the farmer is simply spraying sulfur, a common practice," Berry said. "Sulfur is used on many crops and poses no danger to humans or the environment. But, this happens fairly often."
Drugs are becoming a problem for Valley farmers. California is the world's largest producer of methamphetimines. A large percentage of the drugs are being produced in rural areas, on farms, with owners completely unaware of the activity.
The drug manufacturers have been taking their used chemicals and dumping buckets of the toxic waste into canals and waterways. Some of the waste gets dumped on the soil of farms. This dumping is creating environmental problems for farmers and the public.
Rural crime has become a priority for the Madera County Sheriff's office. The cost of chemicals for farmers is driving a black market for the products and thieves have become very adept at stealing chemicals and then selling them to other farmers at a reduced price.
"Agriculture is the most highly regulated industry in California," Berry said. "The reason we are seeing more imported food is because farmers in California can't compete against foods raised in countries with few, if any, regulations. Efficiency can only go so far. We have to give California farmers the opportunity to compete fairly in the worldwide market."