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Hours, water are a big concern for farmers

A recent bill that would limit farm laborers’ hours from 60 to 40 hours a week could have the wrong affects, according to Jay Mahil, president of Creekside Farming Company.

Mahil, the president of the Madera County Farm Bureau board, said that, while its intentions are good, the results may not be what lawmakers were thinking of.

“To us, it’s a big financial affect,” Mahil said. “Now, instead of being able to work a 60-hour work week, they will work a 40-hour work week. They can work the longer work week, but it will cost us a lot more money.”

According to Mahil, whose farm grows wine grapes, almonds, pistachios and walnuts, laborers will only be able to work 40-hour work weeks. Any time after eight-hours a day or 40-hours a week will be eligible for overtime.

“Now they get 20 less hours they can work,” Mahil said. “Most companies will keep it at 40 hours. At the end of the day, it’s going affect the guys working in the fields. These guys want to work. The law was meant in a good way. It was to help protect people working in the fields against fatigue.”

The law is being adjusted in order to keep the laborers safe during the heat of the summer.

“Everything has come a long way than what we have done before,” Mahil said. “Equipment is more comfortable, the work ethic and work environment has changed where people can work 10 hours and then some. During harvest, on our own operation, we went on 12-hour shifts and there will be some days where we’ll work on Sundays. They will get overtime and double time. That’s the time period my guys like seeing, harvest time, because they will see a boost in their paycheck when they are putting a lot more hours. That rule that is coming through is going to be tough for these guys because they are going to get a lot less money. How is that going to help these guys?”

The law hasn’t been signed, yet, but Mahil is hoping it doesn’t, not just for his pocketbook, but for his workers’ as well.

“A majority of our guys are full-time guys who work for us all year long,” Mahil said. “Even those guys will see checks shorten our because they are going to lose 20 hours a week. It’s going to hit those harvesters hard. That’s what they thrive off of. Some of those guys migrate from one harvest to another to pick different crops. It really doesn’t protect the people they are trying to protect. It’s shameful. When I talk to my guys and I explain the rule and how it is, it really opens their eyes.” Some laborers think that every hour over 40 will be overtime. However, most farmers won’t allow the laborers to work more than a 40-hour work week.

“What they are hearing is an eight-hour work day and anything over, they can get overtime for the other two hours,” Mahil said. “That’s not the case. Business owners are not going to do that. It hits the pocketbook heavily. Especially with overtime and minimum wage going up. We got a double whammy at us. It’s hard to do business in California.”

With the new minimum wage law that goes into affect in 2021, Mahil says that farmers will get hurt at both ends.

“As farmers, we don’t pay guys minimum wage to work for us. One, you can’t get and, two, the quality of labor isn’t there at minimum wage. We end up having to pay more than minimum wage goes up. Our guys who are making more than minimum wage are thinking when the minimum wage goes up, our wages should go up, too. I understand that and it’s justified. Minimum wage goes up and it hurts everybody. Nobody wants to pay more at the supermarket and at the restaurant. The cost of that is passed on. The worst of that is that the farmer doesn’t see much of that. The middle man, processors and the marketer reap the benefits of the markets going up. Farmers have set prices. Our margins get thinner and thinner. We’re the one putting everything on the line and risking it.”

Mahil also believes that with the new minimum wage, more people will hit the unemployment line because more companies will turn towards automation.

“That’s going to be tough. What most guys and companies are doing are going to automation. Farming is going to go towards automation. It’s hard to want to do it because I don’t want to lay my guys off. As a business owner, I need to look at how to survive and keep going. If it means I need to automate a certain part of my operation, we’re going to have to do that.

“A lot of ag is shifting to that. There’s stuff going down the pipeline. The tech companies are working on getting there to pack with robots. It’s a shame that you have to do it. What does that end up doing? Minimum wage is supposed to help people with employment, but now the unemployment lines will start getting longer because more companies will start laying off people and automating.”

However, still the biggest issue for farmers is water.

“The major issue is still the big elephant in the room — water,” Mahil said. “This year was a blessing. Again, it was a blessing in surprise. We had great rainfall and great snowfall. However, a lot of the rules and regulations about water have not changed, yet.”

There is talk about building a dam to help the farmers, however, according to the environmentalists, that may not help the farmers.

“There’s talk of Temperance Flat Dam being built,” Mahil said. “Even a dam built for us, looking at it, may not be a beneficial thing. Now we’re going to start holding back and reserving more water and a lot of that is runoff. The environmentalists already want to put their hands on that for the salmon to go down the San Joaquin (River). So we might end up funding a dam that may not even help out agriculture and will end up being used for environmentalists.”

No matter where the minimum wage law is at or where the overtime law will stand, it won’t be a concern if there’s no water.

“I don’t need any employees to farm because I don’t have a farm to farm on,” Mahil said. “The water deal is still a big issue. Most people figured we got all this rain and all this snow, the drought is over. The governor still hasn’t lifted the drought declaration, which is a good thing. It still needs to be out in front. We’re still in trouble. We’re not over anything yet. We need some major fixes in California. Wrongly, we’re building a train instead of water infrastructure.”

Although the Central Valley received a good amount of rain, it still wasn’t good enough to end the drought.

“We’re still in a drought,” Mahil said. “Cities still have a mandated cutback. We had one wet year, but it doesn’t solve stuff. It takes about five good wet years to replenish the aquifers. It wasn’t a great, great one. Beggars can’t be choosers. We got our average rainfall. After three or four years of drought, average is still below average. It was like a bandage on the wound. It’s going to be ripped off because they say after a wet year, there will be a dry year. If that’s going to be the case, we’re going to be right back to where we were.”

Mahil also points to the developments that are starting in the Madera Ranchos area as another reason for water concerns.

“There’s going to be a lot of homes going up there,” he said. “That’s a concerning thing for farmers. Those homes take water, people need water to live and farming needs water. People ask why we use so much water. We don’t use a lot of water. We use water wisely. The water that we do use goes to a beneficial use. We are growing food and fiber to feed everybody. We’re not consuming the water ourselves. We are using it to help nourish families, communities, states and countries.”

With the rainfall El Niño brought to the Central Valley, Mahil believes that most farmers will have good crops this year.

“This year’s growing season has been pretty good,” he said. “We got surface water, which is a sight for sore eyes for a lot of farmers. We got water flowing in our canals. We were able to take fresh water to irrigate our fields. We can save our underground aquifers. We can use the water from Mother Nature, which was great. The weather was pretty good. Minus the late rain that may have messed up some farmer’s operations, they were still welcoming the storms that added more inches. We enjoyed that. We didn’t have much heat, but it came along late. All the crops look pretty good this year. It’s going to be a good harvest because of the water we did receive.”

Another issue that farmers may have a concern about is the new groundwater legislation that the governor signed and will come into effect soon.

“There will be farmers and homeowners that will fall into areas that will be governed by the county,” Mahil said. “The people that don’t fall into a water district will be grouped into a white-area growers. Those growers won’t have representation. Whoever farms within a water district, the district helps plan out with the water and watch the underground aquifers. If you grow in a white-area, those areas fall under county control. The county will have to come up with their own plan and how to sustain groundwater in those areas.”

Madera Irrigation District is one of the areas that will be able to govern water. Madera County will govern the other farmers outside of the MID range.

“They held one town hall meeting last month in Chowchilla,” he said. “They are supposed to setup another meeting in Madera soon to bring in growers and explain to them what the rules are and how the county will work with them. It’s a good regulation to have, if it’s done properly. As a grower, I don’t want to pump the water. I want to preserve the underground aquifer. We want to preserve what we have and want to use the surface water. We need surface water, but we keep getting that cut back. Farmers would rather use canal water than use the underground water and save that for future generations.”

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