Helping farmers fight unnecessary regulations, bureaucracy

Source: By Adam Gray, The West Side Index

In my Assembly District, which covers the western half of Stanislaus County and all of Merced, there were roughly 545 dairy farms last year. Now there is at least 1 less.

A friend recently told me he had gotten rid of all his cows.

As I look at what’s happening across our state and in Sacramento, I wonder how many other farmers will soon make the same choice.

It’s not the pandemic, heat waves or even drought. Most farmers are more worried that the state of California will regulate them out of business, or at least regulate them into Nevada, Idaho or Mexico.

In the San Joaquin Valley, farming is not just an occupation; it’s a way of life. And a good one. So it bothers me when I learn that farmers are leaving the fields. It bothers me more when they tell me that their frustrations have less to do with farming than they do with satisfying the ever-increasing demands of state government.

The next generation – young men and women raised on those farms – have noticed; too few want to follow their parents’ footsteps into the orchards or barns.

Over the past decade, meeting the demands of the state bureaucracy has become downright odious – and costly. They bury farmers under mountains of forms. There are pesticide rules, runoff rules, food-safety requirements, machinery emissions rules, animal emission rules, burn rules, well-monitoring rules, irrigated lands rules, groundwater rules, workers comp rules, wage-and-hour rules. I could go on.

Many of those rules make sense and are willingly followed, but proving compliance to regulators is both onerous and expensive.

A study by Cal Poly San Luis Obispo showed that state mandated regulatory costs went up 795 percent in 11 years. That’s not a typo.

In 2006, governmental costs to comply with California’s voluminous farming regulations were about $109 per acre. By 2017, the study pegged those costs at $977. They’ve gone up since, and they’re still rising.

Fees in California can be 10 times higher than similar fees in Texas, Arizona or Oklahoma.

In California, regulatory fees take up 9 percent of a farmer’s outlay. That’s higher than the cost of fuel for tractors and trucks, higher than the cost of seeds or seedlings. The only higher cost farmers pay is for their workers.

Perhaps farmers wouldn’t mind the fees so much if they believed they were getting value for their money. Farmers rely on the UC Cooperative extension, and don’t mind supporting it with taxes and fees. But too often, regulations are seen as impediments. Or worse.

Some scientists say we’re in the third year of the current drought; others say we’re 20 years into a megadrought that could last a century or longer. But the state refuses to take care of the water we’ve got or help us develop ways to store more of it.

We’ve been waiting nearly a decade for state investments in water storage approved by voters in 2014.

Worse, last fall we learned that nearly 700,000 acre feet of water was wasted in the 2019-2020 water year. State regulators miscalculated how much water was in the Sierra snowpack and how much would soak into the ground beneath it. So they lowered reservoir levels in expectation of getting more runoff.

The runoff never came, meaning we wasted enough water to supply 1.4 million California households for an entire year – that’s the number households in San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Stockton, Fresno and Modesto combined.

Rather than learn from their mistakes, recent data shows that in February state dam operators were sending 3 times more water than normal into the Delta. It wasn’t to help fish or hold back salt; it was just wasted.

Farmers could have used that water. So could have cities. So could have salmon.

How has the state reacted? Last month the State Water Resources Control Board announced it will increase two different fees it charges on each acre of irrigated land.

Will that money be spent to get better data? Will those fees help farmers be more efficient? Will the state hire people who won’t make colossal blunders?

I’m left wondering, are people getting tired of farming or just tired of their state government taking their money and giving them nothing of value in return.