We’re happy to present this guest essay from Lloyd G. Carter, an attorney and former journalist who has written about California water issues since 1969. Carter is president of the California Save Our Streams Council.


Remember the family farmer?

He was immortalized in Grant Wood’s 1930 painting “American Gothic“: a grim, hardscrabble stoic in overalls, grasping a pitchfork. Guess what? It wasn’t really a farmer. It was Wood’s dentist posing as a farmer.

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Fresno County’s own philosopher/farmer, Victor Davis Hanson, announced years ago that the family farmer was a figment of the urban imagination. Hanson wrote that the multi-generational family farm has all but disappeared and that soon the only thing left will be “broke serfs and thriving corporations.”

But now a coalition of western San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests have launched a multi-million dollar media blitz to convince Californians that the modern “family farmer” still exists — and needs to keep consuming colossal amounts of California river water. The statewide ad campaign includes television spots, full page newspaper ads, bus stop billboards in big cities, and even sponsorship of the “California Report” on National Public Radio. The word "family" is repeated ad nauseum.

There are also two high-tech websites defending agriculture’s need for over 80 percent of California’s developed water, and claiming that massive water diversions from the Delta are having little or no impact on the collapsing Delta fishery or Delta drinking supplies for 22 million Californians.

The California Farm Water Coalition campaign is funded primarily by the Westlands Water District — the largest water district in America — and some adjacent federal irrigation districts. Also helping win the hearts and minds of urbanites are Tulare Basin growers like cotton billionaire J.G. Boswell, Calcot (a cotton marketing organization), banking interests, the California Farm Bureau, and Central Valley Project (CVP) irrigation districts.

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At stake is the seven million acre-feet of Northern California river water doled out annually by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in its operation of the CVP, a vast network of canals and dams stretching the length of California’s Great Central Valley. Jason Peltier, a former lobbyist for the CVP water districts, is now a key Interior Department official involved in making sure growers lock up that seven million acre-feet for another half century through contract renewal negotiations.

Seven million acre-feet is enough water to meet the annual domestic needs of 35 to 50 million people [an acre-foot is the volume of water that would cover one acre to a depth of one foot]. Some 2.4 million acres of California farmland are now planted to cotton, rice, wheat, corn, and other grains eligible for federal crop subsidies, most of it irrigated with heavily-subsidized federal water.

Subsidized water to grow subsidized crops, pumped uphill with subsidized electricity: Big agribusiness wants to keep it that way and has made the little guy in overalls the poster boy for its pitch.

If valued at only $100 an acre-foot, the Bureau’s annual supply, donated by California taxpayers, is worth $700 million a year or $35 billion over the 50-year life of the contracts (25-year contracts plus a virtually automatic 25-year renewal clause). The urban retail value of that water is $600 an acre-foot, or $210 billion over the 50-year life of the contracts. You can see why the CVP growers want to convince us to use precious water to grow surplus crops.

Westlands’ 600 growers have the most to gain, seeking to renew a contract for 1.15 million acre-feet of water even though they have downsized 100,000 acres in their 942-square mile district and are seeking nearly a billion dollars from Congress to build a drainage system for their selenium-polluted waste water.

Both environmental groups and conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute have attacked crop and water subsidies as a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money.

Nowhere does the ad campaign mention the destruction of birds at the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge caused by ag wastewater from Westlands 20 years ago. Instead, grower billboards show a healthy black-necked stilt bird and claim “farm water” is “habitat” for wildlife.

So what is a family farm? Well, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently working on developing a definition based on relative size. At stake is $20 billion a year in crop subsidies. You can bet the big guys will have their say.

It is true that farms owned by corporations or partnerships make up just two percent of all farms in America — but, they account for 15 percent of farm output.

Very large “family farms” (those with sales of $500,000 or more), according to the USDA, make up about three percent of all farms but produce about 35 percent of total American farm output on just 10 percent of the land.

So while it’s true that there are still small family farmers, it is the big guys, getting bigger all the time, who run the show. And they don’t wear overalls. In California, the subsidy checks get harvested every year, rain or shine. An affluent neighborhood in North Fresno — 50 miles from the Westlands “farms” — is home to wealthy growers who draw more subsidy money than any other zip code in America.

Hey, the Waltons run a family store, right? It’s called Wal-Mart. Bill Gates has a family business. Doesn’t everyone have a family? Is that the criteria for a free ride from the government? Rep. George Miller, a long-time Westlands critic, argues that “California’s megafarms are the most politically powerful welfare recipients in the world.”

In California’s modern version of American Gothic, peasants with pitchforks may live in mansions, thanks to the taxpayers.

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