By Vicky Boyd 

David Strecker wasted no time as incoming San Joaquin Farm Bureau president when he challenged fellow farmers to make financial pledges to the newly formed Farmers United Political Action Committee.

“I’m starting this right now – I’m pledging $1,000 to the Farmers United PAC. Is anyone else right behind me?” he told members attending the SJFB 105th Annual Meeting on June 20. “Think about your operation. Think about your future, and please encourage others to join. We have to do this together.”

Comparing the situation to Biblical times and David versus Goliath, Strecker said agriculture faces myriad challenges, whether they involve water, land use or new regulations.

“We’re up against the wall – we all have to come together and find solutions,” he said.

Once the process of establishing a PAC is completed, likely in mid-July, the committee will be able to accept financial contributions rather than just pledges. Those funds will then be used to support locals running for office.

“We’re trying to help those who are helping us,” said SJFB Immediate Past President Jim Ferrari. “Most of these local people end up going on to further offices.”

A county supervisor, for example, may eventually run for state Assembly or Senate, and many state lawmakers eventually make a bid for U.S. Congress.

“We want to cultivate a new group of politicians who favor ag,” he said.

Before turning over Farm Bureau leadership to Strecker, Ferrari thanked his family and SJFB staff and board members for their help and support during his six years as an officer.

Water remains top issue

As it was when he entered office, Ferrari said water remains the top issue facing county agriculture. The State Water Board’s plan to require up to 40% unimpaired flows in the San Joaquin River and its tributaries is currently in the courts facing several lawsuits. The additional water would aid fisheries and improve water quality in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the water board contends. But many water districts say they believe voluntary agreements that involve habitat restoration and pulse water flows would provide greater fishery benefits and require less water.

SJFB already has put aside $20,000 to help the water battle, Ferrari said. At the same time, the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act is requiring water agencies in severely overdrafted groundwater basins to draft plans that balance groundwater withdrawals with recharge. Most of San Joaquin County overlays one of those severely overdrafted basins.

To drive home water’s importance to agriculture, SJFB hosted a rally at the Roberts Union Farm Center during the Amgen Tour of California bike race. Rally participants also captured international media exposure as riders passed by.

SJFB also was successful in defeating an initiative on the November 2018 ballot that would have established a cannabis tax. Essentially, the measure would have sped up the process of allowing individual operations to grow, process and sell cannabis in agriculturally zoned portions of the county,

But Ferrari said that prohibition may be short lived as county supervisors are currently looking at a process for permitting indoor grow operations in rural areas.

Battles outside the county

California Farm Bureau Second Vice President Shaun Crook, a Tuolumne County licensed timber operator, spoke of a few issues successfully tackled at the state level. As originally proposed, Senate Bill 623, known as the “Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Fund,” would have established a 0.1 mil assessment on all fertilizer sold in the state. Dairies would have been required to pay a 1.3 cents per hundredweight tax on milk, and residential water users would have seen a 95-cent-per-month tax on their bills.

After more than three years of debate, the state now will tap the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to pay for water system improvements in disadvantaged communities.

“It’s a testimony about CFBF that we didn’t get behind the bill just because that’s the best that could be done,” Crook said. 

CFBF also is working with the American Farm Bureau on the national level to bring common sense to the Food Safety Modernization Act, he said. Aiding in that effort is Joe Ferrari, a SJFB board member who handles food safety for his family’s cherry and walnut operation near Linden. Currently, a grower could be arrested on felony charges and required to pay thousands of dollars in fines for even minor food safety violations, Crook said.

“We’re working in DC to try to get that fixed,” he said. 

Giving back to students

The SJFB Foundation for Agricultural Education raised more than $68,000 during its largest fundraiser of the year – the 28th annual “Taste of San Joaquin” wine tasting in March.

Much of that money is returned to the community in the form of scholarships to local students, many of whom will pursue ag-related fields of study, said foundation President Joe Valente.

“It’s really neat to go through the scholarship applications and see how many good kids there are in agriculture,” he said. “Many of these kids won’t go into farming, but hopefully they’ll have careers involved in agriculture, like being a PCA (pest control adviser).”

This year, the foundation awarded more than $50,000 in scholarships at the SJFB Annual Meeting. Altogether, more than $500,000 in scholarships has been presented since the foundation began doing so in 1990, Valente said.

In addition, the foundation invests in SJFB’s annual Ag in the Classroom Program, where 30 teachers spend four days learning about the county’s agricultural diversity. They’re also given ideas and lesson plans about how they can incorporate agriculture into their classes.

The foundation also provided grants to county 4-H clubs and FFA chapters, helped promote a “healthy snacks” program for adults and helped underwrite Ag Venture. Targeting third-graders, Ag Venture annually involves about 11,000 county students and seeks to provide them with an idea of where their food comes from.