By Vicky Boyd 

Several months in the making, San Joaquin Farm Bureau’s Farmers United Political Action Committee is up and running and accepting contributions. It was set up as a county PAC, allowing it to support candidates running for political offices or ballot measures within San Joaquin County.

“We want to support the people who support us,” said Joe Ferrari, PAC treasurer and a Linden area cherry and walnut grower. “I think it’s going to be a very effective tool that we’ve needed. For each dollar that someone gives to this PAC, I think it will be a good investment and effective because it will have a direct impact at the county level.”

Kenny Watkins, a Linden area rancher and chairman of Farmers United, agreed. “Every day we turn around, there are new regulations, or worse regulations, and new challenges for ag,” he said. “It’s really challenging our profitability lately. If we’re going to survive, we’re going to have to take an active role in selecting the people who are going to govern us and get the right ones who support ag.”

The process also will involve cultivating candidates, Watkins said. “Sometimes with the ones you have to choose from, you end up voting against someone, and we need to create an environment where we actually have somebody we want to support.”

Only two other county Farm Bureaus in the state have similar county political action committees: Butte and Napa, Ferrari said. In the case of Napa, he said it also helped increase Farm Bureau membership.

A county focus

Farmers United differs from the California Farm Bureau’s Farm PAC, which has a statewide and national scope.

Watkins said SJFB decided to start with a county focus to help support local candidates or initiatives that may not be on CFBF’s radar.

“The state PAC has other challenges of their own,” he said. “They have to do what’s proper for the state and not just one county. And they don’t have the resources to go into each county and worry about the supervisor races in every county.”

Since it became official Sept. 1, Farmers United has already received contributions, Ferrari said.

“Right now, we just want to encourage members to donate,” he said. “We put a lot of time into this, and it’s starting to pay dividends.”

Watkins said the PAC board is putting together a full calendar of events, including fund raisers, for the coming months.

As a former county supervisor, Ken Vogel said Farmers United would have been very helpful when he ran for office.

“You always want the endorsement of the Farm Bureau,” said Vogel, a Farmers United board member and a Linden area walnut and cherry grower. “Besides that, if you get some type of financial support, that’s even a higher commitment and it shows other farmers that the Farmers United PAC is supporting you.”

With its county focus, he said the PAC makes sense by creating relationships from the ground up.

“I never felt you started at the top,” Vogel said. “You start making those relationships with local groups and work with local people. I think it’s always important to have local contacts and not just local city contacts but also local rural contacts.”

As the county’s largest industry, he said agriculture is more than just farming but includes all of the related packing, processing, shipping, trucking and equipment businesses. And the industry needs to have a say.

The need for a PAC

SJFB can endorse or take positions on candidates or ballot measures, but it can’t donate any funds to them.

Paul Sanguinetti, who farms east of Stockton, said several groups within San Joaquin County already have political action committees. If SJFB wanted to become more politically active, it also had to set up a PAC.

“We’re trying to get people in (political office) who are favorable to ag, and a lot of times it takes funds to do that,” said Sanguinetti, who also sits on the Farmers United board.

The Farmers United PAC is a separate corporation from SJFB with its own board of directors, said Ferrari, who as a certified public accountant and helped set up the entity.

Discussions about forming a PAC began in 2016, but he said they took on more importance recently as at least two members of the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors won’t seek re-election in 2020.

“We’re having these openings on the county Board of Supervisors, and we’d like to have a little say in that,” Ferrari said. “We would like to encourage good candidates who are pro ag and who will help the farmers in our county and with the issues we have.”

Setting up the PAC was no easy task and required countless hours of homework and research into the appropriate forms to file and with the correct state agencies and Internal Revenue Service, he said.

Doing much of the background work in-house helped save money, Ferrari said, adding he also worked with an attorney to ensure the filing and PAC incorporation met all legal requirements.

But the work doesn’t stop there, Watkins said. Farmers United will have to report contributions and file the appropriate forms on schedule with the proper agencies and IRS.