It’s almost impossible to get a rise from my favorite farmer, Joe Del Bosque, who grows almonds, melons and asparagus here on the perpetually water-challenged west side of the San Joaquin Valley.
After years of drought, suddenly everything is green. It’s raining like crazy, the infamous pumps of the Sacramento Delta are working overtime to fill reservoirs to the south and all over the state, dry fields have become muddy lakes.
“So what are you Westside farmers whining about now?” I asked Del Bosque when I visited him Monday in his office, a modest double-wide trailer on the edge of an almond orchard off Interstate 5.
He chuckled. Farmers are always complaining about something. If they aren’t complaining, it’s because they’re too busy worrying.
Del Bosque is, as usual, worried about water.
But he’s also worried about immigration, and about President Trump’s vow to deport people who are here illegally. Del Bosque, and just about every grower he knows, depends on migrant labor for harvests.
“We need a workforce,” he said. “We can’t have immigration come here and round everyone up and deport them. Coupled with building a wall, it will ruin us. It will ruin the whole fruit and vegetable industry.”
Del Bosque’s water comes from the Central Valley Project, run by the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which provides much of the water consumed by farms and people in the Central Valley.
In the past few years, he and other Westside farmers have gotten absolutely no water, or a tiny fraction of their normal, subsidized federal allocation. Even though this year has brought a record amount of rain and a boffo snowpack, he thinks he will get shorted again at the end of this month when the feds determine 2018 water allocations.
His need for water will be pitted against the needs of endangered Delta fish like smelt and salmon. Usually, the fish prevail.
But because nothing is simple when it comes to water, Del Bosque has to worry about too much water, as well. The place he stores his supply — San Luis Reservoir — will soon fill to capacity, putting him in the position of possibly losing expensive water he has already bought. (Federal water costs $220 per acre-foot. Last year, Del Bosque was able to find some water districts willing to part with water at a steep $1,000 to $1,300 per acre-foot.)
He estimates he has more than a million dollars worth of water sitting in the San Luis right now. The reservoir is at 92% capacity, well above its historical average. If it fills to the brim, the Bureau of Reclamation will not be able to pump any more water in from the Delta.
Due to the complexities of water law, the federal government then has the right to take ownership of the farmers’ expensive water.
“They say, ‘Hey, your water is taking up space that we need.’ I knew this could happen, but after four straight years of drought, I wasn’t expecting it,” Del Bosque said. “This is just the risk that we farmers have to assume.”
San Joaquin Valley growers tend to be politically conservative. Many were enchanted when Donald Trump came to Fresno last May and announced “there’s no drought,” playing right into their favorite narrative: If the government (abetted by environmentalists) didn’t insist on shutting off the Delta pumps, there would be plenty of water for agriculture.
“A lot of farmers liked that he said that,” Del Bosque said. “Of course we’ve been in a natural drought, but yeah, there’s some regulations that are making it worse, and maybe that’s what he was talking about.”
But even if they liked Trump’s stance on water, his harsh immigration policies — and vows to deport people in the country illegally — could make harvesting the fields impossible.
“I think a lot of them thought he was just blowing smoke,” Del Bosque said. And then, of course, Trump assumed office.
California agriculture simply cannot work without migrant labor. For example, the main towns around Del Bosque’s 2,000 acres — Dos Palos, Firebaugh, and Mendota — have a combined population of about 20,000, children included.
“When I start harvesting my melons,” Del Bosque said, “I need 300 people. And there’s like six other melon guys who need 300 people, and one probably needs 900. So we need around 3,000 people to harvest. Then, the tomato guys need people, the grape guys need people and the garlic guys need people. There are not enough people in these little towns for that seasonal surge in labor needs. That’s why we’re dependent on people who come from somewhere else.”
In 2014, on a lark, Del Bosque, as @WestsideFarmer, tweeted an invitation at President Obama after learning that he planned to visit the Central Valley. “President @BarackObama, I humbly invite you to Del Bosque Farms for a discussion on the effect of the drought on California and its people.”
A week later, Del Bosque and his wife, Maria, strode across a fallowed field with the president and Gov. Jerry Brown. Obama focused on climate change. Farmers were disappointed. “That won’t help us for 50 or even 100 years,” Del Bosque said. “How about relaxing the laws to get us a little more water?”
Now he’s thinking about tweeting an invitation at @realDonaldTrump. But not about water.
“I would focus on immigration,” Del Bosque said. “I would wait till we have some people working in the fields, picking asparagus or melons, and invite him to come see what kind of work this is, and why we need these people. I don’t know if he would get it. A billionaire guy who lives in a penthouse and the only place he goes to work is in these humongous buildings? To come out to the country to see a guy from Oaxaca working in the fields? I don’t know if he could relate to it.”
Mexican laborers, after all, put fresh fruit and vegetables on all of our tables. I wonder if President Trump even knows where his food comes from.