U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, right, and Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, center, share an orange with Dennis Parnagian, owner of Fowler Packing Co. during a tour Wednesday of the packing house floor. Later, all three took part in a round table forum to discuss Valley agriculture and water issues.
Written by David Castellon
When she came to the Valley last year during her run for the U.S. Senate, then-state Attorney General Kamala D. Harris promised she would come back if elected.
She won the November election and on Wednesday made good on her campaign promise, taking a tour of a table grape vineyard southwest of Fowler owned by Fowler Packing Co. and also touring the company’s packing plant.
After that, the new senator took part in a round table forum with representatives from the agricultural industry, irrigation districts and government leaders to discuss the issues important to them, and — not surprisingly — water was the top issue.
But there were other topics of concern, and Tal Cloud, president and co-founder of SunBurst, a Fresno-based maker of paper-based stacking pallets, lead off by saying how costly payments into Affordable Care Act employee health plans are for businesses, calling the program “a train wreck.
“One of the things bothering me is the Democratic Party has no idea, except ‘We hate Trump,’” he said, asking how Harris and her fellow Democrats are looking to fix it.
Harris said that while it’s not covered much in the news, there is a lot of bipartisan work going on to try to find solutions on issues ranging from water shortages to the nation’s deteriorating infrastructure.
“If we don’t deal with it, it’s going to create all kinds of other issues,” she said.
Harris also noted that she, fellow Sen. Dianne Feinstein and four other democratic senators introduced last month their own ACA fix, which proposes eliminating the sharp income cut-offs that drastically raise prices for coverage and make it too expensive for middle-income families.
Fresno City Councilmember Oliver Baines told the senator that Valley farmers and businesses have done all they can to reduce emissions, but the region isn’t meeting clean-air standards because of emissions from trucks and cars passing through this region that can’t be controlled locally.
As such, he urged Harris to work on modifying federal legislation so Valley communities aren’t penalized for coming short of required clean-air standards.
Also brought up during the meeting was the federal Farm Bill, which will come up for reauthorization later this year.
Concerns raised included crop insurance programs geared to major crops most commonly raised in the Midwest. Harris was also urged to try to keep funding to supplement the costs of promoting some commodities — including almonds — in foreign markets.
Harris acknowledged that in past farm bills, California hasn’t gotten its fair share, in part because Midwestern senators with similar commodities and similar needs “get along quite well” and support one another in the Senate.
But she promised to be “as loud and strong as possible” in fighting for this state’s needs.
The conversation during the forum frequently turned to water, with Fresno County Farm Bureau President Ryan Jacobsen asking Harris to do what she can to push the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to go forward with planning and eventual construction of the proposed Temperance Flat Dam on the San Joaquin River west of Auberry.
He described the dam as the shortest-term solution to the Valley’s water problems, noting that the inability to capture and store much of the water runoff and snow melt runoff from the recent, exceptionally wet winter was “asinine.”
And whatever solutions legislators decide to push forward to address California’s water storage and conveyance problems, “It has to be cost effective for farmers,” said Daniel Errotabere, a general partner at Errotabere Ranches in Riverdale.
And if they aren’t cost-effective, he noted that consumers would end up paying down the line.
Cloud suggested that lawmakers revisit the San Joaquin River Settlement Agreement that directs some water from irrigation and other uses to restore waterways with the intent of reviving salmon runs.
“To date, we’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a project that doesn’t work and has no future of working, if you believe in global warming, because it is too far south.”
For his part, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said that if so much water wasn’t being redirected from the San Joaquin Delta, farmers could have an easier time reducing their groundwater use, which they’ll likely be required to do under a new state law.
Sal Parra, Jr., a pest control advisor from San Joaquin, said water shortages are hurting rural Valley communities, especially poor ones with large migrant populations.
“Why? Because there are no jobs. And what brings jobs? Farms and water.”
Parra, who also is president of the Golden Plains Unified School District in San Joaquin, said the problem is evidenced by the decline of students in his district as families move away from lack of work.
Joe Del Bosque, president of Firebaugh-based Del
Bosque Farms, urged the Senator to work with her colleagues to finally pass an immigration reform bill.
He said he has asked his employees what they would like in such a bill, and “I think a lot of them would like legal status” to work in the U.S.
With tighter border controls, it’s getting harder to find immigrants — legal and undocumented — to fill ag jobs, Del Bosque said.
“We really need these people,” and despite advances in mechanical harvesting and other farm jobs, some work still needs to be done by hand, including harvesting the cantaloupes he grows.
He noted that of his 200 farm laborers, only four were born in the U.S.
“How many of those were undocumented,” Harris asked.
“Probably 70 percent,” Costa said, with Del Bosque nodding in affirmation.
The senator noted that she co-sponsored the Agricultural Worker Program Act, which would grant undocumented immigrants who have worked at least 100 days in ag jobs over the past two years a “blue card” that would allow them to continue working legally in this country.
Workers who continue working with blue cards for a designated number of years would be eligible to apply for green cards and eventually permanent residency.
“It is a critical issue in this region. What came out of our meeting includes and reinforces what we know to be a real issue for California in terms of our agricultural community,” Harris told reporters after the meeting. “We’re losing workers. We don’t have the people we rely on to pick the fruit and vegetables to keep this process running and flowing.
“I was here, today, back in Fresno — because I’ve been here many times — to continue the conversation with our farmers, our growers to make sure when I’m addressing these issues in Washington, I am in touch with the real time, real concerns of the folks in this community.”