California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson has watched the Golden State influence national environmental policies but worries it is now falling short in the Biden administration’s push to grow more food to address an unprecedented global shortage.
Opening the farm bureau’s annual conference in Monterey on Monday, Johansson painted a grim state of the industry following “a year of challenges like no other” and aimed his frustrations at state policies, lamenting: “It doesn’t have to be this way.”
With the historic and extreme drought—which is on the precipice of a fourth dry year—Johansson charged that agriculture already knows the solution, with industry leaders advocating for years to increase above-ground storage.
He decried the tedious process for approving state water infrastructure spending that stems from the 2014 Proposition 1 ballot measure to fund Sites Reservoir and other storage proposals. He also blasted regulators for constant resistance on groundwater recharge projects and slow progress in expediting permits for such efforts, owing to a June 2023 deadline set by Gov. Gavin Newsom for streamlining the processes.
“Why can’t it be sooner?” asked Johansson. “Why can’t we build that urgency?”
Newsom “talks really good about water policy,” particularly when issuing his fourth water plan in August. Dubbed the Water Supply Strategy, the report sets broad goals for expanding supply. But Johansson wished Newsom had put more emphasis on the Water Resilience Portfolio, which listed more than 100 actions for expanding and improving supplies.
Newsom once told Johansson he understood that farmers cannot simply pick up their farms and move to another state, like other businesses seeking a more favorable regulatory climate.
“Well, actually we can,” countered Johansson. “And we're starting to, governor.”
He argued that agriculture is based on science and markets but can’t farm for decisions based on politics and policy agendas.
Johansson then delved into energy policy, criticizing the administration’s push for rapidly transitioning to clean energy sources and how that has led to unsustainably high utility rates. Extending the life of Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant did not create additional energy, he cautioned, meaning blackouts and public safety power shutoffs will continue next year. He called for California to follow Washington State’s lead with incorporating hydropower into their renewable energy portfolio.
In an earlier commentary, Johansson detailed how the Modesto Irrigation District has spent $85 million to procure outside energy to meet the state’s clean energy standards at a $14 million cost to utility customers over the next decade, when the district already produces the equivalent amount of power through hydroelectricity from Don Pedro Dam.
Switching to federal policy, Johansson was encouraged that a congressmember from the Central Valley, House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, is set to become House speaker, and he was hopeful Pennsylvania Republican Glenn “GT” Thompson, a personal friend, would chair the House Agriculture Committee in the next Congress. He also cheered Arizona Republican Rep. Bruce Westerman for taking over as chair of the House Natural Resources Committee, where key policy decisions are made for water and endangered species.
The farm bureau’s political action committee, meanwhile, helped to secure a win last week for Republican John Duarte over Asm. Adam Gray of Merced in a tight House race in the San Joaquin Valley. He challenged members to push PAC donations past the $50,000 goal set for the annual meeting, warning that “we’re billions of dollars behind” the level of fundraising from prominent environmental and labor groups.
He described how issues that take off in California “ride the jet stream” to Washington, DC., such as Newsom’s 30x30 executive order for preserving 30% of the state’s land and coastal waters by 2030.
“They're looking to California,” he said. “They're looking to us for solutions and stories of how we've been challenged and how we're overcoming them.”
He juxtaposed the water situation in the West—with California planning to fallow about a million acres of farmland to implement the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act—and the Biden administration’s attempt at boosting incentives for double cropping to address global food shortages.
“We have the perfect opportunity to tell a very powerful message—that based on principles, we can continue in agriculture to make a difference and feed the world and more importantly prosper our communities,” said Johansson. “The management of scarcity is failing. It's time now to reimplement the management of bounty and plentifulness that made California great.”
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California’s mindset of working within the limits of scarcity seeks to adapt to climate change by paring down agriculture’s potential, he explained.
“Change is inevitable,” he said. “We understand change in agriculture. But what we struggle with is a state that doesn't have a plan for how we make those changes based on principles.”
Echoing many of Johansson’s comments was former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.
“Frankly, scarcity is not a solution,” said Panetta. “It's an excuse for failing to come up with a policy to deal with it.”
He was alarmed the United Nations World Food Programme last week declared that the world faces the greatest food crisis in modern history and said that it poses a major challenge to national security.
Panetta recognized farmers are facing “a continuing problem with burdensome regulations” and pushed for more water infrastructure investment. He also advocated for more specialty crop research, expanded crop insurance and an adequate workforce balanced with more mechanization.
“It is up to agriculture to grow and raise the food that has to be raised in order to make food affordable to families in this country and to other countries,” said Panetta.
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