The county's almond orchards, the only orchard crop in the top 12 commodities (it ranks third below milk and chickens), presents a fascinating agricultural can of worms. First, it can only be called a "classic" position in the perpetual crisis of overproduction for export-led growth that has characterized San Joaquin Valley agribusiness for about the last century. Apparently, growers, seeing a terrific export market for the crop, have climbed onto a "winner" and have planted a reported 650,000 acres in California, the only state that produces almonds, at least in commercial quantities. We say "apparently," because the assumption that every almond grower in the state is in the business to make a profit off the actual crop is naive. A number of the larger "producers" are developers and institutional investors making what are primarily long-range real estate investments for later conversion to urban growth. Meanwhile, they are able to take advantage of every tax dodge and loan deal designed for real farmers. A significant percentage of almond acreage, especially new plantings that may not yet have come into production yet, represent businessmen farming banks and the government rather than the faddish nut.
This latest gigantic experiment in mono-cropping also falls in a long line of California specialization and the drastic results that have plagued this form of agriculture since its inception. The pattern of mono-cropping huge contiguous lands, "scientifically" proven to be the best for the particular crop has always had a downside: the attraction of the largest numbers of pests specific to that crop ever seen. This practice, actively advocated by the University of California, led to the rise of UC pesticide research, and, in conjunction with petroleum corporations and others, to the gigantic, ever-expanding industry of pesticide development and sales.
However, the almond deal has added a unique feature. Almonds are pollinated by bees. Commercial Honey Bee growers ship bees to California to pollinate this crop from all over the United States and even from abroad. According to experts in the last two years, Honey Bees are dying in enormous quantities and there is no clear understanding why or approach to lessening the problem. It is widely described as a real crisis to the nation's capacity for pollination, and even Rep. Dennis Cardoza, Shrimp Slayer-Maryland, has held agricultural subcommittee hearings on this -- so far -- insoluable problem. Specialization, concentration of ownership of agricultural land, and the rise of agribusiness, "the vertically integrated process of making food with as much technology and as few people as possible," also spawned a very sophisticated form of rhetorical hysteria heard throughout the Valley for a century. Its finest exponent at the moment is Westlands Water District. Some call it the "Great Valley Whine," which pretends that the finance, insurance and real estate special interests behind it are all supportive of the family farmer and a uniquely virtuous "Valley Way of Life," which has been a myth of the propagandist's art since its inception.
In addition to overproduction and a pollination problem, California is in the middle of one of its periodic droughts. Mature almond orchards take about 3 acre-feet of irrigation a year. At 650,000 acres, this works about to 1,950,000 acre feet of irrigation water a year. The figure would be somewhat less, factoring in non-bearing orchards. One would imagine that with some cutbacks in water and the pollinator "crisis," production would be falling rather than rising, but growers, packers and shippers are all crying that almonds are becoming a glut on the market.
This raises another feature of the can of worms: export-led growth. Seventy percent of the crop is exported, the article informs us, much of that to China and India. Demand is weakening and the dollar is strengthening, i.e. deflating against other currencies. Evidently, the emerging market countries' candy markets are off. Doesn't this raise an old Valley question about the wisdom of relying on by-product markets, particularly when you are shipping raw, low-priced product for value-added processing elsewhere? It is as stupid and ruinous as shipping raw redwood logs to Asia for milling. But, Hershey's decision two years ago to close its Oakdale plant and build in Mexico, makes that a stupid comment. Of course, American manufacturers will chase the lowest prices they can find on the global labor market, as in fact California agribusiness has been doing for decades itself. The fact of this acceleration in this race to the economic bottom has been no obstacle to it.
The agricultural commissioner lists 3,161 acres as non-bearing, i.e. new plantings as of 2006 (in its 2007 county agricultural report). More than 2,000 acres on White Rock Road between Le Grand and the Chowchilla River, may have been counted in that number. They were planted illegally on rangeland/wildlife habitat without any environmental review, thanks to scofflaws in the Merced County Planning Department.
Last spring, the California Rangeland Coalition, a group that seeks to protect rangeland and develop conservation easements on it, were hosted by the Merced County Farm Bureau and the Valley Land Alliance, a luncheon right across the road from 1,100 acres of these new plantings, owned by Hostetler Ranches. (Directorship of the Farm Bureau and the Land Alliance is completely interlocked at the moment.) The comic highlight of the event was the failure to mention this new planting on what, two years earlier, had been seasonal pastureland. The Coalition president informed us that "a man has a right to do what he wants on his own land." Actually, the entire organization of the coalition, a group of resource agency officials, environmentalists and ranchers, and a few federal and state laws, contradict the cowboy president's statement.
The blitheful inanity of the Farm Bureau was perfectly captured in a quote from its executive director in a recent Merced Sun-Star article: Diana Westmoreland-Pedrozo, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau, said keeping rangeland in ranchers' hands is vital. "Grasslands are being impacted by development, and we need to take care of the important species on that land as well as keeping the land available to grow food for us," she said.
It takes a lifetime of deep study to become fluent in our peculiar Valley form of complete gibberish. And once there the accomplished speaker will never return to reality but will fertilize with organic material the public until the end of his or her days. What is so "perfect" about the whole thing is that Farm Bureau executive directors either never realize or cease to consider that they are nothing but shills for a huge insurance company. What does "development" mean in this context? More than 5,000 acres of almonds just from Chowchilla to Santa Fe Road on seasonal pasture isn't "development" to grow candy ingredients for the Chinese and Indians, exploiting every tax dodge in existence for agriculture while holding the land for the next "Almond Blossom Estates" housing slurb from Chowchilla to Le Grand? Grow food for us? San Joaquin Valley, from the days when dry-farmed wheat was used as ballast for clipper ships, has never been about growing food for us." Earlier, before statehood, tallow and leather export was not about "growing food for us." It was the Railroad and irrigation districts that put the Valley on the map. The water was for growing, the Railroad was for shipping food that was not grown for us.
Nevertheless, this gibberish plays like Billy Graham to local land-use authorities. Hostetler Ranches, under the same ownership as Ranchwood Homes, Merced County's largest local housing developer, is one of the largest almond growers in the nation. According to the Wall Street Journal, Sept. 6, 2007, it already spent $60 million "to buy and plant 4,500 acres of trees since 2000," and in 2007 he planned to spend another $5 million on "an additional 1,000 acres." But, that's not the end of the story of illegally deep-ripping seasonal pasture in the southeast corner of Merced County and the northeast corner of Madera County. Campos Bros. of Fresno County has planted perhaps as many as 5,000 acres in nuts and grapes stretching from the outskirts of Chowchilla to Santa Fe Road on the other side of the Chowchilla River in Merced County. Federal resource-agency investigation into this massive destruction of wildlife habitat by Campos and Hostetler is said to be on-going. Given the political pressure on the agencies not to investigate, we wonder if the White Rock Road agribusinessmen and their enablers from Washington to the Merced County Planning Department will figure and yet another chapter of the Collected Works of Earle Devaney, Inspector General of the Department of Interior.
Almonds, like grapes, have become the preferred way for developers to hold land for the next building boom, exploiting every tax advantage farmers enjoy. When investors are farming banks and government, while corrupting local, state and federal resource regulatory agencies, rather than farming crops, overproduction is inevitable, swamping real growers relying on the crop for their livelihoods.
Meanwhile, another real estate bubble -- this one sold as part of our noble, agrarian "Valley Way of Life" -- appears to be collapsing. It reminds the ancients among us of when, in the mid-1960s, Hollis Roberts, the grand entrepreneur of Valley Nitrogen, planted 2,500 acres of almonds near Shafter, busting the almond market for a number of years. Eventually, Roberts went spectacularly broke, dragging down a lot of creditors with him. But Roberts was small potatoes 40 years ago compared to the real estate scam of the present era. But, this, perhaps final mutation of export-led ag growth in the Valley, raises serious questions about the sanity of our "Valley Way of Life" economy. We don't mean the sanity of the individuals struggling to survive in it. We, unfortunately, mean the whole, mostly idiotic and destructive economic system in which rational business people attempt to thrive because that's the economic river in which they swim. The dairy industry is another example. Ten dollar milk, rising feed prices, a stronger dollar, larger herds, all look good in some economic conditions; in others, they can ruin you. On the other hand, the mega-dairies that moved into the Valley from Southern California, having made a real estate killing on their land there, are keenly aware of the potential value of their land for housing development. And you cannot blame them for their sophistication.
Whatever good new ideas or good old ideas that might improve the situation of the Valley farmer, who makes a living off his or her production, have been and will continue to be undermined by an extremely sophisticated system of lying by those in authority -- land-use, banks, government, commodity groups dominated by processors, Great Valley Center, Farm Bureau, irrigation districts intending to become urban utility districts, etc. Setting aside the problem of whether those authorities are actually stupid enough to believe their own propaganda, the farmer himself or herself, has few friends in this economy. We have no brief on the truth of the agricultural economy of the Valley. On the other hand, we do recognize the typical lies being told. Nor are we in any position to help. However, we can suggest that farmers get together, informally, across commodity lines, and think about organizing outside of the usually suspect organizations, at least for the purposes of rational conversation about what remains of the reality of their economy. We would also suggest they quit automatically screwing environmental groups in the Valley who have done nothing but support them since the passing of the Endangered Species Act and the California Environmental Quality Act. It is not necessary, required or advantageous for a Valley farmer or rancher to check his or her brains in at the property line, despite what they tell you. It really doesn't help to act stupid. Today you act it, tomorrow you are it, like a mouthpiece for a farm bureau.