Farmers Discuss Issues at State Capitol

Taylor HillmanGeneral


Colusa County rice farmer Chris Torres, left, and Lake County Farm Bureau Executive Director Brenna Sullivan discuss issues important to California agriculture with Assemblymember Bill Dodd, D-Napa, right, during a meeting in the state Capitol. Photo/Kate Campbell

More than 100 farmers and ranchers briefed state legislators and staff last week on a variety of issues important to agriculture.

Among the many topics discussed in face-to-face meetings at the state Capitol were the potential impact of changes to overtime rules for agricultural workers, problems with locating schools in agricultural production areas, and state duplication of existing local authority over well-drilling permits.

Regulatory issues of concern included proposed changes to the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program, potential expansion of pesticide application buffer zones and the urgent need to keep biomass power-generation plants in operation.

During meetings with legislators, Farm Bureau leaders said they opposed Assembly Bill 2757 by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego. The bill, versions of which have been introduced in the Legislature two previous times without success, calls for changing overtime rules to eliminate the current 10-hour-per-day overtime threshold for agricultural workers.

“During peak harvest—the usual situation for overtime—we’d have to more carefully manage labor costs, cutting hours and economically impacting workers and their families,” Colusa County rice farmer Chris Torres said.

“We’re already paying a higher minimum wage, adding more work breaks, adding pay for sick time, adding costs for health benefits,” Torres said.

Pierre Sleiman Jr., a San Diego County hydroponic lettuce grower, commented on a visit with a co-author of the agricultural overtime bill.

“That was helpful, because it allowed us a better understanding of why the bill was being pushed forward again,” Sleiman said. “Being a good listener is important when two sides meet to discuss their positions.”

Imperial Valley vegetable and hay grower Stephen Benson said agricultural overtime regulations affect growers in his region more than elsewhere in the state, because farmers have choices of where to grow: Imperial County; Yuma, Ariz.; or Mexicali, Mexico.

“Broccoli has been moving into Mexico and lettuce has been moving to Yuma to get away from the state’s mounting labor and workers’ compensation laws,” Benson said. “For us, increasing regulations and more expensive labor laws are big issues because of grower competition in our climate zone.”

He noted that Farm Bureau supports the school-siting legislation—Senate Bill 313 by Bill Monning, D-Carmel—that will improve coordination between local governments and school boards when new school sites are selected. The ability of school boards to override zoning ordinances and place schools wherever they want increases the threat of urban sprawl, as well as the likelihood of taking increased amounts of agricultural land out of production to enforce pesticide application restrictions, Benson said.

Tuolumne County timber operator Shaun Crook was among Farm Bureau leaders discussing the need to keep existing biomass power plants open and expand the number of plants operating in California. Power generation contracts between biomass plants and utilities are expiring, and plants are shutting down.

“In Tuolumne County, we’re lucky we have an operating biomass plant, at least for now,” Crook said. “Down in the valley, where there’s tons of biomass from orchard trimmings and open burning is restricted to protect air quality, it makes even more sense to have clean-burning biomass plants.”

Farm Bureau leaders asked legislators to help assure reasonable, fair contracts between utilities and biomass plant operators to keep the facilities running, and to support efforts for gaining funding through the Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund to help maintain and expand waste-to-energy infrastructure.

During meetings with legislators, Lake County Farm Bureau Executive Director Brenna Sullivan said Farm Bureau opposes AB 2162 by Kansen Chu, D-San Jose, which would take away local land-use authority for managing oak woodlands and add a burdensome permitting process for landowners.

“One of our biggest concerns is that protecting oak woodlands is already being addressed through other regulations,” Sullivan said.

If passed, the bill would require a removal plan and permit from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for taking out a valley oak of 10 inches or more in diameter. For oaks other than valley oaks, a permit would be required for removal of 10 or more 10-inch-diameter trees.

Farm Bureau leaders also highlighted proposed measures they support, such as a 10 percent income tax credit to help increase donations and expand the list of qualified items that can go to food banks. AB 152 by Assemblymember Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, builds on a bill passed in 2011 by extending the income tax credit sunset from 2017 to 2022.

San Diego County farmer Sleiman said farmers and ranchers going to the Capitol in large numbers is an effective way to build momentum for future legislative decisions that will support California agriculture.

“I actually had two separate legislators say to me that we should do these office visits more often,” he said. “They said they look forward to learning about agriculture.”

“The issues we need to discuss with our legislators are complicated and we need to take the time to educate everyone about how things work in agriculture—and how policies affect us,” Contra Costa County nurseryman Mike Vukelich said.

During a conference preceding the legislative visits, Sacramento Bee political columnist Dan Walters told Farm Bureau leaders that to maintain clout in state government, groups must evolve and form strategic alliances.

“You have to find friends and, in a Legislature that will be dominated by Democrats, your friends will more often be found in a block of Democratic moderates,” Walters said.

Kate Campbell is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at Permission for use is granted by the California Farm Bureau Federation.