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Mothers, Grandmothers and the
Feeding of America

Trouble flows with the river through California’s
Sacramento Valley. Story & photos © Tim Findley

Blistering north on Interstate 80 past Sacramento, the radiator of a semi filling the mirror like a monstrous flat anvil, the valley ahead spreads out in buttery heat. Neat rows of walnut groves and tight green lines of truck crops appear on both sides. Then on a tawny vacant hillside, a small sign with modest green lettering slides by: FARMERS FEED AMERICA...
Family Water Alliance members, from left, Mary Gordon,
Susan Sutton, Vicki Murphy and Marion Mathis. In
California’s most productive valley, they are fighting a
heroic battle to save farming.
Anywhere, but especially here in one of the richest agricultural regions in the nation, such a statement of the obvious might seem unnecessary. But especially here, in contrast to the abundant growing season, the message is clear. There’s trouble in the Sacramento Valley.

The sign is the work of a small handful of women, most of them farm wives, who have been working for nearly a decade to get the idea across to the studiously cautious political leadership of the seven counties from the northern border south to Sacramento that comprise this 220-mile-long valley.

It is a losing battle.

In mid-May, after listening to four of the women from the Family Water Alliance (FWA), the five-member Yolo County Board of Supervisors signed on as the last essential political body to make possible a regional agreement that the FWA warns will threaten not only farms, but entire communities in the valley. At least, the women urged, the county should move cautiously before making such a final commitment.

Once an ally, now a critic, even the California Farm Bureau scoffs at the FWA concern. Huffing himself in burr-cut intimidation like a drill sergeant at the podium, Henry Rodergerdts, an attorney for the Farm Bureau, told the supervisors that it will be too bad if they wait to “come to the table to eat your porridge as a whining child.” Oblivious to the blank stares at his syntax, he advised them not to “spoil the soup by suggesting you’re coming with your own agenda.” The proposals of the FWA, he said, are “idiotic.”

The ladies are used to that. Most of the California establishment tries to ignore them while moving toward final implementation of an agreement that will establish a green dream “riparian corridor” on both sides of the Sacramento River from the border to the capital city itself. In the process, farmlands will be bought out from “willing sellers” and a whole new bookload of recommended procedures will be imposed on farmers showing them how to get along better with the natural river environment well beyond the narrow shoreline corridor.

Rodergerdts, claiming to speak for farmers, advised that “it’s about time we started paying back.” But the fact is, there isn’t much, if anything, the farmers here can be said to have taken, unless it’s the good soil to produce a wealth of crops over the last century in the upper Sacramento Valley. This part of the Sacramento is still regarded as among the least polluted water sources in the state. This year, salmon runs are expected to be near record, as they have been for several years. The biggest threat to wildlife may be overfeeding from the scrabble in the fields. The Sacramento in this region is not threatened by farmers; in fact, its habitat seems to thrive with their presence.

Not even former State Senator Jim Nielsen of Rohnert Park doubted that in 1986 when he introduced his bill to create a cooperative management plan meant to preserve fisheries and riparian habitat on the Sacramento shorelines. Nielsen, who represented sprawling new Sonoma County suburbs on the southern fringe of the fertile valley would be long out of office and obscurely involved in prisons and parole programs by the time his sleek corridor plan evolved into the fat political camel it is today.

After some 14 years of feeding from an Advisory Council dominated by the influence of environmental groups in its membership, the original corridor along the river has sprawled like a flood into a “Conservation Area” that reaches over 350,000 acres including farms, towns, parts of small cities, irrigation districts and highways as part of an “eligibility zone” contributing to the riparian health of the river.

It was that bloat of political influence that drew the attention of Sue Sutton, a young and well-educated farm wife in Colusa County who helped form FWA in 1992. It was then, and is still, an organization dominated by the energies of farm women, but today it has a mailing list of more than 5,000 and the support of dozens of small business owners in towns dotted all over the seven county region.

“My family has been farming, working the land here for four generations,” Sutton said. “Now, we’re skeptical about the future for our kids. It’s that simple.”

While the FWA was formulating its strategy for farm protection, commonly-known vultures had already sniffed the political carrion created by Nielsen’s bill. Grandly composing its Conservation Area and handbook for riparian restoration, the original Advisory Council included provisions for acquisition of prime farm land in the region from “willing sellers.” The buyer might be U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, but as its shill and ready and waiting with its usual trunkload of cash was The Nature Conservancy (TNC).

By now a story told too often to be new, TNC took careful note of where the weaknesses were in family farms, where the opportunities might be easiest. In quick order, farmers, some with fields miles from the river itself, were receiving what was rumored to be incredible prices for their land, tempting others to become “willing sellers” as well, and leaving still others isolated by neighbors’ sales.

The state Farm Bureau, although critical of FWA’s resistance to participation in the shadow government of a regional non-profit board to oversee the plan, nevertheless recognized what was going on with the “willing seller” tactic.

“The government effectively has designated your property as a wildlife preserve, by default,” wrote Farm Bureau President Bill Pauli.

Where The Nature Conservancy or U.S. Fish & Wildlife has acquired farm lands, producing orchards have been pulled up and eliminated, fields of truck crops replowed, all to be replanted with supposedly “native” vegetation in the ever-growing “riparian zone.” Along formerly well-known community fishing sites, there are new signs warning against trespass on federal property.

Where cultivated land has been eliminated, in some cases the population of rabbits has increased, resulting in losses to nearby truck crops. Native vegetation in the “handbook” also includes the elderberry bush, food source to the elderberry beetle, which happens to be the most endangered species in the region, protected on private as well as public land. No one is quite sure if planting more elderberries to save the beetle will have an impact on neighboring farms.

“We’re under the bus,” Vicki Murphy of the FWA keeps insisting in her own coinage to counter county leader fears of not being “on board,” or “at the table” in what is regarded as an inevitable growth of power on the regional non-profit group. “They’ve already run right over us.” Her family has farmed over five generations in Yolo County.

“We’re mothers and wives and grandmothers, and we see our communities on the verge of falling,” said Marion Mathis of the FWA. “We are trying to preserve not just our farms or our towns, but the customs and culture that are part of our lives and that are slowly being eroded.”

In the 10 years or so that the three or four key women of FWA have regularly traded its presidency and titles, they have encountered the critical doubt of some who wonder where the men are, but their all-volunteer effort amounts to a singular and perhaps heroic effort against the momentum unrecognized by others.

The non-profit board assembled from seven counties and presumed to represent some “consensus” on the Sacramento’s riparian corridor begins its formal work this summer. Sales by “willing sellers” so far are reported to have amounted to multi-millions and the loss to counties of an average $20,000 a year in taxes, which are expected to be made up by federal PILT (payment in lieu of taxes) contributions. Environmentalists say the process is part of a broader coordinated effort to reclaim California’s river systems in a method that “may prove greater than the sum of its parts.”

Rodergerdts of the Farm Bureau may carry the day with the Yolo supervisors by presenting his convoluted conclusion that “the political climate is anti-agriculture” and therefore requires concessions. But headed back south on Interstate 80 that evening, you can appreciate the sign more by knowing the spirited women who made it. Current political momentum or not, they’re still in the game, and their message is simple: “FARMERS FEED AMERICA”....


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