A nearly dry irrigation ditch on Eric Barlow’s Central Valley farm, September 2014. Photo: Matt Black

By Alan Heathcock
22 September 2014

(Matter) – I speed along highway 99, the asphalt bleary under the high scorching sun. I’m heading to Kingsburg to speak with farmers about one of the worst recorded droughts in California history. I’m running late, a little lost. My GPS screen flickers. The electric-lady-voice instructs me to turn right, but there’s nothing on the right except for ditch weeds and fallow fields. Flats brown to the horizon. Dust devils swirl out there, disappear, rise again in another spot.

Miles later I exit. I think I’ve driven too far. I turn right and then right again and find myself at a four-way stop. I take out my phone, hoping for a cell signal.

It’s then I hear the dirt bike. A young and shirtless man coasts in from the west. His eyes turn to my silver Nissan with the out-of-state rental plates. He revs his engine, lurches into a wheelie then speeds in front of me, his middle finger thrust in my direction.

Welcome to the Central Valley, ground zero of the water war. Outsiders take heed for this is a troubled land.

Before we get to what this drought means — the anger and paranoia, the heartbreak and bitterness — it’s important to remember the Central Valley isn’t just any valley. It’s one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world. Our country’s breadbasket. Our primary source for tomatoes, almonds, grapes, cotton, and dozens of other products. I’m scheduled to see all of it, on what I’m told will be a “tour of destruction.” My first stop is a beer with a man named “Mule.”

Mule is the patriarch of Olson Family Farms. On hot summer evenings, locals congregate on a spit of riverside land deep in the Olsons’ stone-fruit orchards. Guinea fowl wander the edges of the lot. The riverbanks shoulder a Lakota tepee, a cabin, a smokehouse, a bungalow on stilts they call the “inner sanctum,” and a deck where a group of men drink beer and watch the river’s brown water roll.

Mule has a long gray beard, wears a military jacket and a leather tricorne hat. He looks like a prospector straight from the gold-pan era, and chastises me when I call him “sir.” As I find a spot on the deck, Mule says, “We’re family down here. Down here we look after each other.” He glances around at the farmers gathered. “This here’s my family.”

He says it like a warning — battle lines are clearly drawn around this drought, every outsider a potential spy—and I know he’s telling me to watch my intentions.

“Yes, sir,” I say, and Mule cracks the slightest grin and rears a hand as if he just might hit me.

Two of my main expectations are immediately dispelled. One, I expect the farmers I meet on this trip to be blighted and sorrowful, a bunch of Tom Joads just trying to make ends meet. But these guys are irreverent and cocksure. Tired, maybe. Clearly they listen to a lot of talk radio. I also expect ceaseless talk of the weather. Having grown up in farm country, I know every farmer looks helplessly to the sky hoping the weather gods will be kind. Even in the best of years, the weather is a weight. But in this current catastrophic cycle — three years of near-record rainfall deficits putting most of California at least one full year of normal rainfall behind recovery, some areas closer to two years, all while record breaking heat has currently left 58% of the state in “exceptional drought” conditions — I’m thinking I’ll hear nothing short of the lament of the forsaken.

Instead, a man named Jeff Yarbro hammers on about who they see as enemy #1: environmentalists. As Yarbro has it, these particular environmentalists have fought to make sure whatever precious water is released from the state’s reservoirs goes first to facilitating salmon runs. The problem is that most of this water heads out into the ocean with no attempt to reuse it. “They want this valley all jackrabbits and sage brush,” he says, meaning the environmentalists. “They don’t believe we should be here. They’d like to turn the valley like it was a hundred years ago. And for us to go elsewhere.”

Andy Vidak, cherry farmer and senator for the 16th district, piggybacks Yarbro’s passion, and for the next 20 minutes goes deeply and conspiratorially political. He educates me on a long series of decisions made by a “small percentage of politicians who also hold the most power” in collaboration with radical environmentalists who have worked to destroy the farmers of the Central Valley. “This is perfect politics,” Vidak says. “The perfect war. This valley is conservative.” He contends big-city liberals are aware they can save the salmon, don the hero’s crown for environmentalists, all while eliminating conservative political opposition.

I respectfully suggest that one of the most productive agricultural valleys in the world couldn’t possibly be sacrificed in the name of politics — there’s a population base, functioning towns.

“No,” Vidak counters. “People in New York or Boise, Idaho, don’t care where their produce comes from.” The valley of farmers could go away, and so long as the product came from elsewhere no one would care. [more]

Zero Percent Water


  1. Anonymous said...

    This article presents a sympathetic view of Central Valley small farmers and they do indeed deserve sympathy. Unlike large agribusinesses, they don't have a cushion to see them through hard times. However, the article also makes the all too common mistake of presenting a caricature of the opposing political force- sort of a straw man opponent. The only counter argument to the anti regulatory stance of the farmers is the authors friends who post snarky comments on facebook. No mention of climate change, water allocations in times of sustained drought or the fundamental problem of unsustainable farming practices.  

  2. Anonymous said...

    "Instead, a man named Jeff Yarbro hammers on about who they see as enemy #1: environmentalists."

    Yarbro and his friends are ignorant to the real causes. The DROUGHT is the problem and it is caused by human activity impacting the CLIMATE.

    "Environmentalists" are doing more good for the climate then harm. So blaming them makes absolutely no sense at all.  


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