Farmer to city dwellers: Lis­ten up


FIRE­BAUGH — It was heat­ing up in the San Joaquin Val­ley this week. Joe Del Bosque, a farmer who had to make some hard de­ci­sions this year, was driv­ing to­ward an as­para­gus field he’s about to plow un­der. The wind­shield of his white Yukon was splat­tered with dead bugs. He didn’t seem to no­tice.

As he drove, he told me a story that has be­come all too fa­mil­iar in the last few months.

His sis­ter was at a din­ner party in the Bay Area, he said. An engi­neer sit­ting next to her asked where she was from. When she told him she grew up on the west side of the San Joaquin Val­ley, he said, “Oh, ev­ery time I drive by it makes my blood boil to see all those al­monds grow­ing there.”

Del Bosque was in­cred­u­lous.

“This is an ed­u­cated guy. A smart farmer is go­ing to pick the crops the mar­ket wants. And ev­ery time some­one buys food in the store, they’re telling us what we should be plant­ing.”

What con­sumers are say­ing is: al­monds. Plant al­monds.

This does not sit well with ur­ban­ites, who have sud­denly be­come self-ap­pointed wa­ter ex­perts.

In the last week, a drunk man at a Cul­ver City karaoke bar and a per­fectly sober ther­a­pist in Venice both railed at me about “self­ish” al­mond grow­ers who have no busi­ness plant­ing such a thirsty crop in a drought. I shared the sto­ries with Del Bosque, who has de­voted about a third of his 2,000 acres to al­monds.

Abruptly, he pulled off the road and parked next to an al­mond or­chard.

“You know what? I want to show you some­thing,” he said. With his en­gine run­ning, he got out of his truck and plucked an un­ripe al­mond. He sliced it open.

“Ev­ery­one who crit­i­cizes al­monds? They’ve never re­ally seen one.”

He made a pas­sion­ate speech about the virtues of the al­mond and the short­com­ings of its dis­tant rel­a­tive, the peach. Peaches are the Kate Mid­dle­ton of agri­cul­ture. They get noth­ing but glow­ing press.

“Have you ever seen a peach?” Del Bosque asked. “When it’s young, it looks just like this. But when you eat a ripe peach, you are eat­ing 90% wa­ter. There’s more nu­tri­ents in this lit­tle seed than in a whole peach. This is what peo­ple don’t un­der­stand.”

Yes, it’s come to this: be­lea­guered al­mond farm­ers are beat­ing up on peaches.

It’s not that Del Bosque has any­thing against peaches. He’s just frus­trated that the al­mond — de­sir­able, prof­itable and healthy — has be­come the anti-Christ of the Cal­i­for­nia drought.

I sug­gested that al­mond grow­ers are partly to blame. They have lost con­trol of their own nar­ra­tive.

De­spite what you think, al­monds are not a par­tic­u­larly thirsty crop. Huge amounts of wa­ter are used for things you’d never think of. I read the other day that it takes 80,000 gal­lons of wa­ter to make enough steel for one car.

“Yeah,” Del Bosque said. “Farm­ers just aren’t very good at com­mu­ni­cat­ing.” But he is try­ing. At 66, he’s made him­self into a sym­bol of the wa­ter­chal­lenged fam­ily farmer. He is avail­able, and pa­tient. He calmly of­fers the far- mer’s take on gov­ern­mentim­posed wa­ter re­stric­tions with­out im­pugn­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists or the en­dan­gered delta smelt.

Last year, just af­ter Del Bosque dis­cov­ered Twit­ter, he read that Pres­i­dent Obama was com­ing to Fresno to talk about the drought.

“The next morn­ing I got on Twit­ter. I said, ‘Mr. Pres­i­dent, I in­vite you to come to my farm for a dis­cus­sion on the drought’s ef­fect on our farms and our peo­ple.’ I just threw it out there, you know, into Tweet­er­world.”

A week later, on Valen­tine’s Day 2014, there he was, squir­ing the pres­i­dent and Gov. Jerry Brown across his land, next to a 125-acre can­taloupe field that had been fal­lowed for lack of wa­ter.

“We get a mil­lion mel­ons from that field, I told the pres­i­dent. And all those jobs are not go­ing to be here this year.”

At the re­quest of the pres­i­dent’s ad­vance team, Del Bosque had parked a sparkling new trac­tor be­hind some hay bales, good op­tics for a pres­i­den­tial photo op.

“I asked the pres­i­dent, ‘Do you know what kind of trac­tor that is?’ He said, ‘John Deere. We love John Deere in Illi­nois.’ I said, ‘When we buy a trac­tor here, we cre­ate jobs in Illi­nois. And when we don’t have wa­ter, we don’t buy trac­tors.’ ”

Brown’s ques­tions, said Del Bosque, were pointed.

“The gover­nor said, ‘Well, why are they plant­ing all these al­mond trees?’

“I said, ‘Gover­nor, be­cause there is such a de­mand for al­monds.’ That’s it. Plain and sim­ple.”

Since Obama’s visit, the drought has wors­ened.

And Del Bosque has fal­lowed more fields.

Ev­ery year, Del Bosque sits down with an agron­o­mist to fig­ure out what he can plant based on how much wa­ter he’s saved up in nearby San Luis Reser­voir. In the last two years, his sup­ply has dwin­dled, so he must cal­cu­late care­fully.

Al­monds are un­touch­able. Toma­toes and as­para­gus, not so much.

Del Bosque, whose li­cense plate says “Mel­ons,” won’t sac­ri­fice his or­ganic can­taloupes ei­ther. Up­scale gro­cers such as Whole Foods pay a pre­mium for them — $11 a box in­stead of $7. He does not want to com­pro­mise those busi­ness re­la­tion­ships, which take time to build.

Dur­ing the melon harvest, June to Oc­to­ber, he and his wife, Glo­ria, spend ev­ery day out­side with their crews. The chil­dren of mi­grant work­ers, they’ve spent their lives in the field. Most of their hands re­turn ev­ery year, but their num­bers are shrink­ing. He used to send out 1,000 W-2s. Lately, only 600 or 700.

Driv­ing back to his of­fice, we passed acres and acres of fal­lowed field. Del Bosque did not ad­mit to much emo­tion. “My peo­ple, though, when they pass by here, they want to cry.”

I thought about the engi­neer, the karaoke bar guy and the ther­a­pist. Un­like Del Bosque’s farm­work­ers, the drought has caused barely a rip­ple in the lifestyles of city dwellers.

Pick­ing on al­mond farm­ers might be all the rage, but it will do noth­ing to solve the state’s wa­ter short­age. If peo­ple un­der­stood that, per­haps they wouldn’t be so quick to judge.

‘The gover­nor said, “Well, why are they plant­ing all these al­mond trees?” I said, “Gover­nor, be­cause there is such a de­mand for al­monds.” That’s it.’

— Joe Del Bosque, farmer

Wally Skalij Los An­ge­les Times

SAN JOAQUIN VAL­LEY farmer Joe Del Bosque, sec­ond from right, and his wife, Glo­ria, talk about the drought with Gov. Jerry Brown and Pres­i­dent Obama dur­ing a tour of their land last year.

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