Many travelers heading north on Interstate 5 or Highway 99 only get a fleeting glimpse of the Sacramento Valley. However, those who know this region understand and appreciate how unique and valuable it is.
The Sacramento Valley is an impressive patchwork of farms and communities, living and working in harmony with the environment.
A worsening drought has led to major water cutbacks. Farmers will grow less and the communities with agriculture as their foundation will be impacted.
Local officials are concerned about how lost farm production will impact their communities.
“Those impacts are actually huge,” remarked Colusa County Supervisor Denise Carter, who farms with her husband, Ben. “You can just measure the magnitude in dollars, revenue to the county, and that revenue to the county and to the growers is there’s a trickle-down effect. You have the equipment companies, you have the chemical companies, you have the fuel suppliers. You have also the people. In a drought like this, none of us can afford to hire as many people as we normally hire.”
Colusa County has an annual value of all crops produced of more than $900 million and is America’s top rice growing county. Cutbacks from the Sacramento River this year are unlike anything experienced before.
Concern for drought impacts is pervasive throughout the region.
“Butte County, like many rural counties throughout America and California, is the economy revolves around agriculture,” said county supervisor and farmer, Tod Kimmelshue. “The farmers make money, but also the support services that serve agriculture, also do very well when things are good. Now, if land is going to be fallowed this year in Butte County and Northern California, we’re concerned that some of those support services will also not do as well. So it has quite a ripple effect going through the whole county.”
As this season plays out, the Sacramento Valley will be tested. Even with a difficult year ahead, optimism remains for the long haul.
“We care deeply,” remarked Yuba City City Councilmember Grace Espindola. “The diversity of community is in our blood.”
Espindola said building Sites Reservoir would be an excellent step to help California weather future droughts.
Jim Morris: It’s late April in the Sacramento Valley and, at least here along Highway 99 in Butte County, things appear somewhat normal. The recent rain is unusual, but unfortunately the lack of rain in the winter months is an all too familiar occurrence. What we’re left with is unprecedented drought, which has extended for three years and it’s causing uncertainty and concern like never before.
Denise Carter: Quite honestly, no one has ever seen it this bad.
Jim Morris: Welcome to Ingrained, the California Rice Podcast. I’m your host, Jim Morris, proud to have worked with farmers and ranchers throughout the state for more than 30 years to help tell their stories. During that time, there have been all too many dry years, but what’s happening this time has never been experienced in the Sacramento Valley. Concerns are real and rising. Butte County is one of the state leaders in agriculture, with a crop value of well over $600 million a year. Farming is the foundation of this county and of our valley. Tod Kimmelshue is a family farmer and a retired ag finance banking advisor. He’s now serving on the Butte County Board of Supervisors. Tod, for someone who isn’t familiar with your area, how do you convey to them what farming and ranching mean here?
Tod Kimmelshue: Butte County has always been a very strong farming community and we’re very lucky also, to have an agricultural university here, Chico State, which trains farmers and agricultural people. We grow several different crops here, mostly almonds, walnuts and rice, and agriculture has a great deal of impact in this area.
Jim Morris: I think many from afar think California weather is absolutely perfect. And we certainly have some perfect times, but we’re in a bit of a rough stretch right now to be sure, not only the winter freeze for almonds, but also the awful drought entering year three now. Prime examples of how this has already been an agonizing year for many. What are your concerns about drought impacts?
Tod Kimmelshue: The drought has had a huge impact on our water supply in this area. Much of Butte County rice is grown with surface water. And, when we have a drought, the reservoirs don’t fill up, and so there’s not enough water for the rice crops in this area. The other water source we have in Butte County are aquifers. And most of the orchardists in this area use the aquifers. However, those aquifers have been declining as well during the drought.
Jim Morris: When land is idle and crops aren’t abundant, what is the effect on non-farmers in your area?
Tod Kimmelshue: Butte County, like many rural counties throughout America and California, is the economy revolves around agriculture. The farmers make money, but also the support services that serve agriculture, also do very well when things are good. Now, if land is going to be fallowed this year in Butte County and Northern California, we’re concerned that some of those support services will also not do as well. So it has quite a ripple effect going through the whole county.
Jim Morris: I’ve lived in Butte County, and I know Butte Strong is more than a slogan, it’s a way of life. Looking back to the Camp Fire in Paradise, several years back, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. This region struggled mightily, but came through and rebounded. How much will your area need to rely on its resiliency to whether this latest setback?
Tod Kimmelshue: Well, this is just another setback in many that has affected Butte County, and we consider ourselves very resilient. We’ve made it through some of these really terrible disasters. Drought is just another disaster that may impact us here in Butte County and probably will impact us economically. So we believe that we will weather this storm, just like farmers weather many different storms and weather conditions, and we will come out of this in the next couple years when we get more rain.
Jim Morris: Colusa County is America’s top rice growing county. Its crop values usually exceed $900 million a year. There are legitimate concerns about how this year will play out due to water cut backs. The biggest drought impacts are along the Sacramento River. Denise Carter and her husband, Ben, farm in this county. She’s also a county supervisor, a role she served for nearly 15 years. Her background includes an engineering degree from UCLA. Denise, can you convey your concerns about the drought from the perspective as a grower and someone who’s working on behalf of your county?
Denise Carter: As a grower, I would say the cutback is significant. For us in our situation, since we are a settlement contractor along the river, with our 18 percent of Sacramento River water that we are going to receive, we are dedicating that to our rice crop. So we will grow basically half of what we normally grow. It’s a small quantity and we grow organic rice, and obviously there’s a real need in that market. So we’re doing our little part with the water we have, to grow a little bit of rice.
Jim Morris: How about your community that you represent and your concerns about those impacts?
Denise Carter: Those impacts are actually huge. You can just measure the magnitude in dollars, revenue to the county, and that revenue to the county and to the growers is there’s a trickle-down effect. You have the equipment companies, you have the chemical companies, you have the fuel suppliers. You have also the people. In a drought like this, none of us can afford to hire as many people as we normally hire. So quite frankly, that’s my biggest concern is having jobs for people. And if we don’t have jobs for people, what are they going to do? Are they going to leave their area? So, eventually maybe we will have more water, hopefully next year, will those people come back? Many of these employees have been in this county for years and have lived here and farmed here for years. And in Colusa County, agriculture is the number one industry. We are an agricultural-based county. So consequently, it’s going to have a big hit on our county.
Jim Morris: You mentioned economics, but I caught a bit of emotion, too. People know each other here, they’re concerned for each other. So how emotional is this year going to be?
Denise Carter: I think everybody knows each other in this community and there’s going to be significant job loss in the county. People in this county do really take care of others in this county. I truly, truly believe that, and I’ve seen that so many times, but the magnitude of this job loss is going to be significant. And we have farmers who aren’t going to be able to afford to hire as many people. And they’re also not going to get the hours that they’re used to getting. I was actually talking to someone about, at a tomato processing facility and they say, “People aren’t going to be working 12 hour days. They’ll be working 8 hour days.”
Denise Carter: Because again, you can hire more people at 8 hour days or maybe you don’t even have enough product, but you can hire more people if they have less hours, and maybe that’s enough to keep people, at least, going. I had a conversation a couple days ago at our local paint store. And I asked him how things are going. And he said, “They’re going okay. The big projects are still happening, but what I’m not seeing is the walk-in traffic, the people coming in who want to just paint a bedroom.” And I think it’s because people can’t afford to, quite honestly. There are priorities, food, shelter and transportation.
Jim Morris: Agriculture, by nature, is cyclical. Have you seen or heard from other people, anything like what’s happening this year?
Denise Carter: No one has ever seen it this bad. And, you couple the lack of surface water with the strain on our groundwater and it’s kind of a perfect storm right now. And it’s very frightening from a lot of different aspects.
Jim Morris: Grace Espindola legally immigrated at the age of two and has been a trail blazer, including becoming the first Mexican-American elected to the Yuba City, City Council. And Grace, can you tell me a little bit about your background and also the diversity of this area?
Grace Espindola: I came to this country at a very young age. I was two years old, carried by my mother with one luggage and we were destined to come to Colusa. My father was working there in Colusa with Mayfair Packing Company. So he had established a place for us to live. So here we are, I’m now a City Council member.
Jim Morris: That is so awesome. And reading from your biography at the age of 12, you began working in the orchards of Sutter County and your work has evolved into a variety of jobs, including fast food, a waitress, dishwasher, housekeeper, retail, insurance, home health, clerk, secretary, counselor, and many other jobs. So you have seen many different sides of this Sacramento Valley economy. How much is agriculture intertwined with all of the people here?
Grace Espindola: One hundred percent of our community is connected to ag business or ag industry. One of the things that my mom said to me when I was 12 years old, that the reason that she thought I was going to be successful, is because I knew how to pick walnuts faster than any other kid. So having that kind of experience, working out in the orchards and knowing the value of the farm worker, working with the farmers and within the city of our city, who purchase a lot of consumer goods, it is a relationship. It is a community and that’s what the value is.
Jim Morris: And the Yuba Sutter area is amazing for agriculture when you look at walnuts, peaches, prunes, of course, rice. And so, what are your concerns specifically for agriculture, as we look at a year that we haven’t seen before, a third year of drought?
Grace Espindola: The biggest concern is having enough water for all of us. As a city, as an ag business, as a community, do we have enough water? Well, fortunately we are in a better situation than other parts of our state, that is good. But in the future, what would that look like? So we, as a community, part of my mission, part of my priority, working with farming community, working with local businesses, working with the farm workers and their families is to be able to come up with solutions that we can both live with. And I’m also working with the State Water Board, DWR, for that voice to be heard from local community members.
Jim Morris: How much do people care for each other in this region?
Grace Espindola: We care deeply. The diversity of community is in our blood. That in a farmer when you have, there’s a family, and sometimes farm workers in that farming industry become part of the fabric of family. My family, working for Mayfair Packing Company, we had that connection and I have continued to utilize that philosophy in my work as an elected official, but, at the same time, as just another person who is trying to do the right thing for all of us.
Jim Morris: I can feel your positivity and it is a very challenging year. How positive are you that through perseverance, this region is going to make it through?
Grace Espindola: I have everything to believe that we’re going to make it through. We have to be much more mindful on how we utilize water. We have to connect all of this, in order to be able to live amongst the needs of how we’re going to utilize the water when it becomes less. But, when we have extra water, we also have to know how to store it, how to keep it, to utilize it for those times when we have droughts, like we are in now.
Jim Morris: Sites Reservoir would be an excellent addition to California moving forward.
Grace Espindola: I completely value Sites Reservoir. I went up there and did a tour and seen firsthand, and I see the entire benefit of all of our community. It will offer many jobs, it will bring economic boost, but most of all, what we all need, is we need to reserve water and be prepared for when those moments of drought, like we’re living now, so let’s get this built.
Jim Morris: That will wrap up this episode, but you can find out more on the drought and on our podcast at calrice.org. We will keep you updated as the year progresses. I appreciate Tod Kimmelshue, Denise Carter and Grace Espindola for their time, comments and concerns for our region. Thanks for listening.