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  Sierra Magazine
  November/December 2008
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Growers and Greens Unite | 1 | 2 | 3

For decades water was cheap for California farmers. But by 1998 the cost had risen to $34 per acre-foot. The Tulare Irrigation District figured it was losing more than $300,000 annually to seepage, so it decided to line its main intake canal with concrete.

The district had a problem, though: The canal, built to carry water from the Kaweah River watershed in the 1870s, was actually a series of natural channels connected by ditches. Many stretches retained riparian forests that would wither without groundwater; farmers and nearby towns that relied on the canal to replenish their aquifer worried that wells would dry up. The Kern-Kaweah Chapter of the Sierra Club opposed the project, and filed a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Tulare County citizens, drawn by newspaper accounts or by word of mouth, were joining POWER, which included the Sierra Club. Even Bob Ludekens, owner of the 1,100-acre L. E. Cook Nursery and the Farm Bureau's Man of the Year, joined up. The previously unlikely allies, Ludekens, Blain, and Garcia, began slide and lecture presentations to service clubs, professional groups, city councils, chambers of commerce ("The lair of the enemy," grins Blain), and the county board of supervisors. In public confrontations with the water agency, POWER's team learned to shape its message to the audience. When talking to builders, the M-word ("moratorium"-if town wells dry up, building may be prohibited) was powerful; with conservationists, "habitat"; with workers, "jobs." "To create a diverse coalition, you have to show everybody that they are impacted," explains Blain. "Water was an issue that united us and nobody-conservative or liberal-wanted to see those trees removed."

Walnut-growers Don and Peggy Peterson found themselves swept into activism, and remain a little stunned by it. "We're grandparents," says Peggy. "Who would've thought we would be out there with picket signs."

Members of POWER raffled quilts, sponsored bake sales, and hosted barbecues to raise money for legal costs. "Little old ladies can have all the fundraisers they want, but we're still going to line this ditch," irrigation-district manager Gerald Hill reportedly said, words that would come back to haunt him when women started carrying signs reading "Little Old Lady Power." The day before a hearing on lining the canal was scheduled, the district foolishly announced it would begin bulldozing oaks along a section known as Potter's Slough. Richard Garcia quickly organized "Potter's Slough Blockade," a moving barricade that refused to allow district trucks and equipment to cross private property.

Equally important, the local press reported the encounter. "All of a sudden photos of prominent local citizens were on the front page and people said, 'That's Peggy. That's Bob. That's Sandy. That's my scoutmaster. That's my barber,'" Blain recalls. "'If they're involved, then there's really something to this.' Public sentiment kept swinging our way." Eventually, says Garcia, "we just wore them down. They had the money, but we had the people." In April 2001, the irrigation district shelved its plan to line the canal.

Sometimes the key to reaching agriculturists is understanding the financial challenges they face. "For farmers, the bottom line is trying to survive," explains organic farmer Chris Korrow of Burkesville, Kentucky. Korrow is an enthusiastic promoter of sustainable agriculture, which involves many specific practices-crop rotation for farmers and alternating grazing for ranchers, the avoidance of pesticides, and the reintroduction of native plants or animals, among others. All seek to create agriculture that is economically viable and ecologically sound.

Korrow readily points out that only 8,000 of the country's farms are "certified organic." But that doesn't dampen his desire to bring sustainable agriculture to the rest. "We tell farmers a few simple things," Korrow says. "Sustainable farming is the only aspect of farming that's on the rise-organic sales are growing twenty-five percent a year-and that their inputs will be less and their profits higher." Even when sounding more like a banker than the eco-evangelist that he is, Korrow says it's still a hard sell. "These guys just want to make a living," he says. "And when extension agents tell them that organic is 'alternative,' to them that means 'risky.'"

There is one argument that hits home, however: "Being successful opens people's eyes," Korrow says.

But farmers don't always need an economic incentive to see the environmental light. On California's north coast, stream restoration and habitat protection are sources of great local pride. When wild salmon were designated endangered species in the mid-1990s, Sonoma County activist Kurt Erickson predicted, "The coho will come back when the community comes back together, because then the watershed will be healthy enough to sustain them." Indeed, citizens' groups have united a whole community-ranchers, farmers, winemakers, developers, and environmentalists-to protect and restore their nearby streams.

One Sonoma waterway has been reborn thanks to a visionary teacher named Tom Furrer. Petaluma, California, a suburb 40 miles north of San Francisco, was once a rural village veined by small but prolific streams. When in 1981 native-son Furrer returned to his hometown to teach at Casa Grande High School, he noted that the stream running next to the campus appeared moribund, with virtually no water, little foliage, and few fish. Adobe Creek had once hosted steelhead and salmon runs, but stream diversion and overgrazing, as well as the expansion of housing tracts, seemed to have pushed it beyond hope of revival.

Then Furrer encountered a rancher who had planted trees to shade his stretch of the stream and was trying to save a few steelhead fry in a pool there. That there were fry at all surprised Furrer, so he asked a simple question: Why not try to save the whole creek? He would end up educating a community about the health of streams and ecosystems, and about stewardship.

In 1983, Furrer's wildlife and forestry class began cleaning the creek and replanting the long-gone riparian forest. Despite setbacks (in 1989, for instance, county workers bulldozed 200 fledgling redwoods planted by the students), a circle of supporters arose within the community. The public sector caught on late, but in 1992 the city of Petaluma joined the team by ceasing its diversions of the creek's water; for the first time in 80 years, Adobe Creek flowed naturally.

It took many car washes and candy sales and donations, but the group now known as the United Anglers of Casa Grande has annually planted 1,200 native willows, broad-leaved maples, and oaks; removed over 25 tons of garbage from the streambed; and constructed a state-of-the-art conservation fish hatchery. Only unprecedented cooperation could accomplish those things.

Just last year, for instance, cattle rancher Merv Sartori, through whose property Adobe Creek flows, agreed to allow more than four miles of wildlife-sensitive fencing to protect the stream from his 650 head of cattle. "The creek's going to overgrow because the cattle won't be there to beat it down," he says. "That's what the fish like, a lot of cover. It will keep the erosion down, no doubt about it."

Adobe Creek has come back to life because a community has come to life to support it. Shared problems can build teamwork, and common concerns can lead to cooperation. Once the doors are open even a crack, and folks begin to relate to one another as individuals rather than as stereotypes, they see that within familiar labels-farmer, rancher, environmentalist-there are plenty of variations, and plenty of ways to find common ground.


Gerald Haslam is author of The Great Central Valley: California's Heartland (1993) and Workin' Man Blues: Country Music in California (1999), both from the University of California Press. He lives in Penngrove, California.

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