Urging her fellow lawmakers to pass a bill that would send more of California’s water to the arid farm fields of the San Joaquin Valley, Sen. Dianne Feinstein gave an impassioned speech Friday about the threat facing family farmers.
“These water supplies are not for big corporate agriculture, as some would have you think,” said Feinstein, a California Democrat. “This water is for the tens of thousands of small farms that have gone bankrupt, like a melon farmer who sat in my office with tears in his eyes and told me how he lost a farm that he had struggled to pay for and that had been part of his family for generations.”
The tale of woe helped propel the bill to a resounding bipartisan victory hours later, despite opposition from environmentalists and Feinstein’s colleague from California, Sen. Barbara Boxer.
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There was one problem. Feinstein vastly overstated the numbers of farmers who have gone bankrupt.
On Tuesday, in response to an inquiry from The Sacramento Bee, Feinstein’s office acknowledged she’d made a mistake, which was blamed on a mix-up with her speech writer.
“It was written like that in her floor speech. It was written poorly. It was written wrong,” said Feinstein spokesman Tom Mentzer. “She said it. She should not have. It should have been written differently. It was a staff mistake.”
Mentzer said the speech should have said “tens of thousands of farmers and farmworkers were out of a job, much like that melon farmer.” Mentzer cited UC Davis studies that concluded that the drought erased 17,000 jobs in 2014 and another 10,000 jobs last year.
The state Employment Development Department said farm employment actually grew during the worst of the drought, increasing by nearly 2 percent in 2015 and a fraction of a percent the year before. However, UC Davis economists argued that farm payrolls would have grown even more if the drought hadn’t hampered planting.
Farm revenue also has remained resilient through the drought, hitting a record $56 billion in 2014 before falling to $47 billion last year. That $47 billion figure was still among the highest ever, and most experts say water wasn’t the biggest factor in the decline. Rather, it was from falling prices for key commodities such as dairy products and almonds.
According to the state Department of Food and Agriculture, California had about 76,400 farms in 2014, 93 percent of them family owned.
California farmers have fallowed tens of thousands of acres in the drought, largely in response to cutbacks in government water deliveries. But there’s no indication that has translated into mass bankruptcies.
The bankruptcy figure aside, another part of Feinstein’s floor speech did check out. Fresno County farmer Shaun Ramirez is the melon farmer who met with her several months ago in her office and relayed the emotional tale of his family’s bankruptcy. Reached by phone Tuesday, Ramirez said he and his father had already planted their melon crop in 2009 when they learned the government would not be delivering the surface water they expected. He said they lost their homes and vehicles, and that each ended up more than a half million in debt.
“It was a pretty heartbreaking deal. It put us in a bad spot,” he said. “It was really hard times.”
The new water legislation, which awaits President Barack Obama’s signature, would alter the complex rules governing the pumping of Northern California river water through the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta to valley farmers and Southern California cities. Environmentalists say it would harm endangered fish populations by shifting more water to farms, while farmers say the changes are badly needed.
PoliGRAPH is The Bee’s political fact checker, rating claims as True, Iffy or False.
Ryan Sabalow: 916-321-1264