California Forum

Losing the commonweal, losing something sacred

A crew digs a well in an alfalfa field in the Central Valley. Gerald Haslam writes that Gov. Jerry Brown should expect water cuts from everyone, and prioritize them to favor family farms and those growing less water-intensive crops.
A crew digs a well in an alfalfa field in the Central Valley. Gerald Haslam writes that Gov. Jerry Brown should expect water cuts from everyone, and prioritize them to favor family farms and those growing less water-intensive crops. Associated Press file

Junior-high morality seems to have taken over much argument about water and crops and fairness in general in California. Paul Wenger, head of the California Farm Bureau Federation, said, “It’s a free country. And they (growers) have a right to do whatever they can.”

Sure, and oil wells can be drilled anyplace without review, and buildings can be erected anywhere with no controls, and waterways can be dammed and dried for convenience without thought to who lives downstream, and on and on.

Whatever happened to the founding concept of the commonweal, the public good, the benefit of the community?

Many of us served in the military in defense of the commonweal, not so that one segment of the population could trample the rights – or even the hopes – of others. During hard times, great numbers of Californians have traditionally volunteered to help others less fortunate, because the commonweal is a moral concept as well as a practical one.

For the commonweal, Gov. Jerry Brown should expect cuts from everyone, and prioritize them to favor family farms and those growing less water-intensive crops.

Many Californians are now asking how agriculture, a sector of the economy already granted 80 percent of the state’s developed water supply while producing only about 2 to 3 percent of its gross annual product, can portray itself as victim, and how Gov. Jerry Brown can spare agriculture from water cuts during a drought.

Part of the problem is that there are individual families struggling to make a living on relatively small patches of land, and they are agribusiness. There are also international corporations run from boardrooms elsewhere, and they are agribusiness, too. There are also many, many farms that fall between those extremes. Treating them all alike is lazy, at best, since they are by no means the same.

For the commonweal, Brown should expect cuts from everyone, and prioritize them to favor family farms and those growing less water-intensive crops. The state and federal water projects were intended primarily for the production of food, not for the production of great concentrations of wealth, or for a social system that relies upon poverty to provide seasonal workers. It is indefensible that three of the five poorest metropolitan areas in the U.S. are located in the world’s richest agricultural realm: Fresno, Bakersfield-Delano and Modesto.

Brown’s plan needs to address that. There’s great wealth produced in the Central Valley, but it is concentrated. Much of it is in the hands of families that a couple of generations ago toiled desperately to make their often dry land productive, but now their progeny feel abandoned by the people they have worked to feed.

No one is asking them to forfeit their hard-earned gains. They may be asked for some sacrifice for the commonweal, and perhaps as a result they will find more common ground not only with urban dwellers, but especially with the endemic poor who populate so many small towns in the Great Valley.

If we Americans have in fact lost our sense of the commonweal, we have lost something sacred. Our Constitution directs the government to promote “the general welfare.” It’s time to live up to that and not to the adoration of gluttonous wealth.

We might actually find a way to work together in this period of contentious, uncompromising politics. It’s time for the big growers and other high-rollers to care about us, their fellow citizens, so we can care about them.

Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.” Most of his books are set in the Central Valley. He was born in Bakersfield and grew up in Oildale.

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