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California and the West | CALIFORNIA ELECTIONS

Farm Belt Seeds Political Soil With Clout

Worried about government intervention and water and taxation issues, farmers are marshaling their resources like never before--and politicians are taking notice.


MANTECA, Calif. — State Treasurer Matt Fong, campaigning for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate, stopped at a retirement home in this rural town just off the highway between Stockton and Modesto.

He delivered a standard stump speech about crime, taxes and education and then asked for questions.

Given the age of his audience, the first question might well have been about Medicare or Social Security. But here in California's farm belt, the first question, delivered in a strong, insistent voice by an 80-year-old man with a no-nonsense gaze, was: "What are you going to do for California's farmers?"

Fong responded that one of the first things he wants to do is reduce inheritance taxes that often force farm families to sell their property. His questioner nodded in agreement.

Fong has also visited a cheese "museum" to talk to dairy farmers. He has promised a "major policy address" on agriculture next month in Bakersfield and is scheduled to campaign at a water conference in Monterey attended by water district officials from farm areas.

He and other candidates are reacting to that paradox of modern California agriculture: Farm revenue and production are at record levels, but so is angst and activism among the owners and operators of the state's 80,000-plus farms.

Many farmers are convinced that they are trapped in a losing battle for survival against taxation and governmental regulation. This despite the fact California leads the nation in agricultural production and income.

Political action committees representing California agribusiness are stepping up their political contributions and spreading their largess to out-of-state congressional representatives.

Through their PACs, farmers would like to win friends and influence federal policies on issues including pesticides, the Endangered Species Act, water allocation, guest workers from Mexico and food-quality regulations now being written.

Farmers are also learning the ways of "independent committees" that allow them to support friendly legislators and skirt limits on contributions to political campaigns.

The California Farm Bureau has escalated its Washington lobbying and this week will take 29 farmers to Washington to visit all 52 congressional representatives from California, both U.S. senators and high-level bureaucrats at the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"When it comes to political influence, the farmer is the low man on the totem pole," said Rick Veldstra, who grows almonds, alfalfa, beans, corn, oats, tomatoes and wheat in the San Joaquin Valley. "Farmers feel left out of the loop when political decisions about their livelihood are being made."

At about $25 billion in annual value, California agriculture is the state's largest industry. One in 10 jobs is linked to agriculture.

The top agricultural counties are Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Monterey and Merced. But even San Diego County, which is better known for tourism and military bases, has an agricultural economy that exceeds $1 billion annually, thanks largely to avocados and flowers.

Tom Pecht, who grows lemons and avocados in Ventura County, says younger, better-educated farmers are more willing than their elders to get involved in politics. Pecht has hosted congressional visits and taken part in an industry-sponsored leadership program.

"Today's farmer is not the farmer of 50 or 60 years ago, sitting around in blue overalls, with a straw hat and some straw in his mouth," Pecht said. "Farming is a business, and you've got to lobby on its behalf, just like other businesses are doing."

Down-to-Earth Campaigning

With agricultural issues getting hotter, the state's farm belt has become one of several battlegrounds in the U.S. Senate race.

During his candidacy announcement tour, Republican hopeful Darrell Issa spoke at a fig-packing plant in Fresno. On Friday, Issa received the endorsement of pro-agriculture Rep. George Radanovich (R-Fresno).

Although he has not provided detailed explanations of his stand on agricultural issues, Issa's anti-government rhetoric is peppered with disdainful references to government red tape and restraints on private enterprise.

But Issa also committed a gaffe on an agricultural issue--a miscue Fong delights in relating to farm-belt voters. Asked in Sacramento about the Auburn Dam controversy, the political neophyte stammered that he did not want to meddle in California's internal politics.

The long-stalled dam project is a federal initiative that pits farmers against environmentalists. A day later, after being briefed by his staff, Issa announced his support for the project--the same position held by Fong.

Fong often mentions how, as a member of the state Board of Equalization, he tried to get tax breaks for California ostrich farmers and how chagrined he was at failing: "We lost ostrich farmers out of California. It was stupid."

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