Over the past 25 years, environmental regulations have reshaped California's agricultural industry. These regulations have brought with them an ever increasing need for oversight, meetings, and paperwork, not to mention consultants, legal counsel, and lobbyists to manage the regulatory landscape farmers now find themselves in.
This shift is deeply trying for many farmers and landowners. Regulations add another expense and source of uncertainty to farming, and threaten to interfere with established lifestyles. More and more of the work required to maintain a farming operation takes place in an office. Keeping pace in this new landscape requires consistently engaging with regulatory requirements or hiring someone to do so on your behalf, often both. For people who may have chosen their line of work to avoid sitting at a desk all day, this can be depressing.
Al Rossini has seen this shift first hand. Now in his 70s, Rossini is a third generation Italian farmer in the Central Valley. He's volunteered on boards and committees for the past two decades, witnessing the regulatory changes the mounting frustration they've left in their wake.
California's new Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) takes these changes up a notch. Founded on the principle of grower self-governance, SGMA calls for the formation of collaborative Groundwater Sustainability Agencies, or GSAs. As a father, grandfather, and owner of a vineyard fed entirely by groundwater, Al gets how much is at stake here. He's part of the team spearheading the formation of his local GSA.
Unlike many farmers he knows, Al is right at home in a boardroom. In addition to his GSA involvement, he chairs his water district and sits on the board of his local water quality coalition. He's got a knack for reading groups, “I like to sit where I can see everyone's faces” he said.
Al comes from a family that prioritized participation in meetings, and town events -- a value he noticed other families did not share. "I know a lot of good growers who don't show up for these kinds of meetings," he said.
As one of the nation's biggest food producers, California's agricultural community has a lot on its plate. California agriculture operates at a massive scale and the management decisions farmers make have wide reaching societal consequences. Much is at stake, including protecting against the contamination or depletion of groundwater reserves that other communities rely on for drinking water. These are the kind of consequences that state regulators seek to prevent.
But for many farmers, the lived experience of working the land fosters a different narrative. Management decisions are often personal, sometimes heart wrenching. Al's recent decision to drill two new wells was a trying, costly choice that he made alongside his family. “When I look at those wells I see my three kids', and their kids' future” he said. Regulations that assert such choices belong in the public domain can read as prying, callous, or even predatory.
To survive in the business, farmers must be bold enough to take major financial risks -- knowing they'll have to live with the consequences. They've got to be self-reliant and independent enough to choose the relative solitude of rural life. Unsurprisingly, they often feel they have a right not to be interfered with.
But as much as it may hurt, the new regulations -- and the types of work and spaces they force into agricultural livelihoods -- are here to stay. The new work that regulations require isn't a distraction from the real work of farming. It is real farm work. However frustrating, it's becoming an authentic part of the farming experience.
Al is sympathetic to fellow farmers who avoid meetings or fret about missed time on the farm when they can't avoid them. But to him, the decisions made in these spaces are as important as those he makes on his own property: "If you want to stay in business you've got to stay involved" he said.
He first joined an open spot on a committee because he didn't feel represented by the state employe who left it open. “People earning a salary have no financial up or down on solving the problem. We're working for our future” he said.
What about when groundwater protection conflicts with his interest as a business owner? Al believes farmers' have the right incentives and the best shot at safeguard groundwater for all Californians. “As the stewards that work on the land, we are closer to what we can and can't do” he said. “The more it's us sitting down to figure out the problem and not bureaucracy in Sacramento” the better the outlook for all of us, he said.
About the series: Josephine Devanbu grew up in the Central Valley, surrounded by some of the nation's most productive farmland. She recently graduated from Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design with joint degrees in Science and Society and Painting. She received a Maharam STEAM Fellowship and has spent several months in residence with the California Institute for Water Resources, interviewing farmers and many others impacted by new groundwater regulations in California. She thanks those who shared their strategies, struggles and stories of navigating the underground aquifer that kept her aboveground childhood green.
Other articles in the series:
A plastic heifer and calf decorate metal filing cabinets in the University of California’s Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Photo by Josephine Devanbu.
View from Al's side of the table, minutes after he adjourned a water district meeting. Photo by Josephine Devanbu.
View of landscaping from inside the employee entrance building where Al hosted his meeting. Photo by Josephine Devanbu