California Farm Bureau’s Paul Wenger Addresses 96th Annual Meeting

California Farm Bureau President reflects on membership triumphs & challenges in 2014 and his hopes for 2015

By Kyle Buchoff, CalAgToday Reporter

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF) welcomed attendees to the 96th Annual CFBF Meeting by introducing the conference’s theme, ‘California Agriculture Caught in the Crosshairs.’

“The only way to be a target is to be standing still. I can guarantee we are not going to stay standing still, but from time to time, I think we have stood still. It is interesting; people say this is provocative, but it is also spot-on, California agriculture has adapted and improved, and continued to adapt and improve, and continues to provide food and fiber. We have become a victim of our own success, and because many times we would just as soon as sit back and hope the world would pass us by while we do nothing short of miracles by producing more and more food and fiber with basically the same resources we have had for years, all of a sudden, we’ve become victims of our own success.”Farm Bureaus Meeting Theme

“After two wet years when our reservoirs were brimming to capacity, our farmgate value in 2011 rose to a record of $43.5 billion. Now that’s farmgate, and you will hear other states say how they have a $100 billion farm economy, but this is just the farmgate, and we are not even talking about what our multiplier effect is.”

Wenger explained that California agriculture slipped by $1 billion in 2012, and “we have yet to see what the final report for 2013 will be. But, if it is any indication by what we have been witnessing  through the county ag commissioners in their reports for food and fiber production, it will likely set a new level.”

“And ladies and gentlemen, as bad as 2014 was for water, the fact that we had 4, 5 or 6 hundred thousand acres out of production, the fact that we had 17,000 jobs lost, what the University of California said was a $2.2 billion dollar farmgate loss due to lost production; I would estimate (and we won’t know until 2015), that 2014 will probably set a record year for farmgate value and income.”

“And we will have our detractors and others who say, ‘what is wrong on the farm?’ Agriculture continues to increase and produce even though we have challenges. The underlying number 1 challenge of the statistical health of California agriculture is water. Today’s presentation though is going to be forward-looking.”

Wenger’s presentation included a “Working for You” document handed out to each member that detailed the organization’s policies, and the duties of its staff, officers, and board of directors. Wenger recognized the efforts of Rich Matteis, CFBF administrator and staff to prepare the document and solve issues for the California Ag industry. Wenger explained, given the challenges over the last few years, and especially with the Affordable Care Act, “Rich Matteis has been doing nothing short of miracles, orchestrating our staff to be able to do more with less.” Wenger urged Farm Bureau members to carefully review the document to understand how the organization is endeavoring to work on their behalf.

Though the document did not include contributions from the 53 county farm bureaus, Wenger recognized the farm commissioners and the work product from their bureaus, led by volunteer staff who have to transition around new leadership every few years. “They have to keep air in the tires, and the bearings greased so everything works in our county farm bureaus. As a grassroots organization, it’s those folks and the folks we have at CFBF and the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF) that really help those of us who are farmers and ranchers to accomplish what we do.”

Wenger considers 2014 a very interesting year and expects the same in 2015. “It’s all about water, folks. Think back not too long ago to August when we had all the mechanizations around the water bond: ‘is it going to be a $6.5 billion bond? Is it going to be $6 billion bond?” There were questions about water storage and how much funding would be allocated for water storage.

“We finally got it done with a near unanimous vote to get the water bond on the ballot for $7.5 billion with $2.7 billion continuously appropriated for water storage. We don’t know what will happen, but we are glad it got on the ballot.”

Continuing, Wenger said that shortly afterwards, all the attention turned to groundwater. “The two groundwater bills working their way through the legislature were signed by the governor in September.” Later, one of the authors, former Democratic California State Assemblymember Roger Dickinson, wrote, “The Governor signs historic groundwater legislation. California’s water future is secure.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Wenger, attributing Dickinson’s recent defeat at the polls to the funding and efforts of the California Farm Bureau Fund to Protect the Family Farm (FARM PAC).

“Let’s not lose focus on what happened in November. For the first time in four decades, the electorate decided to do something about our water infrastructure.” Their message to Sacramento, well beyond the water bond, was, “We need to do something about our water infrastructure, not only for our environment, not only for municipal and industrial, but most of all for agriculture because we are feeding the world.”

“And so what happened is nothing short of phenomenal,” he continued, congratulating the board for stepping up and spending the funds to be able to get over the threshold and have a win.”

Returning to the theme of the conference and its positive outlook in his closing, Wenger stated, “A lot of folks will say that ‘Caught in the Crosshairs’ is a picture of despair. I actually say, ‘no, it’s hope.’”

Wenger said there’s hope for what the industry can do if given a little bit of water. “Some folks will say that with the clouds, it is doom and gloom; but remember, we need to have rain clouds to have water in our reservoirs and streams. Really this is a picture of opportunity and of what can be and will be if we work together and really take an aim on advocacy.”

“As we take an aim at advocacy, everybody gives the example of a three-legged stool: one leg is not any good without the others. “That’s absolutely true; I couldn’t do what I do without Kenny Watkins (First Vice President) and Jamie Johansson (Second Vice President). As we look to the future, we have to educate; we have to engage; and, we have to be advocates.”