Los Banos farmer Joe Del Bosque speaks about his meeting with President Barack Obama

mgaytan@losbanosenterprise.comFebruary 23, 2014 

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    Joe Del Bosque’s story

    Born in Brawley, in Imperial County, Del Bosque started working on a farm at age 9. “I worked every summer,” he said. “I saved my money to help pay my way through college.”

    So when President Barack Obama asked Del Bosque how he got into farming, Del Bosque replied: “My family were migrant farmworkers in the 1930s and ’40s.”

    Del Bosque attended California State University, Fresno, returning to the farm after college. In the mid-1980s, about 10 years after leaving college, Del Bosque decided to build a life on his own farmland.

    Empresas Del Bosque farms is located in Firebaugh and straddles Merced and Fresno counties. A little more than one-third of the farm is devoted to almond and cherry trees, with the remaining for row crops including organic cantaloupes, asparagus and tomatoes. Some of Del Bosque’s 2,000 acres will lay fallow because of the zero percent water allocation he is facing from the Central Valley Project supervised by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “We don’t have the same water rights as the ‘exchange contractors,’ ” he said. “They got higher water rights. We’re usually the ones to get cut back first.”

    Last year, landowners under his district were projected to receive 20 percent of their allotment. Although the farm uses a drip-irrigation system throughout, Del Bosque plans to cut tomatoes first. “It’s very scary,” he said. “The only water we have right now … is water we saved up from last year.”

    The farmer does not have a well-pumping system. In 2009 he received 10 percent of his water allotment. “It was pretty bad, but it’s worse now,” he added.

    Del Bosque employs around 20 people year-round. The asparagus harvest, March through April, employs between 60 and 80 workers. The cantaloupe season, July through September, relies on 300 workers.

Joe Del Bosque’s greatest memory from being thrust into the national spotlight little more than a week ago was pulling up to his farm with President Barack Obama and seeing his family.

“I was very happy when we got there and his staff had my daughters standing there waiting for us. I said, ‘These are my daughters. I have six daughters,’ ” Del Bosque recalled earlier this week. Obama’s response, he said: “Wow! But I’m very partial to daughters.”

Obama’s whirlwind tour of the central San Joaquin’s drought-damaged farm country on Valentine’s Day included a roundtable discussion at a San Luis Water District maintenance facility in Firebaugh, followed by a tour of Del Bosque’s farm south of Los Banos.

The visit brought attention to California’s record-setting drought and assurances by Obama that California’s importance as a farm producer makes the state’s water problems a national concern.

Del Bosque had made a shoutout to Obama through Twitter, never imaging he’d be strolling through his fields with the leader of the free world later that week.

It was through Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, that Del Bosque’s field was selected. Costa and Del Bosque, who is involved in water issues and is a member of the California Latino Water Coalition, have had a professional working relationship for many years.

“He called me up the Sunday before and asked me if I had some land that I would be willing to take him to,” said Del Bosque of Costa’s request on Feb. 9. “I was in Gilroy having breakfast with my son-in-law when they called me.

“I was pretty excited. I felt a lot of pressure because I was probably going to be speaking to him (Obama) and speaking for the Valley, speaking for farmers and farmworkers in the small towns out here that are affected by the drought.”

In a phone interview Thursday, Costa said a field on Del Bosque’s farm was a logical choice because it is within his district in Merced County. “He’s just a great spokesperson for ag, for the farmer and farmworkers’ perspective,” Costa said.

Anticipation

By that afternoon, members of the Secret Service and White House staff had descended on his farm and were making preparations for the visit. Del Bosque wasn’t able to share details about the president’s visit of course - except with his wife, Maria, and daughters.

“It was very difficult to keep (it) secret,” he said, especially with officials walking through his fields every day leading up to Obama’s arrival.

At one point the area was declared a no-fly zone and Del Bosque said some of his workers became inquisitive. The day prior to the president’s arrival, a rehearsal was held and that’s when he knew for certain Obama was coming.

First impressions

Del Bosque kept his excitement and nervousness in check and focused on one thing that day - water.

“I focused on him and I didn’t know what was going on around me,” he said. “That has never happened to me before. I usually don’t get too nervous.”

Del Bosque said Obama is a very likeable guy. He was very friendly and very articulate. And although Del Bosque thought Obama didn’t seem deeply familiar with the complexities of California and its water issues or the contentiousness nature of water rights, Del Bosque believes Obama understood the trouble California is in, and how important this state is to the entire nation.

“I think it’s kind of obvious, like with almost anybody who’s not from California, maybe he wasn’t real familiar … that’s normal. A lot of people in our own state don’t know how water gets to them,” Del Bosque said.

One detail Del Bosque tried to impress upon Obama is the uniqueness of agriculture in California, stating a lot of things produced here aren’t produced anywhere else.

Outcome

New aid relief the Obama administration reportedly plans to provide will include conservation grants, livestock producer assistance and money for rural disadvantaged communities. Del Bosque said he hopes Obama will follow through with finding flexibility in the system to get farmers and landowners more water.

Del Bosque is referring to the longstanding controversy over the large reduction of water due to protection of the Delta smelt.

“I know that they’re trying to do what they can to help the fish,” he said. “But if they don’t allow any more water through, we’re going to save the fish and lose the farmers. I gotta think that somewhere there has to be some compromise so that we can all survive.”

Del Bosque said he remains optimistic but is most interested in the outcome of the president’s actions. “I’m waiting to see if that really converts to a little bit more water for us,” he said. “A lot of time when the government says, ‘We’re going to help you,’ basically they come out with conservation programs. Conservation programs are great but when you’ve already done all the conservation and you got no water, how does that help you? It doesn’t. The only thing that could help us now, is water.”

Del Bosque fears seeing a fourth year of dry conditions, something he said would be pure devastation. “There’s a lot of people out there and (farming) is what they’ve done all their lives,” he said. “It would be a shame for them to go out of business simply because there’s no water, especially since the farming economy is doing very well. It would be terrible to go broke when the markets are very good.”

Enterprise reporter Marina Gaytan can be reached at (209) 826-3831 ext. 6562 or mgaytan@losbanosenterprise.com.

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