Joe Del Bosque’s greatest memory from a week that put him in the national spotlight 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.
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.
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.
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.”