Farmers seek help from Sen. Kamala Harris. What did they want most? Hint: Starts with ‘w’

Senator Kamala Harris tours Fowler Packing Co. and talks about the Agricultural Worker Program Act

As part of the Central Valley Agricultural Tour, Senator Kamala Harris visited Fowler Packing and talks about a bill, the Agricultural Worker Program Act, she is co-sponsoring with Senator Dianne Feinstein.
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As part of the Central Valley Agricultural Tour, Senator Kamala Harris visited Fowler Packing and talks about a bill, the Agricultural Worker Program Act, she is co-sponsoring with Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Agricultural leaders and farmers pressed their case for a reliable water supply, immigration reform and their fair share of the Farm Bill during a roundtable discussion with Sen. Kamala Harris on Wednesday.

Harris is the former attorney general who won election last November in the race to replace outgoing Democrat Barbara Boxer. Harris is touring California this week, made good on her promise to visit the Valley to get a better understanding of the region’s needs, including its most powerful economic engine, agriculture.

“I am here to see and to listen and be part of an ongoing conversation and relationship,” Harris said.

The senator sat down with some of the central San Joaquin Valley’s leading farmers, including John Harris, Joe Del Bosque, Dan Errotaberre and Dennis Parnagian. The group met at Parnagian’s sprawling packing plant in Fowler. The family run operation, under the name Fowler Packing, is one of the region’s largest farming companies.

Parnagian and the others gave Harris their wish-list of projects and legislation. And not surprisingly, at the top of the list was water.

Farmers said they will need Harris’ help to make the case for federal funding to build a dam at Temperance Flat in the eastern Fresno County foothills. The dam is considered a linchpin in creating more water storage in the Valley. Supporters of the project say the additional storage is critical during dry years.

They also wanted Harris to understand that the system for moving water through California is aging and is in dire need of repair.

Harris said she understood the struggles that farmers dealt with during the drought and will work toward solutions to create a more stable and reliable supply for farmers and rural communities suffering from a lack of clean drinking water.

Another key issue for farmers is labor. Over the last several years, Valley farmers have seen a noticeable decrease in the number of farmworkers, a majority of whom come from Mexico illegally. Labor experts say tighter enforcement at the U.S.-Mexico border, along with a rising fear of being caught, has dried up the labor pool.

Del Bosque, a longtime westside melon grower, said his workers simply want a path to legal status so they don’t have to live in fear anymore.

“This has been going on for years and we need to do something,” Del Bosque said.

Part of what farmers see happening is that the farmworker population is aging and there is no viable system for replacing them.

California’s two Democratic senators, Harris and Dianne Feinstein, have introduced a bill that would allow undocumented farmworkers who have worked in agriculture for at least 100 days in each of the previous two years to earn a “blue card," allowing to work legally.

It remains to be seen how far the legislation will get in a Republican-controlled Congress. Previous bills with similar guarantees of legal residency have failed.

Harris also wanted to hear from farmers about what they may need out of a new Farm Bill. The current bill expires in Sept. 30, 2018. Several farmers said that California’s needs are vastly differently from those in the Midwest who grow what are known as commodity crops like soybeans, corn and wheat.

Valley farmers said they would like to see increased funding for research programs focused on the crops typically grown in California, including fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables. Others said they want to continued funding for marketing programs to help sell their crops overseas.

Harris said she gets it.

“I want to make sure California gets its fair share of the Farm Bill,” Harris said. “California is unique and its needs must be taken into account.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob