BY TRUDY WISCHEMANN Fresno Bee
October 18, 2014
Mas Masumoto, that Fresno County farmer who grows peaches on the Kings River fan, has become an invaluable regional voice. Through his books and his monthly column in The Bee, he has spoken the truths of rural, small-farm life for people like him, small farmers who largely mark their daily joys and long-term sufferings in silence. Thanks to Mas’s writings, they feel less alone in this world, and more non-rural people understand. As a rural advocate, I am deeply indebted to him. When he speaks, I listen.
Several weeks ago he fervently called for “Art of the Drought,” this drought, referring back to art from the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. A rendering of Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph, “Migrant Mother,” filled a quarter of the page, surrounded by sketches of other kinds of dried-up sufferings. I know the photo well, and many of her others: while at Berkeley I worked with her widower, economist Paul Taylor, near the end of his life. He knew the power of her art, and when they combined it with his facts and knowledge, they created a document of that drought’s causes and effects — “An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion” (1939) — that was never surpassed.
About two-thirds down in Mas’ column there’s an uncharacteristically political suggestion that voters should approve the water bond in the upcoming November election. I was surprised by his rare political advocacy and chagrined by his suggestion that the voters’ hearts need to be opened by art to vote “yes.” I see nothing in the water bond that will help the smaller growers, and have every reason to suspect that our tax monies will continue to be used to help the large ones like Lynda and Stuart Resnick, owners of Paramount Farms, to the disadvantage of those trying to make a living on the land.
The bond’s most prominent spokesperson, Gov. Jerry Brown, learned well from his father, under whose leadership we got the water bond creating the high-cost State Water Project that made farming feasible on those west side lands the Resnicks farm now. This second-generation governor would still like to be president someday, according to published reports this summer, and the Democratically inclined new king and queen of California Agriculture can probably help make that happen.
So, what could make Mas move in print from his apolitical comfort zone to advocate for passage of Proposition 1? Perhaps it’s the same thing that moves most of my citrus-growing neighbors to think it’s their only salvation. Few have examined the legislation, busy with trying to survive; with characteristic faith, they follow the lead of the agribusiness industry hoping they’ll be included in the state’s largesse.
Or perhaps it’s an even stronger survival instinct. To oppose the California Water Bond, especially in public in this large grower-dominated region, could be economic as well as political suicide. Perhaps the key to understanding our farmer friends’ reflexive advocacy for a bond that could mean their end, we have to go back to another Dust Bowl-era piece of art, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which Mas addressed in late spring.
In Mas’s earlier piece he ruminated on what Steinbeck might have written about this drought, mentioning the plight of the smaller farmers and hoping he’d find them on the new pages. But they were there on the old ones, just invisible except for three pages describing a small farmer who gives Tom Joad a job at a decent wage, only to be forced to reduce it the next day under pressure from the Associated Farmers. Steinbeck’s description of the angst the small farmer experienced doing that is something I hear from my own farming neighbors, and so is his awareness of the economic control exerted over his life and farm by the largest players. “Goddamn it, they got me trapped,” says Steinbeck’s small farmer with more clarity than my farm friends express. But the feeling is there, and so is the helplessness they feel about getting freed.
I think our farm friends are being used, once again, to pass legislation that will undermine them in the end. I don’t know that they have a choice. But we do. Visit www.noonprop1.org, the website of the “No on Prop. 1” campaign, and see if their arguments aren’t compelling. They’re asking us to make our politicians work for real solutions to our increasing water supply problems rather than dealing out a little pork here and there to keep quiet those who otherwise might speak up. Then, for the love of our rural lives and our real agricultural economy, vote “no” on Prop 1.
Trudy Wischemann is editing a book of writings on “Agriculture and the Common Good” for publication this year with Mark Arax. She writes “Notes from Home” for Tulare County’s Foothills Sun-Gazette, which can be viewed at www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com.