Farmer visited by Obama is now the face of California’s drought

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Holly Bailey
·National Correspondent
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President Barack Obama walks with California Gov. Jerry Brown, left, and Joe and Maria Del Bosque while touring the Del Bosque farm in 2014.  (Photo: Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

FIREBAUGH, Calif. — It all started with a tweet.

In early February of last year, Joe Del Bosque heard President Barack Obama was planning to visit California’s Central Valley to see for himself evidence of the state’s devastating drought. What better place to see it, Del Bosque thought, than on his 2,000-acre farm here, west of Fresno, where he’d been forced to fallow nearly a third of his land because he didn’t have the water to sustain his crops.

So Del Bosque took to Twitter: “President @BarackObama, I humbly invite you to Del Bosque Farms for a discussion on the effect of the drought on California and its people,” he wrote.

Del Bosque, the son of migrant farmworkers who has worked the land here his entire life, never imagined that exactly one week later he would be wandering through one of his empty, parched fields with the president of the United States. But there he was on Valentine’s Day 2014 — dressed in jeans and his favorite cowboy hat and accompanied by his wife of forty years, Maria — leading Obama and California Gov. Jerry Brown through a fallowed cantaloupe field.

It was the starkest of visuals — one that no doubt appealed to White House stagecraft. One hundred and twenty-five acres of viable farmland that normally would have been planted with the early seeds of a crop capable of producing at least a million melons, and it was empty as far as the eye could see. Ever conscious of the cameras, the president’s advance team asked Del Bosque to move in his John Deere tractor and a few bales of hay for Obama’s backdrop. Photographs of the event ran in newspapers all over the country the next day — Obama, Brown and the Del Bosques standing on the couple’s dry, cracked land.

Del Bosque didn’t expect miracles — he’s more practical than that. But he had hoped that Obama’s visit might be a turning point in what he and other farmers describe as a slow-moving natural disaster that many fear could be as devastating as the Dust Bowl. With no end in sight, the drought has put not only their own livelihoods at risk, but it also threatens a region that provides fully half the nation’s fruits and vegetables. “If President Obama comes here and sees what is happening to us, something has to change, right?” Del Bosque recalled thinking.

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From left: California Gov. Jerry Brown, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Maria Del Bosque and Joe Del Bosque listen as President Obama speaks after touring Del Bosque’s farm. (Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images)

But as Obama spoke, Del Bosque started to feel like a prop. While the president didn’t come to the region empty-handed — he offered millions in disaster relief, including aid to food banks to support laid-off farm workers —Obama pointedly declined to wade into the contentious debate over water. The lack of rain and snowpack in the Sierra Nevadas has caused groundwater wells in the region to go dry, but farmers here argue environmental regulations and other government restrictions have even further limited the Central Valley’s access to what little water the region actually does have.

At one point, Obama acknowledged how contentious the subject of water policy was. “I’m not going to wade into this because I want to get out of here alive,” he joked.

Instead Obama used the event to call attention to another subject that he views key to his legacy: climate change — warning California’s drought and other harsh weather patterns like it are likely to get worse unless something is done about global warming. It’s a message Del Bosque doesn’t disagree with. But where was a proposal on how to help farmers like him who are struggling to survive now? He didn’t want a handout. He just wanted access to water, even just a little bit. “I didn’t hear anything that was going to help us,” Del Bosque said. “I don’t think he really understood.”

In the 17 months since Obama’s visit, the drought has only intensified. Nearly half of California is in “exceptional drought” — the highest measure on the scale. The land Obama visited still sits barren — joined now by a few hundred more acres that Del Bosque has been forced to fallow in recent months. A few weeks ago, he plowed over an asparagus field that probably would have produced for at least another five years. It was a tough financial decision — a legacy crop ground to dust. But Del Bosque, who literally tracks his water usage down to the drop, knew if he tried to keep the asparagus alive, he wouldn’t have enough water to sustain his other valuable crops, including his melons and almond trees. And he needed to bank water for next year, since who knows what will happen. “Every decision hurts, but you have to do what you can to survive,” he said.

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Joe Del Bosque walks by a cantaloupe field in Firebaugh, Calif. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

While conditions haven’t changed on Del Bosque’s land, the president’s visit was a turning point of sorts for him. He’s no longer just another farmer. He has become the face of the drought, swamped with interview requests from reporters who have seized upon his story to illustrate the sad plight of Central Valley farmers struggling to survive. Media from all over the world have descended on his farm — including crews from South Korea, France, Denmark and Sweden, where a possible increase in almond prices has been big news. In recent weeks, NBC and MSNBC have broadcast from his fields, while Vice News gathered footage there for an upcoming documentary. Lately, Del Bosque has hosted as many as three reporters a day — including this one — squeezed in between harvesting melons and sitting in on conference calls with colleagues who, like him, are trying to find any water they can to keep their farms alive.

It’s a role Del Bosque never imagined for himself — one that he doesn’t mind but doesn’t exactly enjoy, either. “At the end of the day, I’m a farmer, and I’d rather be doing that,” he says. But Del Bosque tries to never turn down an interview because any attention on the drought is vital. “I feel like I am doing my part to get people to understand what this crisis is doing here, how this affects everyone,” he said. “We feed you. … If we don’t survive, where will the food come from?”

The son of Mexican immigrants who came to the Central Valley during the Dust Bowl and found work as farm laborers, Del Bosque was drawn to farming at a young age. He worked alongside his dad, who managed cantaloupe crops in the region, learned his secrets and saved enough money to put himself through college. After graduating with a degree in plant science and agronomy, he returned to the farm to manage the melon crops just as his father did until he had saved enough to start his own farm. That was 20 years ago. It was the American dream his parents had always wanted for him — a dream now imperiled by the drought.

To Del Bosque, the tragedy strikes deep. His father had always taught him that farming was more than just planting seeds. It was about treating the land with love and respect — caring for the crops almost as an extension of yourself. In return, his father said, the land would respond in kind. And for years, it has. Del Bosque’s farm had been thriving — until the water began to run out. Walking through his empty fields, Del Bosque often feels as though he’s losing a part of his himself, a legacy he’d hoped to pass on to his own kids. But now he’s too afraid to ask them to join what he and his wife fear could be a sinking ship.

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Joe Del Bosque holds a sliced green almond from his farm. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We picked the right crops. The vision was correct. The decisions were right,” Del Bosque said. “You have businesses that are doing great. We have huge demand for everything we are growing. We have the right soil and weather to produce these things. We are in the right place at the right time. We should be booming, but without water, we’ve got nothing. That’s the irony. You take the water out of it, and you don’t go anywhere.”

Del Bosque tries to stay positive, but some days are harder than others. His voice chokes as he talks about stress the drought has put on his wife, Maria. The two work as a team, and she’s the “people person” — the one who hires the seasonal workers that are the backbone of his operation. Some have worked for the Del Bosques for more than 20 years, but with fewer crops to harvest, they’ve had to reduce their workforce. Last year, they used around 300 people, but this year, it may be closer to 200.

“She’ll be the person who has to tell someone, ‘You work,’ while telling someone else, ‘I’m sorry, but you don’t,’” Del Bosque explained, his eyes wet. “It hurts, but we have no choice.”

His wife has been anguished over the layoffs. The daughter of Mexican immigrants, she came to America when she was 13, following her parents, who found work in the fields of the Central Valley. On summers off from school, she worked the land, too. She has known many of these families for most of her life. They aren’t just workers. They are like family.

“These are people close to her roots. She loves them, and they love her,” Del Bosque says, his voice catching with emotion. “She’s the one who protects them and advocates for them.’’

Sitting in his office, which overlooks one of his barren fields, Del Bosque knows it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. “Unless we have a Biblical storm this year, it’s going to get worse,” he said, with a sigh. He thinks he has enough water to keep his farm alive at least through the end of the year. But starting next spring, who knows.

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Del Bosque sits in his office in Firebaugh, Calif. (Photo: Holly Bailey/Yahoo News)

Del Bosque never heard from the White House after his meeting with Obama, and many in the Central Valley have wondered if the president might make a return visit, especially if the drought continues into another year. That’s one reason, Del Bosque admits, that he’s tried to be accessible with the media. Maybe the president or someone on his team will read a story and remember him. He’d host Obama again in a second. He still thinks there’s something he could do to help farmers like him. “You know, maybe I should reach out,” he said with a smile. There’s always Twitter.