SACRAMENTO — As Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump wrapped up their parties’ presidential nominations with this week’s California primary wins, agricultural issues played a key role.
Water policy and on-farm working conditions were discussion topics as presumptive GOP nominee Trump and Clinton, his Democratic counterpart, wooed voters.
Trump received generally positive marks from those who attended his private meeting with about 50 growers and local water officials on May 27 in Fresno before his remarks on water during a stump speech gained national attention.
One of the attendees was Johnny Amaral, Westlands Water District’s deputy general manager for external affairs, who said the real estate mogul listened as growers told him how they were affected by water cutbacks and pledged to try to resolve the issue if elected.
“It wasn’t a fundraiser, it was just an opportunity for farmers and the ag community to bend his ear and hear what he had to say on water policy,” said Amaral, a former chief of staff for Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif. “It was very informal. … He came in and started right in asking questions about water problems.
“As I was watching him work the problem, it kind of made me think this is the way he does his business transactions, Amaral said. “He was asking what I would consider to be all the right questions.”
However, Trump is getting mixed reviews from ag industry representatives in the San Joaquin Valley over his subsequent public remarks. During a speech, Trump said, “I just left 50 or 60 farmers in the back and they can’t get water and I said, ‘How tough is it? How bad is the drought?’ and they said, ‘There is no drought. They turned the water out into the ocean.’ And I’ve been hearing it. I spent a half-hour with them and it’s hard to believe.”
Joel Nelsen, president of California Citrus Mutual, said he was glad to hear that growers were encouraged by their meeting with Trump but the candidate’s “podium decorum” could have been better.
“He could have taken advantage of the opportunity to enunciate why he didn’t believe the drought didn’t have to be as bad as it was,” Nelsen said.
Fresno County Farm Bureau executive director Ryan Jacobsen said any attention given to the area’s water woes is “a good thing” because it could put pressure on Congress to pass drought-relief legislation.
“For us it’s very much a good sign that at least one of the candidates is paying attention to the issue,” he said.
Amaral said it’s unfair to criticize Trump for suggesting this year’s water shortages in the valley weren’t caused by drought.
“Anyone who follows hydrology in California knows that this year, in 2016, the water supply shortages we’re facing in 2016 are not because of the drought or lack of rainfall or snowpack,” he said. He blames the shortages on “a complete mismanagement of the resource as it’s been coming into” the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, he said.
Trump press secretary Hope Hicks did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment about the hopeful’s meeting with growers.
In a June 4 stump speech in Fresno, Clinton promised “to get to work on water” and make sure “that 1.2 million farmworkers in California will not be rounded up and deported.”
The candidates’ focus on farmworkers pleased a coalition of food-policy groups called Plate of the Union, whose spokeswoman, Navina Khanna, noted in a news release that California grows half the nation’s produce and is home to one-third of its farmworkers yet many of the laborers rely on public assistance to make ends meet.
The next president must set policies that “will help bolster our economy, improve our food system and drive down alarming health concerns,” added Khanna, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists HEAL Food Alliance.
Clinton, a former U.S. senator and secretary of state, sent a letter to California lawmakers earlier this year urging passage of a bill that would require ag employers to observe the same overtime rules as other employers. The bill has since died in the Assembly.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who also campaigned in the state, evoked labor leader Cesar Chavez after a May 29 visit to the United Farm Workers headquarters in Delano, Calif., saying in a speech that farmworkers “must have decent wages and decent benefits” and “should not be exempt from labor law,” KFSN-TV in Fresno reported.