By TIM HEARDEN
COLUSA, Calif. - Gov. Jerry Brown and his chief agricultural officer defended policies that have been unpopular with some farmers and ranchers during a visit here.
In a speech at a Colusa Farm Show breakfast, Brown assured producers he would protect the area's water rights - a promise that brought applause from many of the roughly 350 farmers and businesspeople in the room.
Brown noted his family has owned ranch land near Williams, Calif., since the 1850s and said he has "learned" since the early 1980s, when during his first stint as governor he backed a peripheral canal ballot initiative that was roundly defeated.
However, Brown - who has proposed a tunnel bypass as part of planned fixes for the ailing Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta - said the state needs "water reliability," adding that a disaster involving the state's aging levee system could leave Santa Clara County without water within a few weeks.
"At the same time, we realize we have to have protections for the areas of origin that have rights," the governor said.
Some farmers have opposed a new bypass canal or tunnel that would carry Sacramento River water to other farms and cities in the south, arguing the project could ruin their land.
In a speech in which Brown, a Democrat, frequently joked about appearing in such a Republican-leaning county, the governor also defended a high-speed rail project that's been derided as wasteful by conservatives.
"It gets back to courage," he said, adding that China has 5,000 miles of high-speed rail. "We have to be able to build and invest in infrastructure and research."
Brown and state Department of Food and Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross appeared at the 11th annual Colusa Farm Show leadership breakfast co-sponsored by alumni from California State University-Chico's College of Agriculture.
The event has raised more than $170,000 for scholarships and leadership programs over the years, organizers say.
The two dignitaries toured the farm show after the breakfast. Their appearance excited Karen Spencer, the show's marketing director.
"I think this is an excellent opportunity for the governor to get to talk to farmers and ranchers firsthand about their concerns about agriculture and the difficulties they face in this market," Spencer said. "It also lets our audience see that the governor is here to support them."
Ross did not make public remarks. In an interview with the Capital Press, she gave a cool reception to a bill advancing in the Legislature that seeks to bring California's pricing formula for milk going to cheese vats more in line with what is paid for similar milk across the country.
Ross said the bill, Assembly Bill 31, faces "very strong opposition" as it takes aim at the value of dry whey in the CDFA's formula for setting minimum prices for Class 4b milk.
"That's one of the problems in the dairy community right now," the secretary said. "The processors and producers need to work together. This bill will split them more."
The secretary has drawn criticism from some Central Valley dairy farmers as the spread between Class III prices in federal marketing formulas and Class 4b widens and California dairyman struggle to stay afloat.
Ross said many changes have taken place in the industry since the state's pricing system was put in place in the late 1960s. She said a task force she set up last fall is attempting to respond to all the changes and come up with "a 21st century pricing system."
The secretary said she understands that dairy producers have been struggling.
"It is a very dire situation," she said. She added that while milk prices have rebounded a bit, they haven't kept pace with escalating feed costs.
Gov. Jerry Brown: http://gov.ca.gov/home.php
California Department of Food and Agriculture: http://www.cdfa.ca.gov/