By JOE BEACH
Over the last several months, members of the Capital Press management team have met with farmers, ranchers and representatives of ag groups in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and California.
Agriculture in our part of the West encompasses a diverse array of crops, growing conditions and business models. When pressed to identify the most important issues they face, producers in all four states came up with the same short list: government regulation/legislation, water, immigration and environmental activism.
Farmers expected that the Obama administration would mount a more robust regulatory campaign than was the case with George W. Bush. Even so, the people we've spoken to were surprised by the pace and scope of the regulations moving through the pipeline.
Of particular concern is an Environmental Protection Agency proposal to tighten regulations on dust that could all but stop farming operations in some locations during certain times of the year.
Farmers also worry a one-word change Congress is making in the Clean Water Act will give federal bureaucrats jurisdiction over every farm pond, drainage ditch and barnyard puddle -- virtually all water within the U.S., not just the "navigable" waters now covered by the law.
Water is the lifeblood of farmers everywhere. In the West it is an increasingly precious resource, made scarce by drought and the growing demands of expanding urban areas.
California is probably the nexus of water issues in the West. The impacts of more than three years of drought there have been compounded by court-ordered efforts to preserve native salmon runs and the threatened Delta smelt. As a result, hundreds of thousands of acres have been left fallow.
Farmers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon are watching efforts to remove dams on the Snake, Rogue and Klamath rivers. Groundwater is an issue in every state.
A significant portion of Western agriculture depends on immigrant labor to remain viable.
Even with unemployment rates of between 10 and 11 percent, growers, packers and processors say U.S. citizens simply don't apply in large numbers to fill the jobs. By necessity they go to immigrants.
Growers believe the federal government makes it difficult for them to hire a legal and reliable workforce. The rules governing a work visa program that would guarantee immigrant workers are legally documented are Byzantine, making the program all but unworkable. At the same time, farmers suspect that half of the immigrant workers who present what appear to be legitimate documents are in fact in the country illegally. Growers worry that immigration officials will penalize their businesses if illegals are discovered.
Farmers and ranchers throughout the West feel the pressure of environmental activists and their legal juggernaut.
In this work, the activists have the upper hand, producers say. They can pick their fights, and any one legal setback serves only to encourage their base supporters. Farmers and ranchers, on the other hand, must fight every challenge and suffer crushing consequences when they lose.
Producers in the West are a diverse lot. It turns out they are a lot more alike than they are different when they start talking about the things that impact their businesses.