Agriculture & the West

Small farmers bear an extra burden as California agricultural policies respond to a changing climate

Four out of five agricultural operations in the state are small farms, but many rules, from labor law to water resource planning, were designed for industrial-size players. Can the state make room for small and diverse businesses to succeed?

The family farmer Nikiko Masumoto on her family’s farm southeast of Fresno in February of 2012. Brad Shirakawa

By Zack Boyd

Nikiko Masumoto has worked on her family’s peach and grape farm in Fresno County with her father, David Mas Masumoto, for most of her life. Compared to their sprawling, industrial-farming neighbors, their farm is small, only 80 acres. Unlike the big farms, their equipment is second-hand, and they can’t afford a complex irrigation and planting infrastructure to cope with the dry seasons. 

What they do possess, however, is obvious to anyone who looks closely: a deep connection to the land, born of a generations-long history of hard work, sacrifice, and perseverance. “I grew up on this farm, and that means you start working as soon as you can stand up. Me and my father, and our hired labor force of one, do just about everything.”

Masumoto can account for every acre they cultivate. In recent years that number has fluctuated. “We usually farm about 25 of our acres [with grapes], but this year, due to a lot of factors, including water and labor, we only have 10 of those in production.” Places like the Masumoto family farm are hit harder when they must take even a handful of acres out of production, a practice becoming more common as groundwater restrictions tighten to avert water insecurity in a changing climate.

Masumoto Family Farm

Nikiko is yonsei– a fourth-generation Japanese-American, who works with her father to maintain the family farm near Del Rey, California. Her great-grandparents were farm workers in the area in the early 20th century. They were among the thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans interned in concentration camps during World War II. When they were released, the Matsumoto family returned to Fresno County and bought the farm Nikiko and her family cultivate today.

While she wasn’t always sure she wanted to return to her family’s farm, Nikiko is looking ahead to future generations. “Our farm is our home,” she says. “The sustainability of our practices isn’t just a metric of profitability, it’s a question of legacy: what kind of ancestors will we be?”

The Masumoto family farm is outside of the San Joaquin Valley town of Del Rey. (ESRI Earth Imagery)

While small farms predominate in California, laws are geared toward larger producers

The Masumoto family farm is more typical of the region’s agricultural enterprises than the sprawling industrial farms that dominate the landscape and the public perceptions of California agriculture. More than 80 percent of farms in California contain less than 180 acres; nearly a third contain less than nine acres, according to the 2017 agricultural census by the federal Department of Agriculture. Roughly one-fifth of small farms are run by BIPOC (black, indigenous, and person of color) and immigrant farmers, according to the USDA. 

Small-scale farming operations are feeling the heat of both the climate crisis and the state’s attempts to deal with it.

Despite the statistical prevalence of smaller farms, laws affecting farmers in California can often fail to consider this diversity, with dramatic consequences for the most vulnerable groups. From laws covering labor rights and managing well-drilling to the monumental Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA, pronounced sigma), complex rules can complicate the lives of smaller and lower-income farmers as they struggle to keep their farms afloat. 

The ongoing drought compounds these troubles; small-scale farming operations are feeling the heat of both the climate crisis and the state’s attempts to deal with it.

The raisin harvest in 2015. Masumoto Family Farm

Dr. Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, the Small Farms and Specialty Crop Advisor with the University of California Small Farms Extension, works with many different immigrant farmers. 

She focuses on small communities of farmers, including Hmong, Lao, and Vietnamese refugees who fled conflict in their home countries in the decades after the Vietnam War and carved out a market selling culturally relevant foods, such as bok choy and lemongrass, to other immigrants living in the area. 

Dahlquist-Willard also works with Latino and African-American farmers. Many of the Latino farmers in particular are attempting to make the same transition that the Masumoto family made: from farmworker to farm owner.

“Many of these farmers rely on shallow wells,” says Dahlquist-Willard, recalling a Hmong farmer she knew. His well ran dry early in the 2012-2016 drought; Dahlquist-Willard’s group helped him get a loan from a partner agency to drill a deeper well.

Industrial-grade regulations weigh heavily on small operators. But where to draw the line on who can get exemptions?

Well-intentioned policies can often undermine their work. Aaron Fukuda, general manager of the Tulare Irrigation District, works less than 30 miles south of the Fresno County border. He is charged with relaying water regulations to the farmers in his district, who often find these policies to be disconnected from their day-to-day work.

“If you’re a smaller farmer,” he says, “and you wake up in the morning, you think about the multitude of issues you have to deal with: drought, pests, labor… you have to decide which issue you can try to address for that one day.” While larger farms can afford to hire workers to deal with paperwork and regulations, the smaller farmers in his district struggle to keep up with the obligations born of a growing collection of legislation. “I guess the assumption is, when you wake up, you’re doing something wrong.”

David Mas Masumoto Masumoto Family Farm

While it would be extremely useful to have an easy definition to differentiate big and small farmers for legislative purposes, policy makers face a challenge in simply defining the term ‘small farm.’ As Ellen Hanak, of the Public Policy Institute of California says, “even the definition of ‘small’ is complicated.” 

Since 1975, the USDA has defined a farm as “any operation with the potential to produce $1,000 of agricultural goods in any given year.” This includes many individuals who have non-agricultural jobs but have a small livestock or crop operation on the side. According to Hanak, some policy makers may be hesitant to support small farmers, since farming may be an adjunct source of income, or even a hobby. In addition, an exact definition remains difficult: a low-income family farm can theoretically have the same gross income, with a similar number of acres, as a hobby farm.

Policy experts like Hanak suggest actively farmed acres as a useful metric, although the acreage could vary depending on the severity of a drought and individual decisions about fallowing land. The USDA defined a small farm as any with annual gross cash income between $1,000 to $250,000. This definition also has its limitations, as it fails to account for the costs associated with farming different crops. Lawmakers believe defining “small farm” is crucial; they asked the State Board of Food and Agriculture to begin working with experts to come up with a suitable definition. An exact definition remains difficult, because a low-income family farm can theoretically have the same gross income, with a similar number of acres, as a hobby farm that isn’t a family’s main livelihood.

Family farmers can run afoul of labor laws, while missing out on future planning efforts

Small-scale farmers’ complaints about state mandates can range from the mundane to the alarming. Dahlquist-Willard recalls a conflict from shortly before her hiring at the UC Farm extension: “The [California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement] was fining Hmong farmers for labor violations for family members helping out at the farm,” she recalls. “They would have cousins, uncles, nieces helping out for a day here, or a day there. They were getting fined for not supplying these family members with insurance and workers comp.” These fines could be as much as $1500 per worker, and Dahlquist-Willard says they could reach up to $20,000, which could easily equal an entire family farm’s annual profit.

“Lots of cultures emphasize helping out your family and community,” Dahlquist-Willard says, “even in the U.S., we used to [farm] like that.”

With an ongoing drought opening old wounds over water use, perhaps the most important piece of legislation for farmers in recent years is the SGMA, which passed in 2014 and is slowly being implemented. Many individuals, even Governor Newsom, have expressed concern that it will not affect all farmers equally.

Gov. Jerry Brown signing SGMA into law in 2014. California Governor’s Office

SGMA is a complex piece of legislation designed to address overpumping of groundwater in California. In brief, the act identifies the underground water reserves that are at a higher risk of depletion. Entities using water in those 127 basins are required to form groundwater sustainability agencies ,which then draft sustainability plans (GSPs), detailing how they will maintain aquifer levels into the future.

This localized approach was seen by some as a major step forward in California water policy. Instead of having experts and policy makers dictating the best practices for farmers and other water users, the plans would be developed locally, ideally with the input of a diverse group of stakeholders, from the bottom up.

But not everyone is satisfied with SGMA’s progression. A report published in May by the Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund cautioned that small farmers were very likely to be left out of the formation of local groundwater plans. Among other factors, the report noted, small farmers lack the time or extra labor to send a representative to the planning meetings, which can take place over many months. In contrast, larger farmers can generally afford to send representatives to these meetings, and have a more sustained voice in GSP development.

Dahlquist-Willard fears that these inequalities could outlive the planning process. While the new plans will determine how much water is allocated, she says that “if these allocations are cut across the board… then a small farmer and a large farmer will both have only half the water they need. The farmer with 1,000 acres will be hit hard, but the farmer with ten acres could be out of business.” 

If a small farm goes under, she adds, it is unlikely to be bought by another small producer. “It will get bought by a large farm, even a large family farm,” she predicts. “And I’m concerned that SGMA will drive consolidation of farms.”

Legislators consider ways to support “socially disadvantaged” farmers and ranchers 

To address inherent inequalities in implementing laws, state lawmakers passed the California Farmer Equity Act of 2017. The purpose of the law, in its own words, is “to ensure the inclusion of socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers” in the development of food and agriculture laws by adding an officer to supervise implementation of policies that affect disadvantaged farmers. A 2020 report on the needs identified by the law and potential solutions focused on issues like language barriers, land tenure, and small farmers’ remoteness from the larger agricultural industry.

Tim Quinn, the former head of the Association of California Water Agencies and now the executive officer of the San Joaquin Valley’s Collaborative Action Program (CAP), believes California’s policies are changing for the better.

“Historically, California’s farming policies have favored the rich and powerful,” he says, noting that policies have historically neglected marginalized voices. Quinn concedes that giving disadvantaged groups a voice in policy is a massive and ongoing project. “I’ve spent my career trying to get more people a seat at the table…I tell everyone I work with to create [policies] that forge collaboration.”

Clockwise from top left: grapes, cherry blossoms, nectarines, Nikiko Masumoto; Masumoto Family Farm

To Masumoto, regulation is not the problem, but she sympathizes with farmers who don’t feel heard in the current political system.

“If we don’t do something about water in California,” she says, “there will be nothing left to farm.” She sees herself as more pro-legislation than other farmers, and emphasizes that policy is a strong tool for dealing with the impacts of climate change and curbing destructive management practices.

“Regulation has an intent,” she explains, “but a lot of times its execution ends up alienating farmers, making us feel like our only interactions with regulation are punitive… Central Valley farmers feel really unheard by urban folks, and by extension urban legislators. I think there’s a big cultural divide that spills over into policy that might have really awesome intent, but in execution might be patronizing or even just confusing.”

To Aaron Fukuda, being a farmer is not simply a factor of economic income or acreage, but a core piece of a person’s identity. “A lot of these folks, this is who they are, and I think that’s why they feel like they’re under attack a lot” from policy restrictions.

David Mas Masumoto on the farm in May 2020. Masumoto Family Farm

The Masumoto family history shows the benefits of having a farm to call one’s own: starting off as farm laborers, and enduring internment, they were lucky enough to buy a patch of land that has supported their family for four generations. As the climate warms, and water supplies become more uncertain in the Central Valley, the ability of small-scale farming to cope with the climate crisis will depend on both the actions of policy makers and the tenacity of farmers.

Masumoto remains optimistic. “I grew up with this idea… that success was somewhere urban. I thought my trajectory would be to never come back. I don’t mean life is easy — there’s a lot of hard things. But I just can’t imagine being anywhere else.”


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Edited by Felicity Barringer.


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A national environmental correspondent during the last decade of her 28 years at The New York Times, Felicity provided an in-depth look at the adoption of AB 32, California’s landmark climate-change bill after covering state’s carbon reduction policies. MORE »

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