Dan Bacher: Mother Jones Article Promotes Corporate Agribusiness Astroturfing

C-WIN Guest Blog by Dan Bacher

The "Astroturf" campaign by corporate agribusiness to build a peripheral canal and more dams to increase Delta water exports has relentlessly promoted the myth that crops grown on drainage-impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley "feed the nation" or "feed the world."

Farmworkerslosthills.jpegThe corporate media and even some "alternative" media outlets have bought into this myth in their coverage of the California water wars, portraying the conflict as one between hard-working farmers like those portrayed in the classic Grant Wood painting who only want "feed America" versus "radical environmentalists" who want to protect a "minnow" like the Delta smelt.

A poorly researched article on California water, the "New Dust Bowl," appeared in the November-December edition of Mother Jones magazine, a publication supposedly known for its investigative reporting. The "New Dust Bowl" sounds just like a headline from the Sean Hannity Show or Fox "News" - and the article reads like a propaganda piece for growers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

"On the west side of the valley, which is often last in line for deliveries from federal water projects, farmers are selling prized almond trees for firewood, fields are reverting to weed, and farmworkers who once fled droughts in Mexico are overwhelming food banks," claims the author, Josh Harkinson. "In short, the valley is becoming what an earlier generation of refugees thought they'd escaped: an ecological catastrophe in the middle of a social and economic one—a 21st century Dust Bowl."

In falsely portraying the west side as "a 21st century Dust Bowl," Harkinson sounds here like a speech writer for one of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's rants for a rally of the Latino Water Coalition, an "Astroturf" organization set up by the Governor and San Joaquin Valley growers to put a "human face" on corporate agribusiness in order to promote the construction of a peripheral canal and more dams and to strip protections for Central Valley salmon, Delta smelt and other fish species under the Endangered Species Act. “Astroturfing” is an English-language euphemism referring to political, advertising, or public relations campaigns that are formally planned by an organization, but designed to mask its origins to create the impression of being spontaneous, popular ‘grassroots’ behavior.

How can Mother Jones, "a bimonthly magazine of investigative journalism that exposes the evils of the corporate world, the government, and the mainstream media," according to its website, push the agenda of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, corporate agribusiness and right wing astroturfers and not quote anybody from the Delta or fishing communities? And what about Delta farmers and farmworkers that are threatened by water exports to agribusiness on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley?

This piece makes much of the corporate media reporting on the water issue, which leaves much to be desired, look "fair and balanced" in comparison. Mother Jones, the magazine's namesake, would be spinning in her grave if she saw how Harkinson accepted the agribusiness spin on California water politics and the lies of an Astroturf group such as the Latino Water Coalition as virtual gospel truth.

"In the 1930s, Okies saw California's Central Valley as a Garden of Eden. Now it's dying of thirst," claims Harkinson.

However, Lloyd Carter, who has written about California water issues for 40 years, points out Harkinson's contention that the San Joaquin Valley is a "dust bowl" and is "dying of thirst" has no basis in fact.

"There are four million acres of land in production in the San Joaquin Valley," said Carter. "The drought has idled 500,000, or one-eighth of the land. The Valley is hardly a dust bowl."

Harkinson uses dubious data in making his point about massive unemployment "caused" by the drought. "The drought is expected to dry up a billion dollars in income and 35,000 jobs, adding to a statewide unemployment rate that recently hit 11.9 percent—the highest since the eve of World War II," Harkinson states.

In contrast to the high figures that Harkinson cites, Jeffrey Michael, University of the Pacific economist, estimates that the San Joaquin Valley has lost 8,500 jobs from reduced water exports in 2009. "Roughly 2,000 of these are attributable to the endangered Delta smelt and the rest to the natural drought," said Michael.

Harkinson fails to report the 23,000 people in the fishing industry now unemployed, according to economic data compiled by the American Sportfishing Association, because of the collapse of salmon spurred by massive water exports of Delta water to subsidized agribusiness and southern California.

I am surprised by the author's statement, in response to criticism of his article, that, "What remains (of Westlands Water District ) is some of the most productive farmland in the world. Or was, before its water ran out."

Actually, the drainage impaired land in the Westlands Water District is among the least efficient and least productive on the planet. These rich corporate growers receive subsidized water to grow subsidized crops on land that should have never been irrigated because of the selenium and heavy metals that fill the soil. The drainage problems associated with land that should have never been irrigated have never been effectively addressed by the state or federal governments.

"The smelt are a key food for salmon, which is why their preservation is more than a simple question of man vs nature," Josh Harkinson stated.

In reality, the smelt aren't a "key food" for salmon now, nor have they ever been. The Delta smelt is an indicator species that shows the health of the estuary, but are not found in the ocean where the salmon feed after migrating down the river as juveniles. (After I pointed this out on a post on the Mother Jones website, Harkinson did correct his mistake).

The only bit of truth I find in the article is where Harkinson quotes Governor Schwarzenegger saying, "Cesar Chavez knew the power of a good march," without mentioning that the United Farm Workers (which Chavez founded) boycotted the march, calling it a front for anti-union growers.

The next time Harkinson writes an article on California water, he should interview people like myself, Lloyd Carter, Bill Jennings of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance, Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla from Restore the Delta, Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federations of Fishermen's Associations and Mark Franco or Caleen Sisk-Franco of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe who know what's really going on in the Central Valley and in California water politics. It would also be a great idea for him to interview Arturo Rodriguez, the president of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW), or a representative of another farmworker organization before he subjects Mother Jones readers to the disinformation contained in his article.

Harkinson should write a follow-up article where he includes quotes and data from these sources about the agribusiness campaign to falsely portray the battle to save California fisheries and Delta/northern California farms as one of "fish versus people" when it is really one of people versus corporate agribusiness. Rather than taking the Astroturf information at face value as he has done, the writer should look at the real story behind what's going on in the Central Valley and the Delta.

Mother Jones should examine other economic realities of the San Joaquin Valley.


An examination of the actual economic data compiled by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reveals that there is no basis in fact for the contention that west side farmers are the "backbone" of American agriculture. According to a USDA Chart, US gross farm income in 2008 was around $375 billion. 

Westlands Water District, the nation's largest water district, produces $1 billion annually in gross farm income, according to articles by Mark Grossi, Fresno Bee reporter, on November 7, 2009, and Garance Burke, Associated Press writer, on July 31.

"That means Westlands' contribution to the nation's food supply (and exports) is about a quarter of a percent," said Lloyd Carter, veteran investigative journalist.

According to this USDA website, net farm income is forecast to be $57 billion in 2009, down $30 billion (34.5 percent) from 2008. The 2009 forecast is $6.5 billion below the average of $63.6 billion in net farm income earned in the previous 10 years. Still, the $57 billion forecast for 2009 remains the eighth largest amount of income earned in U.S. farming.

"The US gross farm income in 2008 was $375 billion and average net income is $63.6 billion," said Carter. "In other words, the net is about one-sixth of the gross. That means Westlands actually is netting about one-sixth of its claimed $1 billion in farm revenues, or about $150 million a year."

Carter noted that if you take away the water, power and crop subsidies, you drop that true net increase quite a bit further. The Environmental Working Group estimated Westlands' annual subsidies in 2002 at $110 million a year.

"That means the true net of the Westlands, when you take away all the government giveways may be only $30-40 million," he concluded. "Now, if you subtract the anticipated costs of drainage and make Westlands pay for their own waste disposal, they may actually not be generating any true wealth out there at all, except what the government gives them."

The Cretaceous sedimentary rock shales that underlie Westlands Water District contain salts and trace elements like selenium, arsenic, boron and heavy metals, according to Bill Jennings, executive director of the California Sportfishing Protection Alliance. Several layers of virtually impermeable clay lie below the shales.

"Irrigation of these soils has led to high concentrations of these pollutants draining via surface and subsurface flow to the San Joaquin River," said Jennings. "Efforts to control these toxics led to the creation of Kesterson Reservoir and the disaster where selenium poisoning led to thousands of deformed birds. Kesterson Reservoir was ordered closed by the State Water Board in 1985, but drainage from Westlands continues to discharge to the San Joaquin River at levels that are highly toxic to fish."

Here's the point, according to Carter. "We all keep hearing about how Westlands 'feeds the nation' or even more preposterously, 'feeds the world.' They continually conflate themselves with the entire San Joaquin Valley or the entire state of California, which even then (at about $34 billion) is still less than 10 percent of national gross agricultural output."

Carter and other environmental water justice advocates are wondering why Leslie Stahl of CBS' 60 Minutes didn't examine this angle when she covered California water politics in her poorly-researched report on Sunday, December 26.

When you consider Carter's estimates that Westlands' contribution in gross income to the nation's food supply (and exports) is about a quarter of a percent - and that the true net value may be only $30 million to $40 million, once government subsides are considered - the claims by corporate agribusiness and media pundits that drainage impaired land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley "feeds the nation" are simply not true.

The false claim that any cuts to water supplies for west side San Joaquin Valley agribusiness will prevent them from "feeding the nation" has been cited by corporate agribusiness, the Association of California Water Agencies (ACWA), Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Senator Dianne Feinstein as a key reason for the "necessity" to build the peripheral canal on the California Delta and Temperance Flat and Sites reservoirs. This myth has also been employed by Schwarzenegger, Feinstein and Central Valley Representatives to launch their administrative and legislative attacks on the federal biological opinions protecting Delta smelt, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead, green sturgeon and southern resident killer whales under the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

The absurdity of the campaign to build more dams and the peripheral canal, a project estimated to cost anywhere from $23 to $53.8 billion, and to strip ESA protections for Central Valley salmon and other species becomes very apparent, now that a review of the USDA data has dispelled the myth that drainage impaired land, irrigated by subsidized water, "feeds America."

For a larger perspective on this issue, read Lloyd Carter's impeccably researched law review article. And to learn about how Westlands farmworkers are being manipulated by the big growers and labor contractors, read his essay, "The P-R Firm from Hell."