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Joe Guzzardi: California’s drought and the death of the ranch

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Posted: Friday, May 29, 2015 9:45 pm

The four-year long drought that’s ravaging the once-magnificent California has saddened everyone. Concerns about the drought overwhelm Californians and dominate daily lives.

Although I have no empirical evidence to support my theory, I’ll offer that for native-born Californians like me, whose family histories go back to the early 20th century, seeing the state on the brink of disaster is tougher than for us than it is for transplants. After all, newcomers weren’t around to see California in all its glory to really know what’s been lost. Coffee table books and old videos hint at California’s splendor in the yesteryear, but don’t come close to doing it justice.

Recent stories about family-owned cattle ranches going out of business struck home. My great-grandfather, a Sicilian immigrant, was once a hand on California’s sprawling, prosperous Miller and Lux Ranch. A San Francisco journalist estimated the ranch’s total holdings at 14.6 million acres. At the time, stockmen said that Henry Miller could travel from the Idaho line to the Mexican border and camp on his own land every night. No American had ever controlled such an immense acreage of agricultural lands that he personally supervised.

Unlike many tycoons, Miller was no robber baron. In an example that resonates today, when the acreage from Los Banos to Newman was bone dry Miller, at a personal cost of $3 million, built a canal and delivered water to the residents at no cost to them. Miller played a major role in the development of much of the San Joaquin Valley during the late 19th century and early 20th century. At the time of his death, Miller was said to have given away millions in cash, property and livestock to neighbors and friends that helped them build homes and raise happy families.

If he were alive to see the plight of today’s California ranchers, Miller’s heart would break. California has had so little rain during the last year that there’s not enough water for cattle to drink, never mind the amount needed for the ranchers to grow the grain to feed them. California’s soil soaked up an average of about seven inches across the state, 15 inches below normal.

As reported in the Los Angeles Times, 75 percent of the cattle in San Luis Obispo have been sold off or moved out of state to escape the drought. At a cattle auction in Northern California, one rancher observed that one of the saddest things is that so many people have put so much effort and energy for the last 20 years to produce a high quality product, and when they sell their cows, they have to start over again. Rebuilding a herd takes a decade or more, assuming water is plentiful.

The ranchers’ tragic dilemma has had devastating indirect consequences in terms of lost jobs and dwindling income. Meatpacking plants and feed stores that provide vaccines, ear tags, and fly spray are struggling to stay open. Economists predict that the drought will cost 40,000 working Californians their jobs.

Cattle ranching has been an important part of the California’s lore for centuries. The next few years will be critical. Hard to imagine though it is, a California without cattle could be in the future unless the rain returns.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. He is a Californians for Population Stabilization senior writing fellow. Contact Joe at joeguzzardi@capsweb.org.

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