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Outdoor Tales

January 31, 2002|By AL KALIN, Staff Columnist

I have lousy farming neighbors. They're also known as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

They farm next to me because waterfowl became a major pest in the 1930s, raiding fields by night and eating the tender hearts of the young lettuce plants as well as devouring hundreds of acres of alfalfa.

The problem was so bad that Congress appropriated the money to purchase more than 40,000 acres along the southern shore of the Salton Sea and the Salton Sea National Wildlife refuge was born to provide food and habitat for the hungry waterfowl.

Unfortunately the original property was covered by the rising Salton Sea, so additional prime land was acquired.

New refuge managers came and left. The prime land began to deteriorate because refuge managers didn't have a clue about farming.


The soil became saltier. Weeds multiplied and tile drainage systems failed. New concrete ditches, overgrown with weeds, cracked and buckled when fields were irrigated and the ditches overflowed. Poor ground preparation led to fields being unlevel and water erosion compounded the problem with every irrigation.

Farmers worked the fields for six months during the off-season when the waterfowl were gone, but strict constraints required by the Fish & Wildlife Service led to poor farming practices. Less food was produced to keep the waterfowl out of the farmers' fields.

Some farmers allowed the geese to feed on certain alfalfa fields to keep them from eating their other fields. They took advantage of the hunting opportunity when the geese moved off the refuge, but at night the American wigeon raided the fields by moonlight.

After talking with others who farmed around the refuge, we agreed to offer our help to the refuge management, hoping to advise them on proper farming methods. Our suggestion was met with deaf ears.

Last year a new refuge manager arrived. At a meeting to address wildlife depredation I suggested refuge personnel were lousy farmers and could use some guidance. My statement went over like a cockroach swimming in a punch bowl.

Things got worse after I discovered the refuge biologist was growing weeds on the refuge. Bad weeds, too, such as dodder, that could ruin an alfalfa seed crop, sand burs that would keep hay buyers away, and nutgrass, which is tough to eradicate.

The biologist told me the nut-like tubers attached to nutgrass — chufa as he called it — provided an excellent source of nutrition for snow geese if the fields were disked up so the geese could get to the nutlets.

In desperation, I presented the refuge manager with a petition, signed by all the surrounding farmers, asking for three things. First, stop the propagation of weeds; second, adopt and fund a long-term farming program that would address integrated pest management and stick with the program; and third, form an advisory committee made up of local farmers, pest control advisers and UC Extension staff that could help develop a long-term farming plan while working within the boundaries of the refuge budget.

The desired result would be a large savings of taxpayers' money, while increasing food and habitat for birds and animals that visited the refuge fields.

Time went by and nothing happened. I made presentations to the Farm Bureau and Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers.

There's been no response to our petition after three months. The refuge manager told me approval from the head office was necessary before replying. Come on, folks! This is not rocket science. The refuge either wants our help or it doesn't.

In the meantime I regard them as lousy neighbors who have no respect for farmers who are trying to make a living.

>>Outdoor Tales writer Al Kalin can be reached on the Internet at

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