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Idle land brings hard times

May 18, 2008|By BRIANNA LUSK, Staff Writer
  • TODD KRAININ PHOTO Farmer and hay hauler Robert Slaton discusses the impact of fallowing on his Holtville farm. Slaton said his hay servicing business has suffered as farmers he worked for keep their fields idle.
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Over the years the acreage of Robert Slaton’s family farm has been pared down.

Now less than 100 acres behind his home is what amounts to the hay field, adding to the work he gets as a hay cutter and hauler.

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But two years ago one of the farmers Slaton depended on for work began fallowing his crops.

The work Slaton had was divided with another contractor and reduced to half.

Slaton estimated that accounted for about 20 percent of his business last year.

“It’s a pretty serious deal,” Slaton said of the impacts of fallowing. “When you’re getting your regular paycheck chopped off … it’s hard.”

Slaton admits he’s a farm service provider on a much smaller scale than some of the other agriculture businesses around the Valley.

He spends much of his time taking care of his elderly mother, who has Parkinson’s disease, in between the demands of the family’s operation.

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Since fallowing began in the Imperial Valley in 2003, money has been paid to farmers on a per-acre basis to save water for transfer to the coastal cities.

And when there are no fields to plow, no seeds to plant and no harvest to reap, farm service providers, workers and the economy are impacted.

This week the Local Entity, tasked to distribute money to farm service providers and noncompetitive grants to mitigate the impacts of fallowing, completed its duty.

It took more than two years and one committee reorganization to get it done.

The $3.5 million they awarded, however, was only for the first two years of fallowing.

The impacts of the last three years have not been mitigated.

“We’re a few years behind the eight ball already. The decision for the board will be to decide where to proceed from here,” IID Legal Counsel Jeff Garber said.

Nicole Rothfleisch, executive director of the Imperial County Farm Bureau, said farm service providers are the most directly impacted by fallowing.

“We’re already once again three years behind,” Rothfleisch said. “Farm service providers are losing the business they would have had on that field.”

Western Farm Service in Imperial, a fertilizer company, received mitigation money last year.

Facility Manager Jeremy Jensen said the volume of acres the business was servicing decreased as farmers left their fields dry.

“Our amount of employees today is a little less,” Jensen said of the immediate effects of fallowing. “I knew immediately it would affect our business anytime there are acres taken out of production.”

More than 40 farm service providers received Local Entity dollars last year ranging from about $4,000 to more than $300,000.

Jensen said Western Farm Service used the funds to pay employees for lost hours and time and to pay off equipment.

The time it took for the Local Entity to distribute the funds, Jensen said, was understandable.

“This was the first go-round in getting all the bugs worked out,” Jensen said. “I don’t really know how you would do it any faster.”

Local Entity Coordinator Gustavo Reza said largely due to the committee starting from scratch, it was a challenge.

Reza said getting input from the community on several occasions on how to disburse the funds slowed the process.

“We could have shortened the process by developing the program on our own,” Reza said. “We are all in agreement it has taken too long.”

The Local Entity has faced controversy over the years after it was disbanded and reconstituted without ever distributing a cent.

The 11-member committee was stripped down to five members and even then, the 90-day commitment stretched to nearly two years.

At a recent IID meeting Orbia Hanks said the entity is to be commended but there is room for farm service providers to have more input.

“There’s room for improvement,” Hanks said.

Rothfleisch said the process should be expedited now.

“It does not need to be that complicated. Just show your impacts, give them the money and move on. It needs to go to the people who deserve it,” Rothfleisch said.

No decision has been made by the IID board on how the Local Entity will proceed or if the decision in the future will be made by the board.

For Slaton, the day he can apply for the money he lost over the last two years will be a good one.

Whether he will get it, is another thing altogether, he said.

“I understand the IID has a lot of things going on. But I think they need to …,” Slaton said, snapping his fingers several times and chuckled. “There’s no good reason for dragging this on. That would be unreasonable.”

>> Staff Writer Brianna Lusk can be reached at blusk@ivpressonline.com or 337-3439.

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