Out here in the Westlands Water District, where the cotton and alfalfa grow, the farmers and their friends are agonizing over a revolution that may never come.
The "revolution," a word used frequently by its advocates and its adversaries, is the new set of regulations proposed by the Department of the Interior for land receiving water from a federal reclamation project.
The principal regulations would eliminated absentee ownership and set up a lottery that would distribute a million acres of Western reclamation land on the homestead principle of 160 acres to each farmer.
Nearly a quarter of that million acres lies within the 894 square miles of Westlands, stretching across the San Joaquin Valley to the Coastal Range, making it the focal point in a social struggle that has been going on for three quarters of a century. When Interior Secretary Cecil S. Andrus announced the new regulations last week in the latest round of this long battle, he said the rules were being changed to "help the family farmer, not large agribusiness."
But many, on and off the land, big-timer and small, say the proposed regulations - which will go into effect in about 90 days unless public comment persuades the government to alter them or they are blocked by lawsuits - may not be exactly they seem.
Out here in Westlands, the nation's largest water district, very little is exactly what it seems.
A farmer from the mid-South, for instance, transported to Westlands, would say that the land is rich and the cotton good. The land's true nature would become apparent only when the farmer chanced upon an undeveloped field amidst the cotton and alfalfa. This field is a raw desert, covered with sagebush and a few low grasses and suitable in its natural state only for grazing sheep.
All the land in Westlands was like this desert field before the pioneer farmers arrived 50 years ago and sunk their wells into the raw ground. Now, it is the deep, dwindling, expensive wells and the bright blue ribbon of cheap canal water from the San Luis unit of the Bureau of Reclamation's Central Valley Project that make the desert bloom. There has never been enough water in California, even in good years. Now, in a time of high farm prices and inadequate world food supply, there is also is a shortage of land.
Land and water are the historic touchstones of the West, and the emotions here run deeper than the 1,800-foot well that farmer Larry Turnquist reactivated this year to irrigate 340 acres of cotton.
Some farmers use the old fighting words of "socialist agitators" to describe National Land for People, Inc., the land redistribution organization that brought a successful lawsuit that in effect triggered the new federal rules. On the other side, Southern Pacific and other large landowners in Westlands are sometimes described as "land barons" who are systematic enemies of the family farm.
How each farmer stands depends upon the location and condition of his land.
Victor and Gary Gallo see the proposed new rules as ratification of the reclamation law writtern in 1902, which had the stated intent of providing 160-acre tracts for family farmers and preventing agricultural land monopoly.
"When I read the reclamation law, I said this was made for me," said 26-year-old Gary Gallo. "I want to stay on the land and marry and raise children there. Westlands is my future."
Gallo and his wiry, 56-year-old father, Victor, have done all right for themselves as small farmers. They own 208 acres in Firebaugh, four miles outside the Westlands district, growing cotton on 135 acres and barley on the rest. This year they will net "in excess of $35,000" from their land. They have improved their property so much and land values have risen to fast that they have been offered $300,000 for a farm they bought for $160,000 four years ago. The Gallos turned the offer down.
The land they own now is big enough for Victor Gallo and his Italian-born wife, Mary. But it is not big enough for Gary, who wants land of his own and can't afford the $1,500 an acre prime farmland now brings in the San Joaquuin.
So his hope is Westlands, where land prices will be controlled by the Bureau of Reclamation on the theory that all taxpayers have financed the cost of water that will benefit this land. Last year, before a lawsuit by National Land for People halted Westland sales pending the new regulations, the highest price approved for the reclaimed Westlands land was $750 an acrea.
Larry Turnquit lives in the small town of Tranquility and farms 480 acres in Westlands. Like the Gallos, he is a small farmer. [TEXT OMITTED FROM TEXT] "in cotton," as the Westlands farmers describe their favored crop. Unlike the Gallos, Turnquist has a severe watershortage problem. This year, because of the drought, he received only 25 per cent of his allotment from San Luis. Unlike the Gallos, he is opposed to the proposed new regulations, which he sees as disastrous to his small family farm operation.
Turnquist is the son of a California teacher who owned a few acres of orchard and farmland near Sacramento. He started out working in a bank and met his wife there, but his ambition was to get back to the land. Turnquist managed a 12,000-acre farming operation in Westlands for awhile, then leased 320 acres and gave a share of his cotton income for the rent. He used his own share to make a down payment on the land.
"When I bought that land in 1970, my friends said I was out of my gourd," recalled the 39-year-old Turnquist. "Cotton was 30 cents a pound. You couldn't even make the farm pay on paper, let along in the real world."
But the Turnquists are childless, Turnquist's wife continued to support herself and husband by working in the bank. In 1972, cotton prices soared and Turnquist became a well-offer farmer. In 1976, he cleared $45,000 from his land, on which he has invested $270,000 in farming equipment and irrigation systems. He then leased 120 more acres. This year, however, Turnquist has 125 acres lying fallow because of the water shortage, and he expects to lose money on his crop.
Turnquist's goal was to lease 1,000 more acres and grow tomatoes. This would have permitted what he regards as a proper crop rotation between cotton, tomatoes and barley, and would have greatly reduced the incidence of soil pests.Under hte new rules, which would restrict Turnquist and his wife to leasing a maximum of 160 acres each, he will never get his 1,000 acres.
But the big differences between Gallo and Turnquist is the high cost of Turnquist's water supply and his greater investment in irrigation equipment. With his federal water supply reduced by drought, Turnquist was forced to pump water, and the power company told him it would take four months to get electricity. Turnquist installed a diesel motor himself. But his water costs have increased from $35 to $150 an acre.
Neither the Gallos nor Turnquist are typical. There is no "typical farmer" in the Westlands area in the sense that any one farmer epitomizes the average man on the land. Despite the rhetoric surrounding the new regulations, there is little agribusiness in Westlands if agribusiness is defined to mean control of production through marketing.
The Westlands farmers object to being described as agribusiness tycoons, the non-Westlands farmers such as Gary Gallo resent statements by the Westside Farmers ( the organization of Westlands farm operators) that describe small farms as uneconomical.
"I feel they're trying to deface me, to put me down," said Gallo. "If a man can't make it on 320 acres, he shouldn't be in farming."
But the bigger farmers can feel put down, too. Ralph M. Brody, manager of the Westlands Water District and a champion of the way things are rather than the way they might be, recalled that when Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr. met with farmers in the area, he was asked for state help to increase the water supply. Brown asked the farmer where he farmed, and was told Westlands.
"Oh, the infamous Westlands," Brody recalls Brown as saying. "Why don't you ask your friends at Southern Pacific for more water?"
The story has a point. Southern Pacific is the district's largest landowner, owning one-sixth of Westlands with 109,000 acres, including 84,000 acres that will be sold during the next decade under terms of contracts made with the Bureau of Reclamation.
Since Southern Pacific is receiving federal water on the 84,000 acres, it would be required to break up its land holdings and sell regardless of whether the new rules wer promulgated. The big question is who Southern Pacific will sell to.
Advocated of land redistribution always have contended that SP, as the company is known here, and other large landowners leased their land to an interlocking network of family members and business associates who marched in lockstep, thereby frustrating the goal of opening the land to small operators. Gary Gallo wrote nine applications to SP and other Westlands landowners over a two-year period to buy land. Most did not bother to reply.
Two years ago, Gallo went into Fresno, 46 miles away, to see Ned A. Smith, then the Southern Pacific Land Co.'s manager in the valley and now assistant general manager for the entire land company.
"He told me that the people farming the ground in Westlands will end up [owning] it" recalled Gallo. "I didn't like what he said but I kind of appreciated his candor."
Smith does not remember the specific conversation but says, in effect, the same thing now.
"I undoubtedly told him that we had good, the land to sell," Smith said last week. "It's a good business practice to offer the land for sale to your tenants with whom you've had good relations for many years."
Most of the big landowners regard it as an axiom of property rights that they should be able to sell to buyers of their choosing. Russell Giffen, the pioneer farmer who demonstrated a half century ago that cotton could be grown in the Central Valley, started with a $2,500 investment and built it into a $110,000-acre farming operation, including 48,000 acres he owned outright.
Now 75, Giffen lives in Fresno and has sold all his land for reasons of health. He considers the proposed new rules an "outrage," and seems to be most outraged over the lottery provision.
"I had men work for me for 30, 35 years," he said, his voice adged with anger. "Some of them were close associates, some day laborers. Why shouldn't these people be given a chance to buy the land? Why shouldn't these people be given a preferred position over someone I've never met? Morally, it's right to give them an opportunity."
This sort of talk seems nonsense to George M. Ballis, a studious, 52-year-old vegetarin who has been agitating, writing and talking for 20 years in favor of land reform in the San Joaquin Valley. Ballis is director of National Land for People and the man most responsible for its court victory and for the new reclamation rules.
"They're not just selling their land," said Ballis is reference to the arguments of SP and Giffen. "They're selling the public treasury. Those lands wouldn't be worth [WORD ILLEGIBLE] if it wasn't for the (Central Valley) project."
Ballis is regarded as a dangerous man by John Harris, a 34-year-old farmer who manages Harris Farms, Inc., at 20,000 acres the largest single farming operation in Westlands. Harris observed that his father, Jack, farmed in Westlands 30 years before the project came and nevr would have signed an agreement to lease land if there had been a prospective 160-acre restriction. The Harrises own only 3,850 acres, leasing much of the resto their land from SP.
Though the water shortage has kept nearly half the Harris land idle this year and will put their business operation in the red for 1977, they have made $2 million in very good years. The leasing restrictions are likely to put them out of business.
Some of the Harris employees also are bittee about the new regulations. Assistant manager Steve Renton, 31, says his maternal grandfather is leasing 320 acres from SP and another 320 from a relative. Unless he wins land in the lottery, Renton's grandfather won't be a landowner under the proposed new rules.
"They aimed at Southern Pacific and hit my grandfather," said Renton, who considers the lottery provision "right out of the Marxist textbooks."
Ballis considers the lottery as "the zipper which holds the fabric together." Take away the lottery, he says, and Southern Pacific will find a way to control the land.
Beneath the hopes and fears of the different adherents, some basic realities persists. It is clear, for instance, that Southern Pacific will make a huge profit on its land no matter what the rules might be. Based on the $750-an-acre price approved by the Bureau of Reclamation before a court order stopped land sales in 1976, SP would realize $63 million for selling its excess land.
And the rules also continues some nice windfalls for banks and thrift institutions that hold mortgages on the land. Although the new rules contain antispeculation provisions favored by everyone from John Harris to Gary Gallo, anyone who holds a mortgage and forecloses is permitted t resell that land during the next five years without price approval from the bureau.
In the bad old days of California politics, the word "Communist" often was used to discolor any political discussion of land reform by those opposed to it. This time, the Communists - as represented by the governments of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China - did, in fact, have a lot to do with what has happened in Westlands.
When Giffen and the Anderson Clayton Co., the two largest landowners outside of SP, put their land up for sale in 1969, they advertised heavily but found few takers. Farm prices were falling and people were leaving the land. Then the Soviets bought wheat and, in a less publicized negotiation, China entered the world cotton market.
Prices soared, buyers appeared from everywhere and the Westlands land was quickly sold. Ballis believes that the attractiveness of farmland has been heightened by a "new consciousness" among young people who are disillusioned with urban life. In any event, even with the severe drought there are plenty of prospective buyers now.
"Lack of water won't stop the people from coming," said Ned Smith of the Southern Pacific Land Co. "We've had water problems in California for years. The San Joaquin Valley is one of the most productive areas in the country, even in the world. In this area, there always will be a demand for land."