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U.S. Ag Secretary visits Stanislaus County
• Agriculture chief Sonny Perdue stops by Oakdale and Modesto to hear farmers’ water concerns
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, center, and local Congressman Jeff Denham, right, shake hands with residents during a stop in Oakdale on Tuesday, Aug. 14. - photo by Dennis Cruz

 In a rare visit to the Central Valley, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made stops in Modesto and Oakdale on Tuesday, Aug. 14.

On Tuesday morning, the Cowboy Capital of the World welcomed Perdue as part of a visit with U.S. Representative Jeff Denham, touching on agriculture and water issues. Escorted by California Highway Patrol cars into the Brichetto Ranch property off of Crane Road in Oakdale, Secretary Perdue and Congressman Denham, along with their entourage, made it to the property and began shaking hands with those in attendance.

Welcoming Denham and Perdue were the Brichetto family, members of the Oakdale Irrigation District board, local farmers and other agriculture enthusiasts. In a roughly 45-minute informal session, Perdue and Denham both discussed the current “Water Wars” issue concerning the proposed water grab that would divert water from this area; as well as crop concerns, the environment and more. They also received a tour of the Brichetto Ranch.

“First of all, I want to thank John (Brichetto) and his family for allowing us to come out here today and see real agriculture in California,” said Perdue. “It’s important for me to come out here and visit with folks and see what it is they do and work side by side with them, see what it is they do. That’s what Congressman Denham does every day. The water in California is so important to these farmers, dairymen and frankly to the United States. There is enough water for everybody. We just need to find the smart way to use this water and I think if we all work together we can reach that agreement.”

Congressman Denham also spoke on the importance of his visit: “Our water is the biggest concern right now. If they take our water it will devastate our community, devastate our agriculture industry let alone the hydropower that comes with us. So it is a big fight that we have.”

As part of that fight to keep local water here, a rally is was held Monday on the north steps of the State Capitol in Sacramento to protest the State Water Board’s plan to take billions of gallons of water from the Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Merced rivers and divert it elsewhere in the state.

Officials with the Save The Stan group note that the state has falsely claimed increased “unimpaired flows” will boost salmon populations in the rivers – ignoring scientific data that shows reducing predation and restoring habitat also are critical factors. Save the Stan, local officials and legislators are encouraging residents to attend the rally on Aug. 20 in Sacramento in hopes of stopping the water grab.

Along with the tour in Oakdale, Perdue and Denham also hosted an informal ‘Town Hall’ session at the Paul Wenger Farm on Dunn Road in Modesto on Tuesday.

Farmers and other ag stakeholders packed into a Modesto barn to throw their questions at the Secretary, wondering what can be done federally to keep the state water board from allowing more river water to flow to the ocean and inquiring about President Donald Trump’s tariffs policy.

“Most Americans — me included — do not fully appreciate and understand the contributions to the United States agriculture that California growers play,” Perdue said. “There’s only one way you can do that. You’ve got to get your boots on the ground here and see it, feel it and sit and talk to people.”

Farmers wasted no time talking about some of the issues on their mind. Todd Sanders, of the California Apple Commission and California Blueberry Commission, asked the Secretary to elaborate on the tariffs and any relief that apple farmers, who will be “hammered” by the new dues he said, may be able to receive.

Perdue admitted he warned President Trump that farmers would “bear the brunt” of any trade retaliation from China, but supported the president’s decision to try and make the international trade market fairer for the country. He compared the U.S. to “Boy Scouts” who are continuously walked on by other countries and reiterated that the president was committed to providing relief by way of a $12 billion buyout for farmers suffering because of retaliatory tariffs.

“We know there’s going to be some discomfort and some disruptions…some economic damage there for a while, but we’re not going to allow farmers to go through that,” Perdue said.

Perdue also said that he told President Trump farmers are “patriots,” but understandably nervous about tariffs.

“I am convinced these tariff things are problematic, they’re trouble, but we have tariffs because if we turn loose the American farmer, rancher, producer, we would own the market worldwide,” Perdue said. “I told the president that [farmers] know that you’re doing the right thing with China not having to play fair, but they’re obviously anxious. They’re patriots, Mr. President, but the bank won’t accept that patriotism when it comes to paying the note.”

In regards to the State Water Resources Control Board’s proposed plan to release 40 percent unimpaired flows from local rivers in order to benefit native fish species, which will be voted on next week, Perdue said that there is no immediate plan in place for federal intervention. He has, however, met with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke about the issue, who also visited the Valley last month to talk water.

As a former Georgia governor, Perdue is no stranger to water struggles, he said. Even with the state’s 52 inches of rain per year, Georgia has been locked in a 30-year battle with Alabama and Florida over water allocation during times of drought.

“It’s the same story there, and we’ve got the environmentalists there saying we’ve got to make sure there’s enough for the mussels,” Perdue said. “If you take the water away, all you’re ever going to have is dirt and no food.

“I wish I could snap a finger and make this issue go away…this unimpeded flow thing just does not make any sense to me.”