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California, US Agriculture Giant, Suffers From Drought, Disillusion

California's water woes - the most-publicized being its five years of drought - have received national attention in recent months. But the state's farmers have a growing list of irritants, including air pollution, environmental regulations, and land development with accompanying urban encroachment.

``If there is a good side to this drought,'' says Mary Ann Warmerdam, director of natural resources for the California Farm Bureau Federation (CFBF). ``It has been bringing public attention to the general crisis hitting farmers.''

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She and other experts say agricultural angst has reached critical mass. They lump the above problems into a single large hurdle to farming in the 1990s: How to keep farmers down on the farm. ``Farmers are rethinking their futures: `Is this the lifestyle I want to pass to the next generation?''' says Ms. Warmerdam.

California farmers produce more than half the nation's fruits and vegetables, but their proportion of state employment has dropped to 2 percent.

Besides frustrating pesticide and air-quality regulations, there are pressures from expanding cities - Central Valley communities like Visalia, Bakersfield, and Fresno - whose residents complain of dust, noise, and smell.

The allure of enough money from developers to enable a farmer to retire at no risk is another temptation to hang up the hoe. The state loses 50,000 farm acres a year to development.

John Corkins, a farmer who is chairman of the Central Valley Regional Water Control Board, says: ``California is wrestling with all these questions in advance of other areas of the world because of its rapid growth.''

The state population has grown by 6 million since 1980, and the agricultural Central Valley has exceeded the state rate.

``The solution will become a matter of public values,'' Mr. Corkins says, ``wrestling the alternatives of open space versus larger populations and food versus comfort and recreation. If we continue on our current path, it seems they are all in jeopardy.''

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None too soon, drought headlines have brought urban and rural leadership together in productive ways not seen in decades.

``For the first time in state history, agriculturalists have said, `Yes, for a price, I'll give up my water,''' says Richard Howitt, a professor of agricultural economics at the University of California, Davis. ``All sides are coming to the table with ways of dealing, trading, contracting in ways never before seen.''

Part of the reason is leadership from the top, forged in crisis. A new ``drought czar,'' David Kennedy, was appointed by Gov. Pete Wilson in February. As head of the State Water Board, Mr. Kennedy instituted a statewide water bank - paying willing farmers and municipal agencies for water subsequently offered to those in need elsewhere.

``We have demonstrated that voluntary water markets are a significant part of our future,'' says Kennedy.

Howitt has documented air pollution impact on yields in the Central Valley at 20 percent loss for some crops. He sees the coming decade as a watershed in California efforts to control air pollution.

``There is a realization in all corners that the best ways to accommodate urban growth and agricultural goals is not through the courts,'' says Howitt. ``There is some optimism that commercial agriculture will come to be seen as a provider of environmental benefits rather than an exactor of costs.''

``If there is a lesson from the past 20 years, it is to look to the future and act upon it,'' says Warmerdam.

She adds that leaders who in the 1940s and 1950s developed California-wide water-delivery and conservation plans such as the State Water Project were on the right track.

``We stopped looking at the future 15 years ago,'' Warmerdam says, ``and are paying for it now.''

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