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Adios, Farm Bureau

When I was a pre-school child, the beginning of November meant going out at the crisp crack of dawn with my father to help cut cypress branches, miniature Christmas trees, salal, and white fir branches. As the youngest and lightest weight child, one of my jobs was climbing to the tops of cypress trees for branch cutting. The cypress was baled together in bunches weighing approximately 25 pounds each. Along with the miniature Christmas trees the cypress bundles were loaded into the bed of dad’s pickup until it was nearly overflowing, cinched down tight with ropes, driven to Fort Bragg to be shipped, usually by Willig freight trucks, to the Avansino-Mortenson Nursery in San Francisco. The remainder of the cypress, white fir, and salal would be used in the construction of Christmas wreathes of various sizes. Many of these were also shipped to Avansino-Mortenson.

The original Avansino-Mortenson nursery was established in San Leandro and some readers may remember their fern nursery in San Bruno, west of the old Tanforan race track. Much of modern day San Bruno County was part of a single 1820s Mexican land grant to Jose Antonio Sanchez. The Tanforan family was a part of his family tree.

The gathering and selling of Christmas wreathes and seasonal ornamentals was an offshoot of my parents earlier work gathering local ferns for Avansino-Mortenson during the 1940s. Once a 4-H club was established on the Mendocino Coast, my parents became leaders in the Spartan 4-H club. For decades my father was the primary labor source in an operation that included the 4-H club and the County of Mendocino. Much of the cutting for wreathes, cypress bundles, and small Christmas trees was done on the Mendocino County property surrounding the Little River Airport. For a nominal fee to the county, Lorne Macdonald provided the labor (which for the first couple of decades meant himself and his family), and the 4-H Club received approximately half of the proceeds. Pretty good deal for 4-H.

California 4-H Clubs first came into being a century ago, as an agricultural club at the College of Agriculture at Davis. Within a year, seven dozen high school agricultural clubs sprung up around the state. By the 1920s, there were 400 or so adult leaders and more than 5,000 youths involved in what came to be called 4-H Clubs (the four H’s standing for: Head, Heart, Hands, and Health). By the early 1950s 4-H had a university extension farm advisor assigned to each branch as well as adult volunteer leaders like my parents.

In many counties and states 4-H Clubs work together with Farm Bureau organizations. The foundation of the Farm Bureau followed a different path than other traditionally farm based groups like the Grange. The Farm Bureau grew out of the same college extension program concept that spawned 4-H Clubs. The first countywide farm bureau was founded by a Cornell graduate in New York state in the 1910s. Farm bureaus spread across the country rapidly. By 1920 the American Farm Bureau Federation was founded. In its early years Farm Bureau remained non-partisan in statewide and national politics. Rather than endorse candidates it pushed for farm-favorable legislation.

Along with his work with local 4-H my father was a Farm Bureau member and eventually a countywide officer. The Macdonald Ranch once proudly displayed large Farm Bureau signs at its entrance. But not any more. My father’s disillusion with the statewide and national farm bureau organizations began when he attended a December, 1966 farm bureau convention in Las Vegas. As if holding a convention of farmers in the mecca of gambling wasn’t dismaying enough, the keynote speaker was Richard Nixon.

My father gracefully disentangled himself from leadership positions in Mendocino County Farm Bureau and eventually from any membership at all. I joined the Farm Bureau about 20 years ago for one reason, lower rates on health insurance. Through Farm Bureau membership, in the early 1990s, a fairly comprehensive individual health care policy could be had for a little less than a thousand dollars per year with only a $500 deductible.

From the turn of the millennium onward, the rates on the Farm Bureau-attached health insurance policy climbed steeply. By 2008 yearly rates for an individual healthcare policy through the Farm Bureau had risen to well over $6,000 annually, and only that low if you accepted a deductible of more than $5,000. I have switched to a more reasonable rate under Anthem Blue Cross.

The Farm Bureau has publicly opposed federal healthcare insurance for more than a half century. The Farm Bureau adamantly opposed Cesar Chavez and striking grape pickers from the earliest stages of attempts to organize farm laborers. In late September, 2013, Governor Brown signed a law that would raise the minimum wage in California to $10 per hour by 2016. Keep in mind that a person making $10 per hour is still living below the poverty line. The California Farm Bureau opposed this legislation. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recently finalized regulation changes for commercial truck drivers of livestock. The regulations require that drivers be allowed two 30-minute rest periods for every 14 hours on duty. The previous regulation provided for only one 30-minute break for a driver every 14 hours. Farm Bureau opposes the new regulation under the pretext that leaving livestock in an immobile truck for an hour creates a risk to the health of the animals. This is how backward Farm Bureau has become. The Farm Bureau literature on this topic doesn’t even mention the dangers to the health of the driver of a truck who has no more than a half-hour break in 14 hours. Most national and regional long haul trucking companies will literally shut down a truck after a driver has been behind the wheel for 11 hours.

Last year the California Farm Bureau opposed legislation that would make failure to provide adequate shade and drinking water to field workers a crime rather than just a civil penalty. Occasionally, the Farm Bureau is on the correct side of rules that allow teenagers to willingly work extra hours on farms and ranches, but predominantly the Farm Bureau has become a regressive, out of date tool of big business. Like my parents, I have let my membership lapse.

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