Dispatches from the Road: Deardorff Family Farms Story

Published: Oct 18, 2011

What Happens When Federal Regulations Invade A California Family Farm? Dispatch from the Road

While American families deserve clean air and water, America’s two million family farms live or die by it. Sustainable ecosystems power the more than $300 billion agriculture industry, feeding America and supporting about 1.2 million jobs. Just as overfishing puts fisherman out of work, poisoned land puts a farm out of business. Tom Deardorff II – Oxnard, CA small business owner and fourth generation family farmer – put it another way.

“We are the first environmentalists.”

“My father created a sustainable, good business. We feel a very strong connection to the land and all our resources for that matter, whether land, water or labor,” Deardorff said during an visit to his family’s small produce packing facility. “It’s important for us to not only operate our business in a way that acknowledges and respects those resources, but also sustains them and makes them available for future generations.”

The next generation depends on Mr. Deardorff both caring for his piece of California and providing for his 120 full-time workers and their families. A goal shared, in theory, by the 81,205 pages of federal government regulations. But as these government dos-and-don’ts travel the 2,777 miles from Washington to reality, many turn into costly burdens, saddling small businesses like Deardorff Family Farms with higher costs and uncertain futures. Worse, meddling from the bureaucrats enforcing federal government regulations erodes the economic freedom and predictability on which Mr. Deardorff’s great-grandfather built the farm.

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Tom Deardorff
Deardorff Family Farms
Deardorff Family Farms

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“I always thought my Dad went to work in a free-market economy. If you make the right decisions, you’re profitable. And if you make the wrong decisions, you’re not,” said Mr. Deardorff. “Now that I sit in his chair, I am amazed at how much I have to weave my way through government, government regulation and how that plays into our decision-making process.”

More than anything, Deardorff Family Farms bases its business decisions – what to plant, when to plant, who to hire – on a predictable supply of water. It receives water through California’s statewide delivery system, which distributes the supply among cities, farms and the environment. Though rain and snow were plentiful this year, government regulators have a hand on the spigot. Mr. Deardorff can only watch as his water costs skyrocket, the unintended consequence of US Endangered Species Act (ESA) regulations.

“We’re facing a doubling or potential tripling of our water charge because of requirements under the ESA to put in additional fish ladders, reduce streams, provide more water for habitat,” said Deardorff.

Fish ladders?

Federal ESA regulations are meant to support the “conservation of threatened and endangered plants and animals and the habitats in which they are found,” according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. But these well-intentioned rules simply haven’t worked in the real world: since ESA became law in 1973, a mere 10 of the 1300 species protected by ESA regulations have actually recovered. Effective or not, ESA compliance costs – like paying for fish ladders – are still passed onto farmers like Deardorff, who is at the mercy of ever-changing water regulations.

“It just keeps coming from every direction,” said Deardorff grimly. “A lot of it, quite frankly, happens when people show up and say you’re not in compliance, or you go to buy a new piece of machinery and you find out that you have five new steps to do in order to buy that equipment.”

The cost of regulatory uncertainty is staggering. Take 2009, by no means unique in the modern history of American agriculture. California was parched by a “regulatory drought,” during which government stole water from farmers and diverted it to protect habitat for the three-inch-long Delta smelt. The casualties of the 2009 drought: 500,000 acres of working farmland lost, up to $2.2 billion in revenue lost, and at least 40,000 jobs lost in the San Joaquin Valley alone, according to April 2011 House Natural Resources Committee testimony.

Why would the federal government knowingly cause a job-killing “regulatory drought?” The reason: special interest lawsuits that shatter the accepted regulatory process and push federal regulations beyond the realm of common sense. Recently, environmental zealots have made “sue-and-settle” agreements with the Obama Administration, prompting the US Fish and Wildlife Service to issue a unilateral “biological opinion” that placed the full power of the federal government behind the three-inch-long smelt, leaving California farm workers and their families high and dry.

“Basically, the environmental community has sued our district claiming that they are in violation of their permitting because they have not installed certain additional measures to help protect a fish species,” Deardorff said.

Agriculture is already a fragile industry. In 2009, America’s median farm income barely cracked $50,000. But the explosion of federal regulations under President Obama is making survival that much harder: 660,900 small businesses – from family farms to auto repair shops – closed in 2009. That year, the Obama Administration proposed 2,044 new regulations. In 2010, proposed federal regulations jumped to 2,439.

While this President is accelerating the growth of federal regulations, the problem didn’t start with him. Mr. Deardorff says regulatory uncertainty has grown ten-fold over his two decades on the farm, under both Republican and Democrat administrations.

“There certainly used to be a lot more certainty,” he said. “And you saw a regulation and there was usually time for implementation and planning. Now it seems like those time periods have evaporated or no longer exist. There’s just no way to logically keep up with it.”

So why doesn’t Deardorff give up in the face of the swelling tide of federal government regulations? The farming culture and the satisfaction of delivering healthy produce to American dinner tables.

“The people that do stick with it, they’re the salt of the earth kind of people. That’s one of the big attractors for me,” said Deardorff. “The second is really just the lifestyle. It’s promoting nutrition. It’s promoting America. It’s being a big bowl in the whole food industry and sustaining, not only current generations, but protecting resources for future generations too.”

The growing Obama regulatory burden hits all American job creators, but hits small businesses like Deardorff Family Farms the hardest. Average annual small business compliance costs have soared to more than $10,500 per employee.

These job creators deserve common-sense regulatory relief, so that they can invest their hard-earned money and time into putting America back to work.

-Team Oversight

Are you like Tom Deardorff of Deardorff Family Farms, trying to create jobs but struggling under the growing weight of federal government regulations? Visit right now to speak out.

Related Documents

Name Document
Impact of regulatory costs on small firms Document
2011 House Natural Resources Testimony Document
Federal Regulations Document