Supreme Court water decision: Another blow to US family farms?

The United States Supreme Court this week wrote a significant chapter in the continuing saga of the family farm vs. corporate agribusiness. The decision to exempt California's rich Imperial Valley from acreage limitations traditionally tied to federally subsidized irrigation does not wipe out the turn-of-the-century law designed to promote small-scale agriculture.

But it does come just as Congress and the Carter administration -- buffeted by special interests -- are wrestling with a question that is as important philosophically as it is economically. The court's decision, some observers feel, could weigh the debate in the favor of large-scale agriculture at the expense of farmers who live on the land they own and operate.

Under the Reclamation Act of 1902, farms served by federal water projects were limited to 160 acres, and farmers were to live "on or near the land." Some 12 million acres of farmland in 17 Western and Midwestern states now draw water from 150 such federal projects.

Over the years, however, the residency requirement was never enforced, and very large farm operators (including railroads and oil companies) bought or leased thousands of acres. In a recent survey of 428 water districts in the West, the US Department of the Interior found that nearly half of the land was in farms larger than 160 acres.

In California's 424,000-acre Imperial Valley, 233,000 acres (55 percent) are owned by farming interests of greater than 160 acres including Southern Pacific, Standard Oil, Tenneco, and Purex. This area, like other agricultural areas in the arrid West, relies on large amounts of federally subsidized water. Long-term water contracts typically mean federal subsidies of thousands of dollars per acre for farm corporations (according to government reports), and raise the value of such land considerably.

In its unanimous but rather narrow ruling this week, the Supreme Court held that a 1929 law authorizing the Hoover Dam and other water facilities specifically exempted the Imperial Valley from acreage and residency requirements.

Influential farm organizations in California are pleased with the court's decision.

"This decision will be very helpful to the state," said Fred Heringer, president of the California Farm Bureau. "A 160- acre operation is just not economically viable, water or no water."

Those who support the promotion of family farms assert that a profit can be made on small acreages, however. "As a general rule, a reasonable level of living can be obtained on less than 500 acres," stated a recent Interior Department report on acreage limitation.

Several years ago, a study by California state agencies concluded that even smaller farms could be efficient and profitable. But government regulations and programs, it was found, create an artificial marketing disadvantage for the family farmer.

While the Supreme Court did not deal with the larger question of reclamation law, the other branches of federal government are.

The Carter administration wants to raise the amount of land that can be owned or leased and still receive federal water to 960 acres. Even more significantly , it wants to reinstate the residency requirement, which could force the breaking up of some large farms.

"The department will still seek a limit on acreage outside the Imperial Valley," said Interior Department spokesman W. J. Macfarlan.

Some small farm advocates see raising the acreage limitation as a retreat, but it may turn out that what the former Georgia farmer in the White House wants is the best they can hope for.

The US Senate already has passed a "reclamation reform act" raising the acreage limitation to 1,280 acres and doing away with the residency requirement entirely. The House of Representatives this week is formulating its own changes to reclamation law. Here, too, the residency requirement probably will be eliminated and acreage limitation raised considerably.

Thus, the Supreme Court decision is but one step in a process that has already begun.

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