Letters to the Editor

Looking for political common ground in barren fields outside Fresno

Tracks pass through an arid and abandoned tomato field near a chicken farm in Helm in Fresno County in 2014.
Tracks pass through an arid and abandoned tomato field near a chicken farm in Helm in Fresno County in 2014. The New York Times

“CONGRESS CREATED THE WATER CRISIS” the billboard practically shouted. The field around it, full of dry grasses and the occasional scrubby bush, spoke just as loudly. It had been years since I’d driven the stretch of Highway 41 between Paso Robles and Fresno, and it was almost unrecognizable.

Gone were the rows and rows of lettuce, spinach and strawberries I’d watched woosh by the car as a kid. Instead, I drove through a scene right out of a Wild West film, tumbleweeds and all.

Billboards dotted the barren landscape, with phrases like “NO WATER = LOST JOBS” and “NO HAY AGUA.” But the one that stuck with me was the accusation in red block letters that Congress was to blame for all this.

“That’s not right,” I wanted to say. “You just don’t understand! It’s a drought! We’re all suffering.”

As if to answer me, a billboard of a quizzical child appeared, with the simple question, “Is GROWING FOOD a WASTE of WATER?” Put that way, the drought and frustration with agriculture didn’t seem so simple.

I’ve done my fair share of railing against California agriculture. Like most San Luis Obispo County residents, I’ve shortened showers and eschewed landscaping and grumbled about those water-guzzling scoundrels — the almonds. It was so obvious who the villains were here: Urban water use accounts for only 10 percent of California water consumption, while ag is as much as 40 percent. That’s 80 percent of water for human consumption, and we have to be the ones cutting back? No fair.

And at the same time, the government has been canceling water deliveries to farms, farmers have been letting their fields go fallow and farmworkers have been told there’s nothing for them to do for the foreseeable future, sorry, wait it out. It was obvious from the brown valley all around me that I wasn’t the only one making sacrifices.

Sadly, our current political climate doesn’t encourage much nuanced thinking. Everything right now seems to be starkly us vs. them. Thirsty cities vs. thirsty crops, Republicans vs. Democrats, Christians vs. LGBT people, black vs. white. No one could disagree that the battle lines are sharply drawn and not to be crossed.

Driving home past field after empty field, I realized how sorely compassion is missing from our politics. When was the last time we sat down with the opposition and said, “All right, tell me your point of view. Tell me your experiences and how they inform your decision. Let me understand you better”?

I’m no fan of Donald Trump, but his supporters gravitate to him because they see something in him. They feel hopeless and unheard, and he gives them hope. He’s a sexist, xenophobic jerk, and he brings out the worst in his fans — but maybe the hatred seen at Trump rallies be diffused by listening, understanding and seeking to solve the problems of his supporters, like the unemployed Republicans in Cave Junction, Ore., dealing with the harsh realities of logging industry regulation and lost jobs.

I’m not saying abandon all your values. I don’t have to agree with Trump or his supporters, or the authors behind North Carolina’s infamous bathroom bill. I don’t even have to agree with California’s agriculture industry.

But I can come to the table with open ears and an open heart and seek to understand. Perhaps, maybe, that desire to understand will inspire others to do the same.

If we all stop yelling at each other for a moment and listen, don’t you think we can find some common ground? I found mine on the drive from back from Fresno.

Victoria Billings is a copy editor at The Tribune. Reach her at vbillings@thetribunenews.com.