California Institute for Rural Studies

California Institute for Rural Studies

“That land is so rich you could eat it with a spoon!” exclaimed Tom Willey, small-scale organic farmer in California’s Central Valley, referring to the swath of land on the west side of the Valley that makes up the Westlands Water District

He went on: “I swear to God, they used to say that any idiot could be a good farmer out there because the soil was just so fertile. It was true, absolutely true. And there’s no question that, under a different set of circumstances, 160 acre farms could have been successful out there.”

That figure, 160 acres, is significant. Until 1982, there was a law on the books—the 1902 Reclamation Act— that limited the size of farms allowed to use government subsidized irrigation water across the Western U.S. to just 160 acres.  That’s much, much smaller than the kind of massive-scale agricultural development that characterizes California farming in general and the Central Valley in particular.

What may sound to modern readers like a quaint rule was actually meant to be an important safeguard against consolidation of land, power and wealth in the developing West. Most people understand that California agriculture is big, but unless you’ve spent time in the Central Valley it’s hard to imagine how vast the industry really is. Farms stretch for un-interrupted miles, sprawling across tens of thousands of acres. The Westlands Water District spans 600,000 acres (the size of Rhode Island) with fewer than 600 landowners.  And farmland values are sky-high in California—the USDA’s 2015 Land Values Summary lists California’s average cropland price at $10,690/acre with strawberry land on the Central Coast rumored to be selling this year for $60,000/acre. This makes it nearly impossible for aspiring farmers, whether they’re young folks or former farm workers, to become farm owners. Had the 160 acre rule been enforced, the situation would be much different; California agriculture, at least in places using subsidized irrigation water, would have been dominated by family-scale farms. So what happened?

 In the late 1970s, a group of Fresno-based activists trained a laser focus on this rule and on enforcement of Reclamation Law to promote small farm development, stirring up a surprising—if forgotten—amount of dust.

National Land for People (NLP) was founded in 1964 by a journalist, photographer and energetic, populist visionary from Wisconsin named George Ballis. NLP’s goal was straightforward: they wanted small farmers and farm workers to own the 160 acre parcels that the Reclamation Act promised. They drew their motto—La Tierra Pertenece al que la Trabaja/Land Belongs to Those Who Work It—from Mexican Revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

Ballis teamed up with a group of people who were committed to bringing attention to the fact that water law was not being enforced in California—and that a small collection of large landowners were getting rich off of government water subsidy. There was Berge Bulbulian, Armenian raisin-grape grower and self-described “farmer front-man” with a sharp wit and socialist politics; Marc Lasher, a social worker from New York who wanted to work for justice in the “belly of the monster”; Mary Louise Frampton, a young civil rights lawyer with a novel (and successful) approach to suing for enforcement of the law; Eddie Nolan, organizer of African American farmers in the Valley, and Jessie De La Cruz, one of the first female organizers for the United Farm Workers who would go on to put together an important farming cooperative in the Valley.  And there was Maia Ballis, George’s “collaborator in life,” joyful co-conspirator and talented graphic artist.

Photo (from left to right) Marc Lasher, Berge Bulbulian, Maia Ballis and Mary Louise Frampton, taken in 2015.

Fired up about what they saw as a wave of “water crimes” being committed in the Valley, the small, volunteer NLP team pieced together detailed records of “questionable land deals” in the Westlands Water District. 

From a house-turned-organizing-office in Fresno, the group created maps, graphics, and a fiery newsletter sharing their findings with thousands of supporters. George Ballis pulled no punches. In the newsletter, he called corporate farming businesses “the biggies.” He further propagandized NLP’s work with a graphic of an over-sized dollar bill that read “Westlands Water District” on the top and “2 Billion Dollar Boondoggle” on the bottom, with the line “Paid for by U.S. Taxpayers” running up the side.

In spite of their straight-no-chaser rhetoric, NLP made friends in high places, earning the respect of Congressmen like George Miller and officials in the Department of the Interior, who oversaw Reclamation Act projects. 

In addition to speaking truth to power in the Valley, the group also made many trips to Washington D.C. NLP members squeezed into a tiny van to drive across the country to testify at Congressional hearings, staying at the YMCA on their no-salary budget. In spite of Berge’s urging that NLP buy George a three-piece suit to wear for these occasions, he insisted on sporting a long beard and “hippie” clothes to the hearing.  George didn’t soften his argument when he was before Congress either, exclaiming things like, “this isn’t a hearing, it’s a pep rally!”

However, building key political allies was not enough to force the government to stop the existing illegal actions in the Westlands. Scraping together a little money, the NLP hired Mary Louise Frampton in 1974 to sue the Department of Interior for not enforcing the Reclamation Act. Fresh out of law school and 24 years old, Mary Louise devised a unique strategy for the suit. Against all odds she won a court order halting land deals across the Western states. The NLP won appeal after appeal– all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.

The Central Valley buzzed with controversy. NLP members were labeled “communists.” Even as Valley newspapers wrote of “the biggies” preparing for battle, Maia Ballis reported that, “It looked like we had won!”  When the Department of the Interior held hearings on the proposed rules and regulations that they would then use to enforce the law, members of the NLP received death threats. Mary Louise remembers an FBI agent standing guard outside her motel room in El Centro as protection while she prepared to testify. Growers went to outrageous lengths to silence the NLP. According to Mary Louise, they flew helicopters over hearings to drown out testimony and pulled in huge farm equipment to kick up clouds of dust over the grand stands.

And then, in 1980, former Governor of California Ronald Reagan strode into the White House, bringing with him a whole new administration—and Department of the Interior. Some activists speculate that promises to overhaul the Reclamation Act helped him get elected.

Whether or not it was a campaign promise, Reagan’s administration worked with Congress to pass the Reclamation Reform Act. Defenders of the new law claimed Reagan’s changes “modernized” the Act, updating it to reflect the costs of farming in the 1980’s. From the NLP point of view, the law was gutted, with the acreage limitation raised to 960 and the residency requirement eliminated.

Berge Bulbulian read this as a classic capitalist maneuver.  “You gamble on breaking the law to make as much profit as possible and then when the law is being enforced you use the profits you made to sway political interests to change the law so your crimes are legal.” 

In 1982, NLP admitted defeat on the water issue. George wrote in an NLP newsletter, “We lost not just because of biggie bucks. We lost because what we advocated is against the warp of our time.” But, he insisted, their work was not over: “The struggle to create a democratic, responsible and sustainable food system goes on […] Now we turn our full attention to creating new cultural, social, economic realities on a small scale.“

In what could be seen as a tactical shift, or possibly as retreat, George, Maia and Marc uprooted NLP from the Valley, planting it again on 40 acres they called Sun Mountain, east of Fresno at the base of the Sierra Nevada. Here National Land for People morphed into the People Food and Land Foundation and George poured his boundless energy into building a passive solar house, creating perennial gardens and demonstrating what sustainable living could look like—outside of the reach of “the biggies.”

NLP didn’t win their battle. California farming continued to consolidate and corporate land-holdings ballooned. It’s easy to superimpose 2015 cynicism onto this National Land for the People story and wonder if their Reclamation Act enforcement fervor was foolish. What’s striking about Berge, Maia, George, Marc, Mary Louise and all the other NLP crusaders is the tremendous optimism and idealism that they brought to their work. NLP’s heyday was 30 years ago, not 100, and yet they held an entirely different vision for the Valley—one that would have broken down massive landholdings held by white landowners and transferred them to small farmers and farm workers of color. They looked at the stark, mostly unpopulated land of Westlands and imagined a string of thriving communities and a base for democracy in the Valley. Their optimism, it seems, was the ultimate political act.

Today, with water on everyone’s mind, Californians have a rare opportunity to rethink how we want to use this precious, and highly subsidized, resource. Is it to deliver profit into the hands of a few? Or is there another possibility?

Tom Willey wistfully reflected, “I once wished to hell I’da had 160 acres out there, really.” For many activists in the California food movement, it’s hard not to agree. 

Photo Caption: Taken in July, 2015 of NLP members (from right to left) Marc Lasher, Berge Bulbulian, Maia Ballis and Mary Louise Frampton.

Cal Ag Roots stories focus on pivotal moments in the development of California agriculture. This story and podcast are the second in a three-part series called Docks to Delta, which launched with a live event aboard the Capitol Corridor train in the fall of 2015.

Many thanks to Audio Producer Aubrey White, storytellers Tom Willey, Mary Louise Frampton, Maia Ballis, Berge Bulbulian, Marc Lasher, John Heywood and to the Cal Ag Roots Advisory Council including Lisa Morehouse, Janaki Jagganath and Mario Sifuentez who provided crucial editorial advice for this project. Thanks also to historian Clifford Welch, who provided critical background information about this story as well as connection to NLP members.

The Docks to Delta Route Map

This interview with Project Director Ildi Carlisle-Cummins was done for the California Humanities blog and first appeared there. Click on the map for Docks to Delta Full Route Map. 


CH: Tell us a little about yourself and the organization.
ICC: I direct the Cal Ag Roots Project at the California Institute for Rural Studies. Cal Ag Roots puts historical roots under current California food and farming change movements by telling the story of California agricultural development in innovative, useful and relevant ways. There is deep knowledge about the structures, driving forces and key moments that have shaped California’s food system among recognized “experts” and those who have participated in the creation of CA farming, but this knowledge doesn’t always inform food movement work. Cal Ag Roots shares stories from this wide range of people, opening new lines of communication among them.

Cal Ag Roots launched this fall with a live storytelling event and podcast series, supported by Cal Humanities, called Docks to Delta. Docks to Delta Live took place in September on the Capitol Corridor train (which runs from Oakland to Sacramento) where 90 guests heard 3 stories about California farming history that were connected to the landscape we were traveling through. This fall, we’re working on recording those stories as podcasts that can be listened to by any of the 2 million Capitol Corridor train riders– or anyone else with access to the internet. Stay tuned for those which will be finished this winter. You’ll be able to find them on our here.

Prior to launching the Cal Ag Roots Project, I worked as a researcher at UC Davis, studying community food systems and earning an M.S. in Community Development. I have spent my entire career in various corners of the California food movement. I was Associate Director of the youth empowerment and food justice program, “Food, What?!” and ran the Farm to School Program for Community Alliance with Family Farmers (CAFF). I worked with food banks, health departments, school garden organizations and school districts– basically with anyone interested in shifting California farming towards sustainability. Throughout my work in the community food systems movement, my approach has always emphasized partnership, bridge-building and justice. 

CH: What inspired you to do this project?
ICC: Cal Ag Roots grew out my varied experiences in the California food movement. I found that as much energy, enthusiasm and idealism as the people in the food movement tend to have, our work isn’t always grounded in history which leaves us to repeat mistakes, unintentionally replicate injustices and, at times, spend energy fighting the wrong battles. Cal Ag Roots is designed to help people understand why California farming works the way that it does so that they can be more effective in shifting it.

And, it’s important that the project is fun and engaging. Activists need to be inspired and fed, since there’s always so much risk of burnout, so we launched Cal Ag Roots with an event on a train. That seemed to work– we sparked rich dialogue about the Docks to Delta stories and people told us that they really enjoyed themselves. 

CH: Why did you choose this method of storytelling?
ICC: I wanted to tell stories that would expand our thinking about California farming, so uncovering stories that hadn’t yet been told made sense as a process. I chose to focus on oral stories and audio production because I wanted the stories to be as accessible as possible to an increasingly busy and inundated audience. While people might not have time or attention spans for reading long articles or watching videos, many people now listen to the radio or podcasts in the car or on their phones (or in the case of our Docks to Delta podcast, while commuting on the train).

Personally, I’ve been really moved by podcasts that I’ve listened to, particularly as I was traveling through a landscape that was connected to the stories I was hearing. There’s something so intimate and powerful about having a story come through headphones into your ears. You don’t have to worry about reacting to the storyteller, being a good audience member, or staying focused on words on a page. The story’s delivered right to you, which I think gives you plenty of space for listening deeply and absorbing the story into your life.
That said, the Cal Ag Roots Project is focusing storytelling events and audio pieces, but we are also be putting up short articles, photos, maps and other resources related to the stories on our Story Hub and can learn more about the Cal Ag Roots project on the CIRS website.
CH: What challenges have you encountered?  What stands out as special accomplishments?
ICC: I’ve said that putting together the Docks to Delta Live event was kind of like building a big Rube Goldberg machine. (You know, the kind of contraption where you line up the tracks, set the golf ball rolling and that drops into the cup, spilling the vinegar onto the baking soda which inflate the balloon, etc. until eventually an alarm is shut off by a fly swatter– or some other task is accomplished.) Putting together our live event with 3 storytellers, 2 narrators, a singer, 16 other voices on tap through an iPad soundboard and broadcasting a program to 90 people wearing audio headgear– all while moving along the tracks on a train traveling from the Bay Area to Sacramento– was a challenge. But somehow we pulled it off and people were very engaged. I think it was a unique experience, and from the feedback we’ve received, one that will really leave a lasting impression on attendees. In fact, it went so well that we’re starting to think about other train routes around the state where we could host similar events.

I think the podcast has the potential to really stir up conversation about California agriculture’s past and future.

CH: What do you hope will result from the exhibit and public programs?  For participants, community, and your organization?
ICC: I see Cal Ag Roots and Docks to Delta as storytelling projects that help to put current conversations about California farming in historical context, orienting people to how our food system developed. I think it would be hard to look at the landscape along the Capitol Corridor rail line in the same way after hearing our Docks to Delta stories.  I also see this as an organizing project– encouraging dialogue between people who might never have realized they have common goals and sparking new thinking about where we’re headed in California farming.

CH: Why do you think the humanities are important to our lives?
ICC: I think humanities projects encourage us to see the world in all of its rich complexity. My favorite work in the humanities shakes us out of our everyday lives and patterns of thinking, surprising us with insights that help us understand the people– and places– around us in new ways.

Docks to Delta, Live– the public launch event for our Cal Ag Roots Project– was a hit!

On September 26, 2015, 90 event guests boarded the Capitol Corridor Amtrak to listen to Cal Ag Roots’ first three stories about key moments in California agriculture while traveling through a landscape relevant to the stories. As the conversation between event attendees heated up on the return train home, we could sense that we’d made a real impact. Several people told us that this type of event and conversation is exactly what the California food movement needs and one longtime leader even said, “I think this will be remembered as a seminal moment in this movement—either you were on the train or you weren’t.” Cal Ag Roots has launched!

This fall and winter

We will be honing the stories that we told live on the train into podcasts that will be accessible online by a much wider audience—including the 2 million people that ride the Capitol Corridor train each year. (A partnership with Amtrak means that it will be promoted to all their passengers.) We also have offers to tell the stories live again on two UC campuses—Davis and Merced—and other plans to continue the dialogue about how these stories impact current food and farming policy work.In 2016, we’ll continue to work with people from across California, as well as our dedicated Advisory Council to choose the second set of stories to bring to the food movement’s attention. Docks to Delta, for anyone who hasn’t been following our announcements about this project, is part podcast series and part live event: the stories that were told live on September 26, 2015 will be available via the Cal Ag Roots Story Hub as podcasts this winter.

If you missed the event, please stay tuned for the stories.Feel free to contact us to be added to the Cal Ag Roots newsletter or reach out to Project Director Ildi Carlisle-Cummins at with ideas and questions. Check out this short video (made for last summer’s crowd-funding campaign) which gives you a flavor of Docks to Delta: