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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Drought Update - the Importance of Community

In The Sound of Mountain Water, Wallace Stegner wrote:

“One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”

Last Friday, I was invited to participate in a half-day drought workshop put on by the Sierra Valley and Feather River Resource Conservation Districts in Vinton (a small town in the northeastern corner of the Sierra Valley).  My presentation was minor - I spoke about the importance of telling our stories about the drought to the media.  Other speakers dealt with more weighty topics - things like how to manage pastures during the drought and how much summer irrigation water to expect.  Taken at face value, the talks might have seemed depressing.  We learned about how to best sell off cows, about the lack of snowpack at higher elevations, and about the challenges of re-building businesses after the drought.
Glenn Nader speaking at the Sierra Valley Drought Workshop.  (photo: Ken Tate)

Taken as a whole, the talks were outstanding - and the ranchers and farmers in the crowd were intensely engaged.  This drought, after all, has profoundly impacted our businesses and livelihoods.  I was most impressed, however, by the positive energy in the Vinton Grange Hall when we took a break between talks.  The volume in the hall elevated immediately, as friends greeted friends.  I was struck once again by the importance of bringing people together to share stories and information - and to commiserate.  My friend Ken Tate, who is on the faculty at UC Davis, pointed this out - he said, "Wow - listen to this room!  Folks really needed this chance to get together!"

If there's a silver lining to our drought, it's the sense of cooperation that has been re-established in rural communities like Sierra Valley, Auburn and Rio Vista (places in which I've had the opportunity to work this year).  Neighbors are helping neighbors - indeed, "neighboring" has become a verb again.

Glenn Nader, another friend who happens to be a livestock/natural resources farm advisor for UC Cooperative Extension, found another silver lining.  On our drive to Sierra Valley, we were talking about an earlier drought workshop at the Sierra Foothills Research and Extension Center in Browns Valley in late January.  The combination of technical information from the workshop and the realization that all of us were having to make difficult decisions about selling animals helped one of his neighbors arrive at the difficult but necessary decision to sell some of her cows.  At the Sierra Valley workshop, Glenn put it this way: "The only way you're gonna survive a drought is to make decisions."  These decisions, at least for me, are easier when I realize that I operate within a community of farmers and ranchers who are having to make similar choices.

As Wallace Stegner alludes, we have an image of the cattleman (the quintessential "Westerner") as a rugged individualist.  Those of us who still make a living from the land in the West, however, have learned that cooperation and community are far more important than individualism and isolation.  Meetings like the Sierra Valley drought workshop give us an opportunity to come in from our work and remember the importance of community.

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