The dairy industry has friends in Washington, D.C. We also have bitter enemies. But it has been some time since we had one of our own, an active dairy producer, in town.
That changed November 6, 2012, when California's newly drawn 21st Congressional District went to David Valadao with 60 percent of the vote. Congressman Valadao, a Republican, won a district where registered voters are 47 percent Democrat and only 33 percent Republican. In fact, Representative Valadao won his 70 percent Hispanic district as the only gain for the Republican Party in California, according to a column in The Wall Street Journal. It was the first time that the area covered by much of Valadao's new district went Republican in 20 years.
But this isn't Valadao's first entry into politics. His interest started 10 years ago when he served on the policy committee and as a California Region 80 delegate with Land O'Lakes. David talked to us by phone shortly after the election while driving around his family's ranch. He lives right on the farm and continues to be a partner in the operation, although he was forced to give up active management when his congressional campaign started.
It's been a while
As David became more involved in the political process through Land O'Lakes, he was eventually approached to run for California State Assembly's 30th district in 2010 when the Republican incumbent retired. At first, he thought people were kidding. But after several months of thought and talking with his family, he agreed to run. David won that seat with 78 percent of the vote in the Republican primary and 61 percent in the 2010 general election.
In years gone by, active dairy producers weren't so rare in Congress. It was just 100 years ago when Mooley Wooly and Pauline Wayne, President Howard Taft's Holsteins, grazed the front lawn of the White House as the last cows to supply milk for the First Family. But as the active farming population has trickled to less than 2 percent of all Americans, it's been difficult for a dairy producer to gain a seat in D.C.
Former Colorado Representative and dairy farmer Bob Beauprez served Congress from 2003 to 2007. Beauprez served on the Holstein USA board of directors for eight years while managing his home farm in Boulder, Colo., with his parents and brother. But his herd dispersed in 1990 to make way for a golf course, and Beauprez went into banking.
Closer to active management, current Representative Devin Nunes was raised on a dairy farm in California's Central Valley. Eventually he even moved into a management role on the farm. However, he soon entered the political arena and left the farm. Nunes was picked as California's state director of the USDA Rural Development Agency before being elected as a U.S. Representative in 2002.
When Valadao made the decision to run the first time, he said it came down to, "You want to make a difference. You want to get involved. You want to do what's good for your community." Jumping to the national seat, David feels he'll be able to make a bigger impact for the state since Republicans have long been a minority in California state politics.
With the federal redistricting, there was a newly drawn district available. Incumbent Jim Costa (a Democrat) chose to stick with the city of Fresno, leaving a very agricultural district open for a new face. It should be noted that Costa was born and raised on a dairy farm, as well.
Congressman Valadao is moving from representing 465,000 in the State Assembly to about 700,000 in Congress. But his district was growing and reached near 500,000 towards the end of his term. With that many people to represent, being an incumbent in many parts of the same district helped give David the upper hand.
Hands still in the dairy
"My dad started in the dairy business in 1975," David explained. One dairy currently includes David, his father and his brother, while another facility is a partnership of David, his uncle and another brother.
Valadao Dairy is made up of 1,700 cows with 90 percent Holsteins and the rest Jerseys and crossbreds. It's a standard "H" style dairy with a double-30 parallel BouMatic parlor. They milk two times per day and grow much of their own feed. They raise corn, wheat, alfalfa, ryegrass and sometimes milo on the land.
The big issue David told us he'll look to resolve is the water war on the west side of the Central Valley. Before redistricting, it was split between two districts, but now most of the dispute lies in Valadao's area. "Water affects everybody, and that's what I focused most of my attention on during the campaign," he explained. Energy costs and government regulations (many of which are California's own regulations, Valadao admitted) are also major concerns. All add to the high feed costs California dairy producers are facing.
While the numbers aren't official, the new district is expected to be the largest Congressional district in terms of both dairy cows and milk production in the country. He said he'll welcome input from dairy farmers on their issues and is looking forward to helping the industry as much as he can.
Congressman-elect Valadao said in November that it would be an honor to serve on the Agriculture, Natural Resources or Transportation Committees. The latter, he said, would be of high interest since high-speed rail and moving agricultural goods are important to the viability of District 21. But in December he landed a spot on the coveted House Appropriations Committee. In that role he will serve on the Agriculture, Interior and Legislative Branch subcommittees. That position will allow him to have a much larger say in how money is spent in both his district and yours. The appointment also puts him on the fast track to future leadership positions within the Republican Party.