Hultgren steps up in new run for MID post

October 12, 2017

Suzy Hultgren is well known in the local agricultural community as a third generation farmer who owns an organic dairy in Cressey.
She’s also a former board president of the Merced Irrigation District — the first woman ever to serve with that distinction.
The 53-year-old Hultgren has decided to run again for a seat on the MID board after receiving encouragement from the community to do so, and after accepting the proposal that someone with the right experience and a strong sense of responsibility needs to step up in a critical time for the district.
“We are in the battle of our lives right now with the state,” she told the Times in an interview. “We need to be unified so that we can support and direct staff to get things done. … This is a big, big deal. The future of our ability to irrigate with surface water is huge.”
Hultgren is vying for a seat to represent Division 4 — a regional stretch that includes the city of Livingston, parts of Atwater, and the rural communities in or around Cressey, Winton, Amsterdam and Snelling.
Hultgren faces Sam Sahota, a local farmer and businessman, and the incumbent Board Director Kevin Gonzalves who has been surrounded by controversy in recent months due to legal matters involving a water theft case in the district, and headlines in the daily paper detailing past personal transgressions.
“When you have a divided board, and there are one or two members that are constantly in disagreement with what’s going on — it’s a distraction,” she said. “Tabling things that don’t need to be tabled, voting no just to be in opposition — all those things are not productive … Obviously when someone is being accused of stealing water, it forces the district to stop and deal with legal matters that are distracting, time consuming and expensive. …
“I really believe Division 4 deserves better. The people deserve somebody that is going to represent them — not someone’s self interests. As board members, we need to be supportive of the effort to protect our water rights, and the effort to move MID forward in a productive manner, while working with the people that we represent.”
Hultgren points out that Division 4 represents a diverse community with diverse needs that all need to be taken into account. It’s a rural area with a lot of farming activity going on, but it also links to urban zones with quality drinking water issues, and use of MID electric power for some residential areas and big corporations such as Foster Farms.
The candidate’s family roots in the area go back to her grandfather, Mel Hultgren, who bought the dairy back in 1941.
“I’m proud of my family’s heritage,” she said. “My grandfather came here and basically made something out of nothing … He was actually instrumental in helping shape the district.”
Hultgren’s father, Sonny, kept the farm and cattle business going as Suzy grew up going to school in Balico-Cressey, and later at Livingston High. Suzy went on to study at Merced College and Bethany College, before returning home to work with her dad in the family business.
As a trailblazer, Hultgren was first elected to the MID board in 2007 as only the second woman to do so, and the first in nearly a century.
Nevertheless, it was a tough period for the district. There was a devastating drought, along with extremely tough financial decisions, and cutbacks.

She served a five-year term (instead of four) because of an election modification to save the district money — a move she voted for — but in the end it might have left her seat vulnerable. When she was up for re-election in the big 2012 vote, it was “not a good year to be an incumbent.” She ended up losing to Gonzalves, an almond farmer from Winton.
Meanwhile, Hultgren has been a longtime leader in the Merced-Mariposa Cattlemen Association, and a supportive mom, often seen as a photographer taking pictures on the sidelines at high school sporting events.
She is married to Randy Pimentel, and she has two sons Luke and Wyatt. Her children are grown now: Luke works on the family dairy, and Wyatt attends college in Michigan where he also plays collegiate baseball.
It should be mentioned that Hultgren has some interesting family ties to leaders currently at MID.
Her cousin is MID’s General Manager John Sweigard, who came on board around 2010. However, Hultgren points out that there are no conflicts of interest, or no mutual business ties.
“I’m 10 years older than John, and it wasn’t like we grew up together skipping and holding hands. … We can disagree on things … He is a professional with more than 20 years in the industry dealing with water. His job is his life, his passion, and he has had great success. He is well known in Sacramento and throughout the state. … What I’m trying to do is a service for my local community.”
Another relation, Hultgren’s father-in-law, Billy Pimentel, is an incumbent board director who is up for re-election in Division 5, and trying to fend off a tough, experienced challenger, Bob Weimer.
Pimentel, interestingly, has been described by some critics as a board ally of Hultgren’s main competitor: Board Director Kevin Gonzalves.
Says Hultgren about her husband’s father, “We have never served on the board together, and it’s possible that we never will. … When it comes to decisions regarding the Merced Irrigation District, I’m going to educate myself on the issues, and I’m going to stick to what I believe. … At the end of the day, yes, we will still be related, but that doesn’t mean we are going to agree on everything.”
In recent times, Hultgren said she has tried not to be a distraction as a former board member at MID board meetings. Instead she attends key sessions for growers, and keeps up on the minutes of agenda items.
She said she has reached out to union representatives, and promotes a fresh perspective as a way to keep the MID organization thriving.
Her main goal is to keep local water in the local basin, and allowing for good, productive water sales within the district for farming and municipal needs, as well as smart decisions when it comes to dealing with outside entities.
“At this stage in the game, we are fighting with the state to keep the water in the reservoir,” she said. “We are also in the middle of the ground water sustainability program, of which I currently serve on the county board representing unincorporated areas of eastern Merced County.”
Finally, and only when asked, Hultgren acknowledged she is once again competing for a spot in a “male-dominated industry.”
If she wins on Nov. 7, she again would be the only woman ready to serve on the five-member MID board.
“It’s not an easy position to be in as a female, but I don’t usually think of gender when I do things. … I’m running because it’s the right thing to do.”

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