CIRS Blog about Rural California

WASHINGTON —Five years into California’s latest drought, a major water bill compromise can seem as far away as ever.

The perennial conflict, often summed up as fish vs. farms, subtly surfaced again Tuesday at a key Senate hearing. A Western growers’ advocate pleaded for relief, a Trout Unlimited leader urged caution and lawmakers insisted on optimism while conceding the tough road ahead.

“This bill is the product of two years of work (and) 28 drafts,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., adding that her legislation “can produce real water in a manner consistent with the Endangered Species Act.”

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California’s two Democratic senators remain somewhat out of sync over proposed water legislation, underscoring its ambiguous future on the eve of a big hearing.

Four months after Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s introduction of her latest California water package, Sen. Barbara Boxer is still evaluating the 185-page bill. Her wait-and-see attitude hints at complex undercurrents, as she supports some parts of Feinstein’s bill while seeking more feedback about other parts. 

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On April 4th California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 3 into law, which will incrementally increase the hourly state minimum wage to $15 by 2022.

 

This decision to raise wages for working Californians rightfully included farmworkers, the 500,000 men, women and youth (i) who bring California’s harvest to the tables of millions.

 

This decision bucks a historical trend of excluding farmworkers from rules and legislation aimed at improving the well being of low-wage workers. This is an important time in California agricultural history and there is much to be learned from the changes the bill will bring in the years ahead.

 

CIRS is ready to study these changes. This May we will embark upon a targeted research initiative that builds upon our archive of farm labor research, to inform and guide responses to SB 3 implementation within agricultural communities. 

 

The inclusion of farm wages under SB 3 signals a turn towards more inclusive economic policymaking in California. This is definitely a victory and it helps build further momentum in the Fight for 15 that continues throughout our nation. Yet, in the wake of this victory there should remain a healthy skepticism.

 

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Photo of a man hand weeding in Arvin, California. (Courtesy of  David Bacon)

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California's minimum wage went to $10 an hour January 1, 2016.

California in April 2016 approved SB 3 to raise the state's $10 an hour minimum wage to $15 by 2022 for large employers, and by 2023 for employers with 25 or fewer workers. The minimum wage will rise by $1 an hour in January each year beginning in 2017, and increase with inflation from 2024. The governor can suspend minimum wage increases for a year in recessions or if there are serious budget crises.

SB 3 was enacted to head off a $15 an hour union-sponsored initiative on the November 2016 ballot that was expected to be approved by voters.

The minimum wage increase is expected to affect 5.4 million of California's 15.1 million workers, raising their wages by an average $2.20 an hour or $3,700 a year. The University of California, Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education estimates that almost 40 percent of those affected by the $15 minimum wage are 20 to 29, and that over half have a high school education or less. Over 55 percent of those expected to benefit from the rising minimum wage are Latino. A third of California workers affected are in retail trade and food services; less than five percent are in agriculture.

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By Fran Kritz

Since Jan. 1, thousands more kids in California have had improved access to breakfast and lunch at school for little or no cost.

That’s when a new law took effect requiring schools that serve subsidized federally funded meals and post the application forms online to have those applications available in multiple languages. The new law will make it easier for non-English speaking parents to apply for meals for eligible kids.

“It is simply unconscionable that there are children who go throughout the school day hungry due to something as simple as a language barrier…” said State Senator Tony Mendoza, the bill’s sponsor.

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WASHINGTON - Northern California lawmakers are turning up the heat on the Westlands Water District, with coordinated calls for congressional hearings and tougher Obama administration scrutiny.

Citing recent enforcement action by the Securities and Exchange Commission, House Democrats from outside the San Joaquin Valley on Thursday initiated what one lawmaker termed “an investigation” into the district and its proposed irrigation drainage deal with the administration.

“The Westlands Water District plays by its own rules, and trusting them with an agreement of this magnitude should give every member of Congress serious pause,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

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Westside farmers got dismal news April 1 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced a 5 percent water allocation for 2016.

Farmers say the paltry allocation will mean thousands of acres in one of the nation’s most productive farming regions will continue to be fallowed.

“This is going to hurt,” said Sal Parra, a westside grower who farms various crops. “We have already fallowed about 5,000 acres and cut back our workers’ hours. It’s like we can’t get ahead.”

The San Joaquin Valley, especially the westside, has been hit especially hard by a four-year drought. In the sprawling Westlands Water District, officials say at least 200,000 acres will not be farmed because of a lack of water.

Over the last two years, farmers in Westlands have received a zero water allocation from the Central Valley Project – the system that supplies water to farmers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

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You may have been hearing the phrase “climate smart agriculture” more lately. Governor Brown embraced the term in his 2016-17 budget proposal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a climate smart agriculture initiative. And international climate efforts include the UN’s work on support climate smart agricultural practices.

So what is climate smart agriculture? Like the phrase “sustainable agriculture,” it is not universally defined, and it is used to mean many things to many people.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations takes credit for first coining the term in the lead up to the 2010 Hague Conference on Food Security, Agriculture and Climate Change. The FAO defines climate smart agriculture as “a means of identifying which production systems and enabling institutions are best suited to respond to the challenges of climate change for specific locations, to maintain and enhance the capacity of agriculture to support food security in a sustainable way.”

The FAO identifies three pillars to the concept:

  1. Sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes
  2. Adapting and building resilience to climate change
  3. Reducing and/or removing greenhouse gases emissions, where possible

climate smart graphic

 

 

 

 

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WASHINGTON —The White House on Tuesday unveiled several billion dollars’ worth of corporate commitments to water research and development during a high-level summit.

Pegged to World Water Day, the summit was intended to draw attention to specific state and corporate pledges as well as new Obama administration initiatives prompted in part by Western states’ drought and the Flint, Michigan, drinking water scandal.

The corporate promises include a commitment by GE to invest $500 million over the next decade on water and reuse technologies, and a pledge by San Francisco-based Ultra Capital to invest $1.5 billion in decentralized “water management solutions.”

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Forty years after the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) in California, the economic status of California’s farm laborers has deteriorated, despite the remarkably positive performance of the industry as a whole.

 

A 2015 study by Don Villarejo compared the hourly wage rate for field workers in California over a 54-year period (1960-2014) (A New Paradigm is Needed for Labor Relations in Agriculture: California Agriculture and Farm Labor, 1975-2014. California Institute for Rural Studies) The long view shows that since 1974 farmworkers “have made no progress whatsoever in improving their earnings relative to other production workers in the state.” 

 

strawberry picking

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WASHINGTON — The El Niño storms drenching California won’t suffice to solve the state’s drought and won’t permanently save the Central Valley’s vulnerable salmon, federal scientists are cautioning.

 

In an apolitical assessment that comes amid a highly political time, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts stress that this year’s El Niño bounty is both useful and limited. It might well be followed, moreover, by a swing back to a different kind of weather complication called La Niña. 

 

Not all water demands are going to be met, 100 percent, by the recovery we’re seeing relative to the last four years,” NOAA research meteorologist Martin Hoerling said Wednesday in a news briefing. “There are systemic issues with water supply that go beyond precipitation in any given year.”

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County agricultural commissioners released reports of the value of commodities produced the year before. Tulare County had farm sales of $8 billion in 2014, led by $2.5 billion worth of milk, followed by Kern country's $7.5 billion led by grapes worth $1.7 billion. Fresno county had farm sales of $7 billion, led by $1.3 billion worth of almonds.

California produces 20 percent of U.S. milk, but the state's milk output declined in 2015 as farmers grappled with higher feed costs attributed to drought. California surpassed Wisconsin as the leading dairy state in the early 1990s, but in recent years milk output has increased in Michigan, New York and Wisconsin, states with lower-cost land and plenty of water for pasture and feed. Milk prices have also fallen to less than $17 a hundredweight in Fall 2015, reflecting a global surge in milk production.

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By Matt Perry

As farmer’s markets explode all over California and people start to view food as a form of medicine, family farms are emerging as the backbone of a blossoming “shop local” movement and the desire to reconnect with both neighbors and nature.

Yet an aging California population also means that older adult farmers – “agrarian elders” – are retiring at a record rate and taking decades of irreplaceable wisdom with them.

A California farming organization is now on a mission to help keep these small farms in the hands of family members or trusted employees to retain this important heritage.

For the past 15 years, California FarmLink has been fostering farm succession using a team of advisors around the state and “toolkits” to help with the process.

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By Ramon Ramirez and Andrea Miller 

 

Lawmakers convened this month for Oregon’s 2016 legislative session, and one of the most heavily anticipated issues they are addressing is Oregon’s minimum wage. It’s no secret that Oregon’s current minimum wage is not enough on which to get by: A full-time minimum wage worker earns less than $20,000 a year, which is simply not enough to afford basic needs, like housing, child care and transportation. 

 

But what a lot of people may not realize is how our stagnated minimum wage has directly impacted Oregon’s historically underrepresented communities. More than half a million Oregonians are working in minimum wage jobs, and these individuals are disproportionately people of color. While people of color make up 42 percent of minimum wage workers, they constitute only 32 percent of the work force. In Oregon, nearly half of our Latino and African-American workers are employed in low-wage industries. 

 

These are workers like Maria and Cristobal, farm workers who became U.S. citizens in hopes of finding a better life for their family. They’ve been working in agriculture for more than 30 years now: Fighting wildfires, planting seeds, picking berries, processing fruits and vegetables, planting and cutting Christmas trees, and preparing the many plants and trees that decorate our communities. You name it, they’ve done it. And what has been their reward? A household income of $18,000 and minimum wage pay their entire working life. 

 

The resulting consequences of this economic policy are obvious. In Oregon, poverty and race go hand-in-hand. In Oregon’s most populous county — Multnomah — while communities of color represent 28 percent of the county’s population, they comprise 44 percent of its population living in poverty. Thirty-six percent of African-Americans in the county live in poverty, as do 35 percent of Native Americans, 35 percent of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and 31 percent of Latinos. As the general economic health of Oregon worsens, poverty and economic inequality disproportionately affect communities of color.

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Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday relaunched a big California water bill, in what might be cast as the triumph of hope over experience.

 

Unveiling her third proposal in the past two years for ways to divide California’s water supply among many competing interests, Feinstein packaged her latest 184-page measure as a reasonable compromise that draws the best from past Capitol Hill efforts.

“Drafting this bill has been difficult, probably the hardest bill I’ve worked on in my 23 years in the Senate,” Feinstein said. “But it’s important, and that’s why we’ve been working so hard, holding dozens and dozens of meetings and revising the bill over and over again.”

As part of the bill’s unveiling, Feinstein disclosed words of encouragement from parties who usually are on opposite sides of the water battle, including Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and water agencies that serve agricultural interests, including the South Valley Water Association, the Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency.

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California's minimum wage rose from $9 to $10 an hour January 1, 2016.

AB 20, which would have required the state to initiate discussions with the federal government to seek a waiver that would allow the state's Employment Development Department to issue work permits to unauthorized farm workers if there are not enough U.S. workers to fill available jobs, stalled in the Legislature in 2015 and was not approved. Under AB 20, the immediate family members of workers with permits could have received permits to reside legally in California.

Kansas, Utah and Colorado tried to create similar state-facilitated guest worker programs, but the federal government did not grant required waivers, so these states wound up with state-run programs to help farm employers to apply for guest workers under the H-2A program.

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California endured its fourth year of drought in 2015, but farm sales appear headed for another record. Water was shifted from low-value crops such as alfalfa to higher-value nuts, and prices for many farm commodities were strong.

California agriculture "normally" uses about 33 million acre feet of water. In 2015, agriculture used 30 million acre feet. Two-thirds of the nine million fewer acre feet of surface water available in 2015 was replaced with groundwater pumped from underground aquifers. Groundwater is normally 40 percent of the water used by agriculture, and 60 percent in dry years.

The water in underground aquifers accumulated over centuries, and cannot be replaced quickly. California in 2014 became the last western state to regulate groundwater pumping, enacting laws that created local groundwater sustainability agencies to register private wells, monitor the water-measuring devices that must be attached to pumps, and regulate groundwater pumping. The agencies are financed by fees charged to farmers and other water users.

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Washington -- The now-distant December of 1988 was a big month for California water lawsuits that would last a generation and eventually land in Congress’ lap, where their ripples linger to this day.

Each of the two major lawsuits, introduced within weeks of each other 27 years ago, offers enduring lessons – in law, in politics and in the long, long time it takes to get things done in Washington.

“Nothing is easy around here,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Jan. 13. “Not even a motherhood resolution is easy.”

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Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center

Soil health management is key to solving the climate change problems attributable to farming systems. One way to improve soil health is through adopting sustainable conservation systems that include conservation tillage (CT), cover cropping and other practices. CT describes a variety of cropping methods that involve leaving the previous year’s crop residue on top of the soil and planting the next crop right into it. To increase organic matter both above and below the soil surface, cover crops of a single or multiple plant species can also be grown between major crop rotations. Since crop residues are left on the soil surface and not tilled under, CT reduces the number of tractor passes needed, thereby cutting labor and fuel costs. Minimizing mechanical disturbance to the soil reduces erosion and runoff, increases water infiltration rate and retention, and increases carbon sequestration—all important strategies in climate change mitigation. Precision irrigation is another conservation practice that seeks to increase the efficiency of irrigation systems, by reducing pumping time and energy use.

Starting in 1998, Dr. Jeff Mitchell of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and a group of farmers, researchers, and agriculture professionals have been collaborating in California’s San Joaquin Valley to optimize the techniques and benefits of CT. Together, they formed the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center with the goal of increasing the adoption of conservation farming systems to over 50 percent of California’s cropping acreage by 2028. CASI conducts research, demonstrations, and outreach to growers, agencies, and environmental and consumer groups.

CASI’s mission is twofold: improve the livelihoods of California farmers while conserving and improving natural resources. Working directly with growers and public agency representatives allows CASI researchers to develop projects that reflect an understanding of whole-farm systems and the importance of combining conservation practices to optimize climate benefits.

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4per1000

This International Year of Soil resulted in some serious action that has brought the soils beneath our feet into the limelight.

 

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