CIRS Blog about Rural California

Processing

Farm commodities are often packed and processed by nonfarm workers in nearby plants. For example, Taylor Farms is a major producer of bagged salads, with sales exceeding $1.8 billion a year. Taylor's Salinas bagged salad plant has 2,500 employees who are represented by the Teamsters union, but its 900-employee Tracy salad plant is non-union.

The ballots in a March 2014 election at the Tracy plant were impounded by the National Labor Relations Board because the Teamsters alleged Taylor unlawfully interfered. The Teamsters argue that, because the 600 workers brought to the Tracy plant by temp agencies SlingShot and Abel Mendoza earn $0.50 an hour less than Taylor's Salinas workers, Tracy workers need a contract. The Teamsters say that Taylor intimidated its employees, some of whom are unauthorized, by threatening to introduce E-Verify to check the legal status of employees, and that the E-Verify threat makes workers reluctant to support the Teamsters.

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By Hannah Guzik

A group of 13 women sit in a circle under a painting of ancient Mesoamerica featuring the first indigenous president of Mexico, Benito Juárez. Under the painting is a quote by Juárez, in Spanish. Translated, it reads, “Among individuals, as among nations, respect for the rights of others is peace.” The room is sparse, with folding chairs, incense burning on a small table and blocks in a corner for the toddlers who sometimes come with their mothers. The women, wearing the same jeans and T-shirts they wear to work in the fields, sip tea in paper cups. There’s a printout of a chrysalis and butterfly taped to the wall.

The women here at the Mixteco/Indigena Organizing Project in downtown Oxnard are part of a new support group and are learning how to manage stress and deal with difficulties in their lives, sometimes including domestic violence and mental illness. As indigenous people, they’ve felt their “outsider status” in both Mexico and the United States. They face other troubles every day as members of an often invisible minority group in California.

The support group is sponsored by the nonprofit Organizing Project, formed in 2001 to help indigenous immigrants in Ventura County and statewide. As the Affordable Care Act has expanded health care to much of California’s population, the nonprofit has stepped up the services it offers to those who have been largely left out of health reform: undocumented residents.

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California has about eight million acres of irrigated crop land. A third is planted to perennial fruit and nut crops, a third to field crops such as cotton and rice, and a third to crops that are fed to animals, such as alfalfa and corn. The rising share of crop land planted to perennials has "hardened" the demand for irrigation water, since they must be watered even in drought years.

 

For example, 15 percent of the land in the Westlands Water District is planted to almonds, up from five percent in 2000.

 

In a normal year, about two-thirds of the water used in agriculture is surface water, captured in dams and reservoirs in northern California and transported south via canals to farmers. The other third is groundwater pumped from underground aquifers. Drought reduced the amount of surface water available to farmers by 6.6 million acre feet in 2014 compared with normal years, but farmers compensated by pumping an additional five million acre feet of groundwater.

 

With reduced supplies of water devoted mostly to high-value perennial crops, there were small reductions in farm sales and farm jobs in 2014. Between 420,000 and 700,000 acres of the state's eight million irrigated acres were fallowed in 2014, reducing crop sales by up to $810 million.

The main worry is how to respond to a drought in 2015 and beyond. Groundwater aquifers are a shared resource: as some farmers dig ever-deeper wells, they force others who share to same aquifer to dig deeper as well.

 

California was the last western state to regulate groundwater pumping. A package of bills enacted by the state in 2014 creates local groundwater sustainability agencies to register private wells, monitor the water-measuring devices that must be attached to pumps, and regulate groundwater pumping. These new agencies will impose fees on well owners to finance their activities.

 

Economists have proposed that landowners in each groundwater basin receive the share of sustainable water extraction that reflects their share of land in the basin. The sustainable share of groundwater that could be pumped from the basis would be the average amount extracted and replenished during a decade of "normal" weather.

 

Landowners could extract their sustainable share of the groundwater in the basin for the cost of pumping. However, if they took more, they would have to pay to replace their excess withdrawal. Under such a scheme, there would be no restrictions on groundwater pumping, but excess water extractions would result in payments to the water district that could go to farmers who fallow land and make more water available to others or be used to buy water from outside the basin for replenishment.

 

Orange County has since the 1960s used a version of this cap-and-trade system to manage the extraction of groundwater and prevent salt water intrusion. Economists hope that the challenge of sharing limited groundwater will encourage farmers to embrace water-sharing on a basin-wide basis.

 

A University of California at Davis study estimated that there were almost 7,000 fewer jobs for hired farm workers on crop farms, both year-round and seasonal. The state provided funds to farm worker service organizations to help farm workers, and they reported that the food and rent assistance vouchers they could provide were gone quickly. Agricultural areas of California have large numbers of poor residents, so there is a large pool of persons eligible for assistance.

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- With endocrine-disrupting compounds affecting fish populations in rivers as close as Pennsylvania's Susquehanna and as far away as Israel's Jordan, a new research study shows that soils can filter out and break down at least some of these emerging contaminants. The results suggest that water pollution can be diminished by spraying treated wastewater on land rather than discharging it directly into streams, according to researchers in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

 

Using Penn State's 600-acre "Living Filter" -- a wastewater reuse system less than a mile from the University Park campus -- as a laboratory, researchers tested soil samples for the presence and accumulation of three estrogens. For almost three decades, more than 500 million gallons of treated wastewater from the campus has been sprayed annually from irrigation pipes onto this site, which is composed of cropland, grassland and forest.

 

To understand how endocrine-disrupting compounds behave in the soil, researchers extracted samples and analyzed for two natural estrogens, 17-beta-estradiol and estrone -- hormones naturally produced by humans and animals, such as dairy cattle -- and one synthetic estrogen, 17-alpha-ethynylestradiol -- a compound in birth-control pills.

 

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Soil-profile art is not akin to classic paintings with themes; rather, it resembles abstract art: and if you are used to thinking of soil as dirt, which is customary in our society, you are not keyed to find beauty in it.”  Hans Jenny, 1984

 

soil2

Why soils?

2015 has been designated the International Year of Soils by the United Nations.  This designation has been embraced in the United States by the Department of Agriculture, the Soil Science Society of America and others. Many readers may be asking, “why?” This article will serve as an introduction to the topic and CIRS will post monthly submissions by experts on the particular value of soils. Our approach will focus on the rural but we will not limit our discussion to rural regions. There are many rich and productive soils being used in urban areas to sustain communities by providing space to grow food. And food production is our concern. Soil is the foundation of civilization and has been the key to human development over the past 13,000 years.

 

In this series of posts we will discuss soil formation, ecosystem functions of soil, soil loss, the economic value of soil, soils on pasture land, soils in crop production, soil and water, the politics of soil, soil and food security and carbon sequestration in soils. Expect a diverse and well regarded group of writers and look for them here the last Monday of every month.

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By Michael Doyle and William Douglas

 

WASHINGTON — Republican lawmakers from California’s San Joaquin Valley are now at the forefront of challenging party orthodoxy on immigration, a dissident position that brings both promise and peril.

 

On Thursday, doubling down at a party retreat, Rep. Jeff Denham kept the spotlight on sharp disagreements over immigration control. The move came one day after Denham joined fellow Valley Republican David Valadao and some others in the GOP in opposing strict immigration measures pushed by party leaders.

 

“I think it’s going to be a renewed debate,” Denham said in an interview Thursday. “It will give us an opportunity to come together on some good reforms.”

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WASHINGTON — A tangled legal fight over grape patents ended Friday in a victory for the California Table Grape Commission.

 

Capping years of courtroom battling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit ruled the Fresno-based industry group has licensed valid patents for the Scarlet Royal and Autumn King grape varieties.

 

The unanimous, 13-page decision by the three-judge panel turned on technical questions, including what date the grapes came into public use. The appellate court rejected arguments from challengers that the grapes were already being generally circulated well before the patents were applied for.

 

“The evidence at trial was sufficient to support the district court’s finding that the patented plant varieties were not in public use prior to the critical date,” Judge William C. Bryson wrote.

 

Money is at stake, and maybe more.

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By Fran Kritz

President Obama’s executive action on immigration, announced in November, could potentially come with a much sweeter — and healthier — deal for undocumented immigrants in California than in the rest of the country.

While undocumented immigrants in the U.S. do not qualify for coverage under the Affordable Care Act, California law allows “certain lawfully present immigrants” to be covered by Medi-Cal, the state’s low-income health program. Immigration experts say they expect that provision to apply to the new Deferred Action for Parental Accountability program announced by the president, which allows undocumented people who have a child who is a U.S. citizen or lawful, permanent-resident to apply for a work permit and deportation protection if the applicant has been in the U.S. since Jan. 1, 2010.

Over four million people in the U.S. are likely to qualify for the program beginning in 2015, and over a million of those live in California, according to the National Immigration Law Center in Los Angeles. That means more than a million Californians could be newly eligible for Medi-Cal, if their incomes are low enough to qualify.

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The rainy season has finally arrived to California, and 2014 will end with one of the wettest months on record. Many of California’s streams are flowing again, snowpack is building, and some of the state’s most severely depleted reservoirs have recovered modestly during recent weeks. However, California is still in drought, and needs a lot more rain in order for this historic dry spell to be declared over—somewhere around 11 trillion gallons according to NASA.

 

Water is (and always has been) a highly contentious issue in California; one that politicians have struggled to deal with in a way that appropriately balances the needs of urban and rural communities, industry, agriculture, wildlife and the environment. Thanks in large part to the multi-year drought, which intensified throughout 2014, some of California’s toughest water issues will be addressed at long last. State lawmakers and regulators stepped up to the plate by enacting a series of historic reforms including unprecedented (but still modest) fines for wasting water, drought relief packages, and increased enforcement of existing regulations.

 

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Despite one of the most severe droughts in California history, the Coachella Valley's overall consumption of water largely held steady during much of this year.

A review of water agencies' data by The Desert Sun has found that the total amount of groundwater pumped during the first eight months of 2014 was down only about 0.8 percent compared to the same period last year.

The data show the area has made some progress in conserving water during the past five years: It used 5.5 percent less water in 2013 than it did in 2009. But the total amount pumped by all users — including water agencies, golf courses, farms and others — has actually increased since reaching a low in 2010 and has remained about the same since 2011.

From January through August this year, despite the drought, the area's total use of groundwater was up 3.9 percent as compared to 2010.

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 — California lawmakers’ failure to pass water legislation this Congress raises questions about strategy, tactics and the ability to learn from falling short.

It also sets the stage for next year when – wait for it – the whole anti-drought drama returns for an encore.

On Thursday night, the House concluded its work for the 113th Congress by approving a $1 trillion omnibus spending bill that funds federal government agencies for nine months. The must-pass bill does not include the California water language sought by some lawmakers and opposed by others.

“The lesson,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., “is that there is still a sharp rivalry between the different regions of California.”

Costa, House Republicans and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California had been seeking last-minute legislative language they could add to the 1,603-page omnibus bill. Among themselves, they seemed Dec. 7 to have a deal that could boost water exports to farms and other users south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

“If they miss this opportunity,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said of the Senate on Wednesday, “we’ll be hurt even further in the next year.”

Among Northern California Democrats, though, the latest language still sounded like a water grab hatched in secret. Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California would not relent, and she worked with Senate Democratic leaders to keep the 20-plus pages of negotiated language off the omnibus.

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 — A new California water bill slated to hit the House floor this week would boost irrigation deliveries to farms south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, nudge along planning for new dams and capture more storm runoff for human use.

It would not authorize dam construction, repeal an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration plan or last longer than the state’s current drought.

And whether it survives or dies will almost certainly be up to the Senate, where California’s two Democrats are feeling the heat from every corner.

“I have carefully studied the Republican water bill and I am dismayed that this measure could reignite the water wars by overriding critical state and federal protections for California,” Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said late Wednesday.

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Sick Leave

SB 1522, the Healthy Workplaces, Healthy Families Act of 2014, was signed into law in September 2014. SB 1522 requires employers to give employees at least three sick days a year and will cover 6.5 million private and public sector employees in California beginning July 1, 2015. Employees accrue paid sick days at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked, so that a full-time worker employed 40 hours a week would accrue 8.6 days of paid sick leave a year.

Employees who are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement accrue three days of paid sick leave after being employed for 90 days to use to care for themselves or a family member such as a child, spouse, domestic partner, grandparent, grandchild or sibling.

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Bent Backs and Cheap Food
I grew a garden this year. I harvested pumpkins, summer squash, peppers, a few tomatoes, green, purple and yellow beans and melons.

 

My garden is pretty small but just to get these few fruits and vegetables, was back breaking. Keeping out the weeds—that was my least favorite and most time intensive job. My back and legs would be sore from bending over for less than a half a day. It made me think more than I usually do about the labor that goes into “our daily bread.” (I actually can’t even fathom the work that goes into a loaf of bread—from the decisions of which seed to buy and onward to planting, cultivating, harvesting, threshing, winnowing and milling—and that’s just for the flour. Getting to the bread takes even more thought, effort and skill.)

 

As I pulled out the exhausted vines from my summer garden and dreamed of my winter garden, I suddenly stopped and thought about all of those who work in the food chain to provision our Thanksgiving tables but who may not be feasting on this national day of celebration.

 

This led to my thinking about the word “chain” as it is used in “food chain.” It can symbolize both the linkages from farm to face and the bondage to poverty many of those who work in this industry live with.

 

Workers in our food chain are the poorest members of our society. According to The Hands that Feed Us, only 13.5% of workers in the food industry earn a livable wage. “More than 86 percent of workers reported earning subminimum, poverty, and low wages, resulting in a sad irony: food workers face higher levels of food insecurity, or the inability to afford to eat, than the rest of the U.S. workforce.”

 

 Arvin weeder David Bacon

Photo by David Bacon

 

Food workers are unable to afford food.

 

I know the data. CIRS has done two studies on farmworker food insecurity and we are beginning a third. Whenever I state the fact that many farmworkers go without food so that they can pay rent or medical costs, people simply can’t understand this.

 

IN FRESNO, 45% OF THE FARMWORKERS WE INTERVIEWED WERE FOOD INSECURE
AND IN SALINAS 66%.

 

The hard work that goes into growing food results in poverty for those who expend their energy in that task. We have created a system that only works if we agree that some of the workers in that system are treated unfairly. We have agreed that, because we want cheap food, there will forever be an underclass of workers who cannot even afford that cheap food we demand.

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Usually on Thanksgiving week, CIRS issues a statement about thanking workers in the fields for producing food for our tables when they may not be able to eat these foods themselves. This year, we would like to promote a national concerted effort to turn the focus on food workers all across the food chain.

 

November 23-29, is the third annual International Food Workers Week, conceived by the Food Chain Workers Alliance. This is a week of events and actions designed to educate consumers about the many challenges facing food system workers from farm to fork—workers who participate in and shape the national food system. The focus of this year’s International Food Worker Week is on the individual Food Worker Heroes whom we depend on for our food every day.

 

3annualFWW POSTER web

 

High poverty and food insecurity rates among farm workers and food industry workers underscore the dire need to reevaluate and reform how food chain workers are treated and how they are compensated for their essential services to communities. These problems persist in California’s agricultural communities and across the nation. CIRS has published two studies on farmworker food insecurity in Fresno County and Salinas and is currently working on a third in Yolo County. Ironically, farmworkers growing food for our holiday feasts experience a much higher rate of food insecurity and hunger than the general population. The poverty rate for farm worker families is more than twice the poverty rate of all wage and salary employees combined, and far higher than that of any other occupation. Likewise, restaurant servers have three times the poverty rate and use food stamps at twice the rate of the rest of the workforce. 

 

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 — Late Thursday morning, while the Capitol Hill spotlight was pointed elsewhere, three Northern California congressmen paid a quiet call on the state’s junior Democratic senator, Barbara Boxer.

They wanted to talk water.

For upward of 40 minutes, in a room near the Senate floor, Democratic Reps. Mike Thompson, George Miller and Jared Huffman sounded an alarm about water legislation coming quickly down the pipe.

The private meeting preceded, but did not instigate, the unexpected end to the water bill negotiations, led by California’s Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Republicans in the House of Representatives. It took place even as House Republican staffers believed they were within days of finishing legislation addressing California’s drought.

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The USDA’s climate change efforts are underway. Climate change is now officially embedded in the Department’s strategic goals, one of which seeks to make forests and working lands “more resilient to climate change." A 2011 Departmental Regulation requires USDA agencies to consider climate change impacts when making long-term planning decisions.

Meanwhile, USDA spending on climate change-related actions has grown in recent years – during FY 2013, USDA says it budgeted approximately $186 million across six of its agencies for climate change related research, outreach, and financial incentives.

USDA and the federal government have come a long way in starting to address the realities of climate change. But until the Department shifts its focus to existing, ‘shovel-ready,' sustainable agriculture solutions to climate change, we will not achieve the level of change that is needed.

Inordinate Focus on Biomass and Biorefineries

Over half of the $186 million in USDA’s FY 2013 climate change dollars were allocated to renewable energy programs —specifically biomass research and development.

According to a recent report, $88 million, or 47% of the USDA’s total climate change budget, went to just two biomass and biorefinery research programs. These programs seek to develop technologies for industrial-scale conversion of agricultural and forestry materials and by-products for fuels and electricity generation.

The inordinate focus of climate change funds on these projects—which will likely benefit only large agri-business interests, and few of them in California—is disappointing. Rather than throwing more millions into technology development, USDA should instead be focusing its efforts on ways to strengthen the resilience of all farmers and ranchers while also achieving on-farm greenhouse gas reductions.

By contrast, financial incentives for farmers to install renewable energy or improve energy efficiencies through the Rural Energy for America (REAP) program amounted to less than $13 million (7 percent).

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Below is a keynote speech given by Eric Holt-Giménez at Terra Madre in Oct. 2014: 

 

This year’s Terra Madre/Salone del Gusto is being held during the United Nation’s “Year of Family Farming.” This is a wonderful way to celebrate good, clean, fair food produced by family farmers, peasant farmers, smallholders, fishers and pastoralists from around the world.

 

This event is more than a celebration of food and family farmers. It’s a celebration of the millennial culture of peasant and smallholder farming and of their importance—not just in the world’s food systems—but in our societies, our economies, our politics and, we hope, in our shared future.

 

We are here to celebrate all the incredible things that smallholder, family farmers do: They:

 

  • Produce 70 percent of the world’s food on 25 percent of the agricultural land;
  • Still maintain the largest in situ reservoir of GMO-free agrobiodiversity on the planet;
  • Are the practical knowledge base for agroecology—the people’s science of sustainable agriculture;
  • Provide the food for an infinitely diverse, nutritious and delicious cuisine;
  • Provide livelihoods for nearly a third of humanity;
  • Help cool the planet by capturing carbon in naturally-fertilized soils
  • And they do many other things both material and intangible that are too vast and diverse to list.

 

But we should also celebrate what small, sustainable producers don’t do: They,

 

  • Don’t make record profits while people go hungry (I’ve never seen a farmer let anyone go hungry);
  • Don’t spread superweeds and resistant pest populations by using GMOs (though their farms do get contaminated by GMOs and they get sued by Monsanto);
  • Don’t contribute 20% of the planet’s GHG or use up 80% of its fresh water;
  • Don’t invent or traffic in deadly agricultural poisons (though farmers and farm workers are systematically poisoned by pesticides and herbicides);
  • Don’t produce antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria (though, like you and I, they are vulnerable to resistant bacterial infections);
  • Don’t speculate with our food in global financial markets (though they suffer both when prices rise and when they drop);
  • Don’t speculate with land in global financial markets, either (though they are the largest private investors in agriculture in the global economy);
  • Don’t grab large tracts of land from others (though they have been massively displaced by the 86 million hectares of land grabbed in last 7 years by corporations and sovereign wealth funds—that’s an area five times the size of Italy).
  • No, peasant and smallholder farmers don’t do any of those things (but I suspect you can guess who does).

Ever since the food crises of 2008 and 2011 that sent over a billion people into the ranks of the hungry—even at a time of record global harvests and record corporate profits—and ever since the global financial crash—suddenly, peasant and family farmers have captured the interest of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, USAID, Bill Gates, Pepsi, Coca-Cola, John Deere, Cargill, ADM, Bunge, Monsanto, Syngenta, WalMart, Tesco, Carrefour and other agrifoods giants. Even Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street financiers are paying special attention to family farmers—or at least to their land.

 

These are the big planetary players of what some of us call “the corporate food regime” those international institutions and oligopolies that dominate the global market in inputs, seeds, agricultural commodities and food.

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California had farm sales of $45 billion in 2012, including $17.2 billion worth of fruits and nuts, $6.8 billion worth of vegetables and melons, and $3.5 billion worth of horticultural specialties such as greenhouse and nursery products. The value of field crops was $5 billion, making crop sales $32.5 billion or 73 percent of the state's farm sales. Livestock and poultry sales were $12.1 billion, including $6.9 billion or 57 percent from milk. 

In summer 2014, three major farm labor trends stand out: few labor shortages, many labor-saving changes, and segmenting farm labor contractors (FLCs.) 
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The California Climate and Agriculture Network's California legislative round up relevant to climate change for 2014.

 

Farmland Protection

Assemblymember Susan Talamantes-Eggman (Stockton) authored the Farmland Conservation Strategy Act (AB 1961). The bill would have required counties with significant farmland resources to inventory their agricultural lands and describe their goals/policies to retain farmland and mitigate for its loss. AB 1961 passed through the Assembly Local Government and Agriculture Committees, but was held over in the Assembly Appropriations Committee in May 2014, after seeing intense opposition from the California Building Industry Association (CBIA).

Despite this, California is moving forward with addressing farmland conservation and climate change issues.  The Strategic Growth Council in partnership with the Resources Agency has proposed draft guidelines for a new agricultural lands conservation program [pdf] aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with sprawl development.

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