CIRS Blog about Rural California

By Paulina Rojas

MECCA, Calif. — Many residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley want to vote but don’t have a way to get to the polls. Those without cars are often forced to walk more than a mile to the nearest bus stop or to pay $20 or more for a ride to their closest polling place.

For people in rural communities, lack of transportation can be one of the biggest roadblocks to voting.

Luckily, there’s an easy way for them to vote: casting a ballot by mail. When registering to vote, constituents can to request a vote-by-mail ballot. 

“The vote by mail process can be more convenient for voters who are unable, or unwilling, to contend with going out of their way on Election Day,” said Luz Gallegos, community programs director at TODEC (Training Occupational Development Educating Communities) Legal Center. “Specifically in the Eastern Coachella Valley where [there is a] lack of infrastructure, with transportation being one of headlining issues, the vote-by-mail option is more convenient for residents.”

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in Political Representation 76 0

By Claudia Boyd-Barrett

It took a year for Elvira Gomez of El Monte to realize something was wrong with the therapy her son was supposed to be receiving at school.

Jose Antonio Suarez, then 5 years old, was scheduled to see a therapist once a week in his kindergarten class at a Los Angeles County elementary school. But in 2014, a year after the therapy started, Gomez had yet to see any improvements in her son’s hyperactive and aggressive behavior.

“I went to the school and asked, ‘How often is the therapist going (to the classroom)?’” recalled Gomez, a native Spanish speaker. She was shocked to find out that the therapist came only once or twice a month.

“I thought, I have to be more on top of this,” she said.

Gomez is one of thousands of parents across the state who have struggled to get their children adequate mental health services at school. She’s also part of a population that advocates believe is especially vulnerable to having their children’s special education and mental health needs neglected: parents with limited English skills.

Legally, school districts are supposed to provide students experiencing emotional and behavioral difficulties with mental health assessments and individualized services to help them benefit from their education. But a report earlier this year by leading advocacy organizations found half of all students with these difficulties get no mental health help at all.

Other students who do receive services, the researchers found, frequently don’t receive them enough or don’t receive the right kind of intervention to make a difference.

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in Rural Health 91 0

Washington — Three Northern California dams and one in Oregon would eventually fall, under a proposal floated last month to a federal agency.

Facing resistance from Republican lawmakers, dam-removal proponents now hope to outflank Congress at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Advocates say removing the dams would help restore the Klamath River.

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in Water 79 0

By Renata Brillinger

The Soil Carbon Challenge digs directly into the ground with the farmers, ranchers, and landowners who can manage land to improve soil health. Peter Donovan, a leader in demonstrating the connection between land management practices and increased soil carbon, founded the Soil Carbon Challenge—“an international prize competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter.” Peter has established an approach to scientifically showing (not just telling) the nexus of appropriate land management, soils, and carbon sequestration.

When managed correctly, soil can become a “sink” for atmospheric carbon while also providing benefits such as increased water holding capacity, decreased erosion and runoff, and improved health, productivity, and resilience due to enhanced populations and diversity of soil microorganisms.

Peter believes in showing possibility by measuring change over time, and recognizing actual results. As such, The Soil Carbon Coalition supports “a different kind of science”, believing science is “based on shared evidence, open participation, specific locations and situations, and on learning to manage wholes more than parts.”

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in Soil 151 0

By Derek Walter 

It’s not just students that are trekking off to school for another year of learning. Many parents will be headed to class as well, as schools are ramping up their efforts to make sure they see parents more often than at the beginning of the year or back to school night.

The goal isn’t to find volunteers to make copies, but to partner with parents in helping to improve student nutrition, sleep and other health habits that can impact school performance.

Schools are now required to address parent engagement as part of the state’s Local Control and Accountability Act, a law implemented in 2013 that gives school districts more autonomy over their own funds.

Some districts, particularly in the Central Valley and Los Angeles area, are taking advantage of the new law and hoping parent outreach translates into better student health and academic performance. The thinking is that parents who are more involved will feel a greater tie to the school and will motivate students to be more engaged.

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in Rural California 130 0

Washington, D.C. — San Joaquin Valley officials picture a world in which:

State Route 99 grows wider in Merced, Madera and Tulare counties. Stronger roads support the region’s heavy dairy tankers. New reservoirs get built. And, not least, some bipartisan cooperation blossoms on Capitol Hill.

Farfetched? Maybe. But this week, elected representatives and staffers from eight Valley counties are making their collective case to an often-fitful Congress. They’re following the adage, sometimes applicable in lobbying as in life, that fortune favors the bold.

“We’re bringing attention to the needs of the Valley, and making sure that all of our legislators know where we stand,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien said Wednesday, adding that “we also get different audiences than we normally get with just the congressmen.”

O’Brien, for instance, was speaking in the Cannon House Office Building, where three House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staffers were briefing the visitors. In the afternoon, the Valley officials talked about clean air rules at the Environmental Protection Agency.

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in Rural California 131 0

SACRAMENTO – Farmers and ranchers throughout California commend the legislature for its recent actions on climate change. The passage of key climate bills, alongside the appropriation of more than $65 million for climate-smart agriculture programs, will provide needed resources for farmers and ranchers to address a changing climate.

“Farmers have a lot at stake in a changing climate as our extreme drought reminds us,” said Tom Willey at T&D Willey Farms in Madera. “We experience the impacts of climate change on our farm every day. I commend the California legislature for continuing down the path of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in the continued success of California agriculture.

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in Climate Change 178 0

By Fran Kritz

Dozens of freshmen headed to Humboldt State University this fall will have access to something most many of their classmates take for granted: a credit card they can swipe in exchange for food.

During the spring semester a new debit machine was installed at the university’s College Creek Marketplace, which lets the market now accept electronic benefit transfer (EBT) debit cards for many grocery purchases.

EBT was formerly known as food stamps, and now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The marketplace is the only campus food outlet, for now, that accepts the cards. And Humboldt State is one of the few campuses anywhere in the U.S. that lets students, faculty and staff use an EBT card for grocery purchases.

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in Food Insecurity / Food Deserts 273 0

By Beth Smoker 


Earlier this month, the state’s Strategic Growth Council (SGC) awarded $37.4 million in project funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Land Conservation (SALC) Program. This landmark climate change and agriculture program, administered by the Department of Conservation and overseen by the SGC, funds agricultural conservation easements to protect agricultural land from sprawl development and local governments projects to develop strategies and policies for long-term agricultural conservation – all with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with land use and vehicle miles traveled. Since 2015, SALC Program has invested over $42 million in farmland conservation.

In this second year of the SALC Program, the SGC approved the Department of Conservation’s recommendations to award one planning grant and 20 agriculture conservation easements, permanently preserving nearly 19,000 acres of crop and rangeland in California. Two of the agriculture conservation easements are located in disadvantaged communities where low-income residents are disproportionately impacted by pollution.

This is an excerpt of an article posted on August 17, 2016 on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website. For more information about the program check out another post on the CalCAN website. 

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in Climate Change 220 0

By Hannah Guzik

The sun has just nosed above the horizon when Maria Espinosa (not her real name) ties a bandana over her face to protect herself from pesticides and dust, and reaches for a blackberry bush. Paid by the amount of berries she picks plus a $3-per-hour wage, Espinosa works feverishly for 10 hours, stopping only briefly for short breaks and lunch. For that day in early May, Espinosa would receive no overtime pay.

California’s 441,000 agricultural employees harvest one-third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruits and nuts. The state’s 76,400 farms and ranches earned approximately $54 billion for their 2014 harvests, according to the most recent crop report. Yet the median personal income of farmworkers statewide is just $14,000 a year.

Unlike nearly all other employees in the U.S., farmworkers aren’t eligible for overtime pay unless they work more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. Because of pressure from Southern lawmakers who wanted to maintain a low-wage black workforce, farm workers (along with domestic workers and other primarily African-American workforces) were exempted from the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, leaving them without federal standards for overtime pay, basic union organizing rights and other worker protections.

“We work very hard and make little. … Why should we be treated differently?” Espinosa says.

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in Farm Labor 271 0

By Derek Walter

When Alexis Gonzalez tells her story about overcoming child abuse, she’s surprised by how many people it resonates with. At one event after another in the Central Valley, she’s approached by audience members who can relate.

“People would disclose their own abuse and that they had never told anybody,” said Gonzalez, now 21. “People are actually taking something away from these public speaking experiences, and it’s started to become a natural part of my healing process. At first it was something that was part of the process to help myself, but it’s also been inspiring to do this for other people.”

Gonzalez, who speaks on behalf of the Fresno County Council on Child Abuse Prevention, was molested by her paternal grandfather when she was a girl. For years she suffered in silence, but is now sharing her story in the hopes that it can prevent other Central Valley children from experiencing abuse.

Children in Fresno and Tulare counties, which make up a large portion of the valley, are more likely to experience abuse than most of those that live elsewhere in the state.

Child abuse can take many forms — including neglect through malnutrition, emotional trauma or sexual abuse. While they don’t inherently cause abuse, poverty, drug addiction and family dysfunction can create environments where problems are more likely to erupt, experts say. Thousands of Central Valley families struggle with this toxic mix, punishing the most vulnerable.

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in Rural California 198 0

When state legislators return to Sacramento this week, climate change will be at the top of their agenda. Still pending are finalization of the state’s climate change investments for the coming year and, most important, setting the road map for climate change policy in California beyond the year 2020.

For California agriculture, these decisions will impact whether or not there are resources available for the state’s farmers and ranchers to address a changing climate. Given the latest agriculture and climate change news of on-going drought impacts and rising temperatures hurting some crops, farmers and ranchers are weighing in, calling for support for programs like the Healthy Soils Initiative.

As we reported back in June, the FY 2016-17 budget was finalized without the legislature and Governor deciding how the state would invest billions in cap-and-trade revenues to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Over $100 million in proposed funding is on the line for California farmers and ranchers to reduce water use and save on energy, improve soil management and store more carbon in agricultural soils, and reduce potent greenhouse gases like methane.

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in Climate Change 255 0

California had a "normal" water year in 2010-11 and again in 2015-16. Droughts reduced the availability of water for the 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 crop years. However, farm sales climbed during the drought years, from $43 billion in 2011 to $47 billion in 2012 to $51 billion in 2013 and $54 billion in 2014. Sales in 2015 are expected to set another record.

The reason that farm sales rose even as the availability of water fell from the long-run average of 50 million acre-feet to a low of 31 million for the 2014 crop year was that farmers switched scarce and expensive water from low-value and water-intensive crops such as alfalfa to more valuable crops such as fruits, nuts and vegetables. About 500,000 acres were fallowed in 2014 and 2015, usually land that would normally be used to produce low-value field crops, and farmers pumped ground water to substitute for less surface water.

Monterey County, the nation's salad bowl, had farm sales of $4.5 billion in 2014, led by leaf lettuce worth $775 million, strawberries worth $709 million, and head lettuce worth $651 million. Vegetable crops were worth $3.1 billion and fruit crops $1 billion. A Farmworker Advisory Committee meets quarterly with the Agriculture Commissioner's office to discuss labor issues.

California is projected to have a record crop of table grapes in 2016, some 117 million 19-pound boxes worth almost $2 billion. The state has 100,000 acres of table grapes, and the Scarlet Royal and Autumn King varieties are replacing Thompson seedless, Crimson seedless and Red Globe varieties. Autumn King can generate 2,000 boxes an acre, compared with 1,000 boxes from an acre of Thompson seedless. A third of the state's table grapes are exported.

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in Rural California 331 0

For the state’s first hundred-plus years, certain unspoken rules governed California politics. In a state where agriculture produced more wealth than any industry, the first rule was that growers held enormous power.


Tax dollars built giant water projects that turned the Central and Imperial Valleys into some of the nation’s most productive farmland. Land ownership was concentrated in huge corporate plantation-like farms. Growers used political power to assure a steady flow of workers from one country after another—Japan, China, the Philippines, Yemen, India, and of course Mexico—to provide the labor that made the land productive.

Agribusiness kept farm labor cheap, at wages far below those of people in the state’s growing urban centers. When workers sought to change their economic condition, grower power in rural areas was near absolute—strikes were broken and unions were kept out.


The second unwritten rule was therefore that progressive movements grew more easily in the cities, where unions and community organizations became political forces to be reckoned with. In the legislature, these rules generally meant that Democrats and pro-labor proposals came from urban districts, while resistance came from Republicans in rural constituencies.


That historic divide in California politics is changing, however.


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in Farm Labor 317 0

The 2015-16 water year was close to normal; the state's 154 major reservoirs held almost 22 million acre-feet of water on April 1, 2016, more than 85 percent of normal. Federal and state farm water contractors are likely to get half or more of the water that they want. Each water district contracts for a specific share of the surface water available to the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, and CVP and SWP managers provide a percentage of each district's contracted water based on availability.

The California water system accumulates water as snow in northern California mountains and moves the water south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta as the snow melts in summer. However, pumping water from the delta into the aqueduct that moves water south is often restricted to preserve juvenile fish that can be sucked into the pumps.

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in Water 307 0

By Derek Walter

The Central Valley has long been plagued with some of the dirtiest air in the nation. It usually hits those with the most vulnerable lungs the hardest, including elementary school-age kids with asthma.

While the Valley’s air is trending in the right direction, it’s still a challenge for schools to facilitate physical education and outdoor sports, especially with the pressure to fight childhood obesity by keeping kids active.

Schools are turning to a number of solutions that leverage a real-time air-quality monitoring network with creative ways to keep kids moving even when they need to head indoors. As we inch towards the summer months and the temperature rises, schools are working on their alternative physical education plans.

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in Rural Youth 304 0

Consuelo Mendez was 23 when she arrived in the United States 45 years ago, looking for work. In Ventura County she found it, harvesting strawberries, tomatoes, cabbage, parsley and spinach. She got those jobs by going from field to field, asking other workers to tell her who was hiring. Picking is hard work, and getting enough work to live on required her to move all the time from one farm to another.

“When I emigrated from a small town in Michoacán I had never worked before,” she remembers. “I was young, raising my children. Then I went to work in the strawberry harvest. My husband was running an upholstery business, but that didn’t pay very well, so he worked alongside me in the fields to make extra money. I never thought I would be working like that, and that the work would be so hard. I did it for three years, but after that I couldn’t because I got so tired. I couldn’t drive and didn’t know how to speak English – to this day I struggle with it.”

Mendez wanted something more stable, and she found it. A woman told her Brokaw Nursery in Saticoy was hiring. She asked a foreman there again and again to hire her, and finally the owner took notice. “We told him we were looking for work because we had a family to support,” she remembers. “He told us to come back the next day and gave us a job. I got a job indoors and my husband went to work in their fields. I’ve been here and never been unemployed since.”

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in Farm Labor 486 0

By Ken Jacobs and Ian Perry 


This article comes from the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education website. It was posted on March 30, 2016, before Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in April that is scheduled to raise California's minimum wage to $15 by 2022. 





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in Minimum Wage 452 0

By Beth Smoker 

U.S. Department of Agriculture Initiative Gets Underway

During the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Climate Month of May, Secretary Vilsack announced an additional $72.3 million for soil health investments to support the department’s 10 Building Blocks for Climate Smart Agriculture. Secretary Vilsack established the USDA climate change initiative just over a year ago in preparation for last year’s Paris Climate Conference. The initiative aims to increase agricultural practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase carbon sequestration in agriculture and forests.

This additional funding is being distributed through the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), where each state will have the discretion to determine which Climate Change Building Blocks to focus their additional funds on. This is the first time EQIP funding has been explicitly allocated for climate-smart agriculture practices. California NRCS has received $4.3 million of this $72.3 million allocation.

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

California NRCS plans to fund agricultural management practices that address soil health, nitrogen management, grazing and pasture and private forest practices. All with an eye to increasing soil carbon and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Farmers and ranchers, beginning this summer, can go into their NRCS District Office to find out more about how they may qualify for the new EQIP climate change funding. The application process is the same as regular EQIP.

A learning opportunity for CDFA’s Healthy Soils Initiative

The USDA funding for climate-smart agriculture comes at an important time for California. The state is considering a new Healthy Soils Initiative, also aimed at providing financial incentives for growers for management practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) recently released its draft framework for the program. The upcoming California NRCS experience of distributing climate-related EQIP funds can help inform the CDFA initiative. More information can be found here.

This article was published on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website on June 9. 

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in Soil 484 0

In 1938 the federal government passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA). This act guarantees most workers a minimum wage and overtime pay—requiring time and a half over 40 hours in a work week. It also requires employers to keep records of payroll receipts. (Among FLSA's many provisions were those allowing child labor in agriculture. In addition, it created the wage and hour division of the U.S. Department of Labor to enforce all provisions of the law. Additionally, all other federal laws governing benefits to workers (Social Security, unemployment insurance, etc.) also excluded agricultural workers, but later were amended to include some agricultural workers. Women were also excluded from protections under the law because they were employed part-time or seasonally and were not considered part of the workforce.)


Farmworkers were excluded from minimum wage under the FLSA until 1966 at which time the federal minimum wage and record keeping were applied to farmworkers as well as all other members of the work force. Now even farmworkers paid by the piece are entitled to the minimum wage. But overtime provisions are not applicable to farmworkers and farms with a very small work force (11 or fewer) are exempt from minimum wage and all other provisions of the FSLA. The large majority of farms that hire farm labor directly have fewer than 10 employees (just 40,661 out of 566,469 farms have more than 10). In fact, 46 percent of all hired farm labor jobs are exempt from the FSLA. 


Four states in the U.S. have enacted more progressive overtime policies for farmworkers than the FLSA. California has the largest agricultural economy in the U.S. All farm employers are required to abide by minimum wage laws in the state. Additionally, farmworkers are paid overtime after 10 hours in one day or 60 hours in a week. Minnesota pays overtime for farmworkers who are paid hourly after 48 hours in a week. Hawaii pays overtime for farmworkers after 40 hours in a work week but allows employers to select up to 20 weeks a year for which they do not have to pay overtime until 48 hours in a week is accumulated. And finally, Colorado includes farm labor in all labor laws including overtime pay after 40 hours in a week. 


In 2016, New York, Oregon and California passed new minimum wage laws with the goal of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour in a step wise manner over a number of years. All three laws have a differential standard for raising the wage. New York and Oregon schedule wage increases regionally while California’s is based on business size.


New York, Oregon and California—Comparison of new wage laws


New York


There is a three tiered minimum wage schedule in New York. The state has separated its minimum wage increases by region in the following way.


1.New York City

2.Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties

3.Everywhere else in the state


In New York City, businesses with 11 or more employees will have to raise the minimum wage to $11 an hour at the end of 2016. The minimum wage will increase by $2 every year until it reaches $15 an hour by the end of 2018. For businesses with 10 or fewer employees, the minimum wage will increase to $10.50 an hour by the end of 2016 and then increase $1.50 an hour every year until it reaches $15 an hour by the end of 2019.


For workers in Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties, the minimum wage will increase to $10 an hour by the end of 2016, then will go up $1 an hour every year until it reaches $15 an hour by the end of 2021.  


For workers in the rest of the state, the minimum wage would increase to $9.70 an hour by the end of 2016, then will increase by 70 cents an hour every year until it reaches $12.50 an hour by the end of 2020. From 2020 on, the minimum wage in these rural counties will continue to increase to $15 an hour on an indexed schedule that will be set by the director of the Division of Budget in consultation with the Department of Labor.


The map below shows the areas of the regions of New York as designated by the minimum wage increase. It is clear that the minimum wage increases are most beneficial to a very small area of the state.





In March 2016, Oregon passed a progressive minimum wage law. Like New York, Oregon has a three tiered regionally-based minimum wage schedule. The state is divided in the following way:


1.Portland Area Counties—employers located within Portland’s urban growth boundary

2.Frontier Counties – employers located in “frontier counties”

3.All remaining counties – employers located in all the remaining counties





Increases in each of these regions are scheduled differently as well. Below is a graph showing the timed phase in of wage increases by region. This graph shows that by July 2022 workers in the Portland urban region will be making $14.75 per hour, followed by those in the frontier regions at $12.50 per hour and all the workers in the remaining regions will be paid $13.50 per hour by 2022. From July 1, 2023 onward, the rate will be adjusted annually for inflation in Portland counties but the increase must be no less than $1.25 per hour more than the rest of the state. The frontier counties will receive annual rate increases at no less than $1.00 per hour and the remaining counties will receive increases annually based on inflation.


“Frontier areas are the most remote and sparsely populated places along the rural-urban continuum, with residents far from healthcare, schools, grocery stores, and other necessities. Frontier is often thought of in terms of population density and distance in minutes and miles to population centers and other resources, such as hospitals.” Rural Health Information Hub






On April 4, 2016, Governor Jerry Brown of California approved Senate Bill 3 to raise the minimum wage across the state. The bill includes all industries with an adjusted implementation schedule for small businesses. 


“This bill would require the minimum wage for all industries to not be less than specified amounts to be increased from January 1, 2017, to January 1, 2022, inclusive, for employers employing 26 or more employees and from January 1, 2018, to January 1, 2023, inclusive, for employers employing 25 or fewer employees, except when the scheduled increases are temporarily suspended by the Governor, based on certain determinations. The bill would also require the Director of Finance, after the last scheduled minimum wage increase, to annually adjust the minimum wage under a specified formula.”


Under the new plan, the state's hourly minimum wage would increase from the current $10 to $10.50 an hour on Jan. 1, 2017, then to $11 an hour in 2018. It would then increase by $1 an hour annually until it reaches $15 an hour in 2022. However, if the state experiences an economic downturn or budget crisis, the governor has the power to slow the implementation of minimum wage increases. 


The schedule for implementation across the state is as follows. As can be seen in the chart below, businesses with 26 or more employees (blue) achieve $15 per hour faster than businesses with 25 or fewer employees (gray). By 2023, all businesses in California will be required to pay $15 an hour at the minimum.


ScheduleCA minwage



All three of these state plans for raising the minimum wage are more progressive that other states. See the map below for minimum wages in all states in the US from the Department of Labor.


While there is much debate about the impacts of raising the minimum wage, with economists weighing in on both sides of the issue, no research has been done on the impacts of raising the minimum wage on agricultural workers. 


Economists Daniel Aaronson and Eric French at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago and Sumit Agarwal of the University of Singapore find that increasing the minimum wage boosts the consumption of affected workers. And a battery of other research shows that raising the minimum wage does not reduce local employment and reduces employee turnover. The U.S. Department of Labor has an entire page dedicated to “mythbusting” around raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour. You can see it here.


Nonetheless, there are some arguments against raising the minimum wage. According to economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, minimum wages can disrupt the economy driving some operations out of business.  However, even this upset can be offset by upsurges in new businesses and jobs.





View the state minimum wages map online. 


“Still, the uncertainty of the new $15-per-hour world is why even economists relatively sympathetic to minimum wage increases…argue that it makes the most sense to treat cities like New York and San Francisco differently from other parts of their states, to say nothing of less populous states where wages are much lower.” New York Times



The Assumed Impact of Wage Increases on Farm Workers


The new minimum wage law has the power to increase living standards of the almost 4 percent of California’s 19 million working residents who earn minimum wage. In return, there is an assumption that this will increase their buying power and improve the economy.


There is push back from the agriculture industry in California. Both employers and some economists believe that the increased minimum wage will lead to fewer hours for workers, thus reducing their incomes or to more mechanization in the fields, reducing the number of jobs. Some agricultural employers state that raising the wage will limit their ability to compete with low wage workers in other stated and countries, like Mexico. 


Joe Del Bosque from Firebaugh stated in the Sacramento Bee, “We’re already at a disadvantage with Arizona, (where farmers) pay their workers $8.05 an hour and we’re at $10. Any further increase is going to put us at a serious disadvantage.”  In the same article, Yolo County farmer Duane Chamberlain said his workers, who mostly make well above the minimum wage, are starting to cut alfalfa hay this time of year. He said he wouldn’t mind paying all his workers at least $15 an hour with the exception, perhaps, of those just learning.


“My workers are all worth 15 bucks an hour because they’ve been around,” said Chamberlain, who also sits on the Yolo County Board of Supervisors.


However, farmworkers interviewed for articles in local newspapers are looking forward to a wage increase. Isaias Aguirre, who works for Duane Chamberlain is glad his employer is on board with the wage increase. He sees an increase as a way to help his family through paying for education for his children by continuing his monthly remittances to his family in Mexico.


In the Visalia Times-Delta, Rafael Gutierrez believes the wage increase will allow him to treat his family to dinners out on the weekends and potentially to a family vacation. His last job harvesting peaches paid him $11 an hour and while his girlfriend makes $14 an hour at Target, they still have problems making ends meet.


Reviewing data for farm worker wages over time, it is clear that in constant dollars, farmworkers are making less per hour than they did in 1974. There is compelling evidence that raising the minimum wage statewide has a substantial effect on farm worker wages. In 2014-15 wages rose from $6.75 to $9 an hour and direct hire farmworkers experienced a 30 percent wage increase (Personal communication, Don Villarejo, 2015). 


In New York, farmworkers are also covered by minimum wage laws. The phased increases to minimum wages in New York have also been subsidized with $30 million in funding from the state to assist farm employers. Despite the slower phase-in and additional funding from the state, farm employers oppose the raises.





Fight for $15 and Food Chain Workers


In 2012, fast food workers started what would become a national movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Moving on to Chicago, fast food workers called for a wage increase and were supported by labor unions and community groups. The Fight for $15 model expanded to more than 300 cities and towns and includes tens of thousands of workers. Industries in the food chain have historically underpaid their workers. More than 86 percent of food chain workers surveyed by the Food Chain Workers Alliance for a report published in 2012, reported earning low or poverty wages. These data include workers in production (farm workers), slaughterhouse and other processing facilities (processing), warehouses (distribution), grocery stores (retail), and restaurants and food services (service).


In order to increase wages for food workers effectively without impacting employers, workers would need to receive a larger proportion of the cost of food paid by consumers. To increase wages to farm workers, consumers would face a fairly small increase in their yearly food bill. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), knowing that their direct employers could not afford to pay them more, took their fight to consumers by asking them to pressure large scale buyers like Walmart into paying a penny more a pound for fresh tomatoes that they pick. Field workers directly receive this penny. This has had little impact on consumers.


In the supermarket, increases in farmworker wages may have a direct impact on consumers. Currently, in California, workers picking strawberries (a $4.4 billion industry in Monterey County) receive about 6 percent of the supermarket price. They get paid twenty cents for picking a plastic clamshell of berries that sells for $3.00 in the supermarket. By increasing their pay by five cents, we could increase their wages by 25 percent and not notice much change. To give an example of the impact to consumers from a wage increase to farmworkers, economist Philip Martin from UC Davis predicts that if farmworker wages increase by 47 percent, household grocery bills would increase by a mere $21.15 a year, or $1.76 a month. But that is assuming that the employers pass on the cost of increased wages to consumers.  


Rural Urban Wage Equity?


“U.S. ‘rural’ areas have been primarily defined and differentiated from other areas by two methods: nonmetropolitan vs. metropolitan and rural vs. urban residence. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) designates as metropolitan those counties consisting of or adjacent to core county with a large population nucleus, where its surrounding counties having a high degree of social and economic integration with that core. The counties not defined as metropolitan are, by elimination, termed nonmetropolitan. This is a fairly broad characterization that treats small, densely populated eastern counties the same as large counties with more variable population densities in the west. Federal and state agencies are often required by statute to use metropolitan area designations for ‘allocating program funds, setting program standards, and implementing other aspects of their programs (OMB, 1998).’” Pearlanne T. Zelarney and James A. Ciarlo


How rural regions are defined has huge implications for funding from all governmental agencies and in how municipalities raise their minimum wages. In California, almost all of the most productive agricultural counties are designated as metro counties and even the most remote counties in the state are not considered “frontier” counties. As a result, western counties, particularly those in California, are challenged to define their populations as “rural” and are equally limited in the level of federal funding they receive from rural programs.


Now, let’s examine briefly the “rural urban divide” in the minimum wage structure in New York and Oregon. There is the assumption that rural workers should get paid less because the cost of living in rural regions is lower. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, urban households spend 18 percent more than rural households but receive 32 percent more in income, a 14 percent disparity.  


According to an article in The Daily Yonder in 2008, “a high school graduate living in a rural county earns 13 percent less than a city dweller with a high school diploma. A rural college graduate, however, earns 23 percent less than a college grad living in the city. And someone living in a rural county who has an advanced degree (law, medicine, doctorate) earns 25 percent less than a person with the same qualifications who lives in an urban county.”


Interestingly, there is an economic model that states that migration from rural to urban regions is actually based on the expected income differentials between rural and urban areas. The Harris-Todaro model states that rural-urban migration in a context of high urban unemployment can be economically rational if the expected urban income exceeds expected rural income. Therefore, migration from rural areas to urban areas will increase if urban wages increase. The model’s main point is that equal wages in urban and rural areas reduce the incentive for rural workers to migrate to urban regions.


In the 2014-15 data analyzed by the USDA Economic Research Service nationwide show that “the total population in nonmetro counties stood at 46.2 million in July 2015—14 percent of U.S. residents spread across 72 percent of the Nation's land area. Annual population losses averaged 33,000 per year between 2010 and 2014, but dropped to about 4,000 in 2015.”  This change in the outmigration of residents from rural to urban areas “coincides with a marked improvement in rural employment growth and suggests that this first-ever period of overall population decline (from 2010 to 2015) may be ending.”




Based on these data, doesn’t it make sense to aim for wage equality in rural and urban regions of the country?



If the U.S. wants to maintain a stable work force in the agricultural sector in states like New York and California where the cost of living is high, shouldn’t we ensure that agricultural workers are paid a wage that essentially keeps them on the farm? (According to the MIT living wage calculator, comparing two productive agricultural counties in the state, in Merced County, a living wage is $22.71 for a parent with a spouse and 2 kids, while in Ventura County, the costs are $27.18 for a parent with a spouse and 2 kids).  


 “Raising the minimum wage for everyone says something profound and profoundly good about the society we want to live in,” said Dan Cantor, national director of the Working Families Party, which has helped secure minimum wage increases in several cities and states across the country. “That all work has dignity and worth, and people deserve a living wage.”

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