CIRS Blog about Rural California

 

“A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.”
– Franklin D. Roosevelt

Roosevelt’s words might bring to mind images of pavement or resource extraction, yet our most common agricultural practices also are destroying our soil.

Modern industrial agricultural practices have been impacting our once-rich belowground ecosystem since the early 20th century and we’re just beginning to understand how it’s affecting our health.

When compared with the nutrient value of the foods our grandparents ate, what we consume today has substantially lower nutritional value. According to the “Journal of the American College of Nutrition,” today’s foods typically are lower in protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C. It’s now possible to buy an orange that contains zero vitamin C.

Why is this happening? One potential cause is changes in plant varieties. If breeders are focused on other factors besides nutritional value (yield, disease resistance, etc.), then the new varieties may decline in nutrient concentrations. Depleted soil may be another reason.

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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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