CIRS Blog about Rural California

Gail Wadsworth

Gail Wadsworth

Gail Wadsworth is the Executive Director of The CA Institute for Rural Studies

Greetings CIRS community:


We wanted to share with you some reflections on the legacy of CIRS, the changes we have made over the years to stay the course, the announcement of an addition to our leadership team at CIRS, and a change in its structure.


Continuity and Change


Much of the work we have done at CIRS has been focused on generating rigorous research and analysis, to help identify equitable solutions to long-standing dilemmas in California farming. Our work has also focused on the needs of diverse communities where farming takes place-from farmworker neighborhoods of the San Joaquin Valley, to urban agricultural outposts in Santa Cruz. While rural communities continue to change, the mission of CIRS remains focused on the persistent challenges of equitable food production and community development. There is still a need for fact-based solutions to address these challenges. The CIRS commitment to scientific inquiry that consciously serves the long-term public interest has not waned.


Maintaining and developing our work is no small task, and our success builds ever-deepening connections to networks of people concerned about food, labor, water quality, climate change, rural community health, the environment, and agricultural policy. The continuity of CIRS has been proven through its ability to make change when needed. For example, in 2010 we became a virtual office with the vision of staff dispersed and working on the ground in rural communities. We also recognized that getting the best researchers for the job would often require us to contract with professionals outside our staff, so we have developed a list of affiliated researchers who you can see on our website and who consistently respond and provide excellent services.


Now we are embracing a model of shared leadership, both in practice and in title. CIRS has always made a big footprint with few staff, and while this has served us well, it has not allowed us to build the next generation of future leaders. So I asked Michael Courville to work alongside me as Co-Executive Director. I am happy to announce that he started in April. Michael brings a depth of experience in social research and nonprofit management that will complement and strengthen my own work at CIRS, and he brings a real passion for rural issues that have kept him engaged in research and rural community advocacy his entire career. (See Michael's bio, below)


Mike Courville

Michael Courville

Why Shared Leadership?


“Our mythology refuses to catch up with our reality. And so we cling to the myth of the Lone Ranger, the romantic idea that great things are usually accomplished by a larger-than-life individual working alone. Despite the evidence to the contrary -- including the fact that Michelangelo worked with a group of 16 to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel -- we still tend to think of achievement in terms of the Great Man or the Great Woman, instead of the Great Group.”


Walter Bennis, The Secret of Great Groups, 1997


Sharing leadership helps to institute an executive team with the skills, experiences, resources, and continuity of values that will impel our mission well into the future. We will share the management duties and leadership of the organization, building upon a model of equitable leadership and collaborative decision-making.


Our work at CIRS requires keen management; sharp thinking, collaboration, public relations, program oversight, financial planning, and the cultivation of supporters that can help us implement our formula for change. It is a complex and demanding job. No one person, or one leader, is likely to sustain such an eclectic set of demands over time. In fact, a great deal of scholarship and evaluation of nonprofit leadership has pointed to the value and benefit of sharing leadership responsibilities, and a number of high-functioning nonprofits and businesses have adopted shared leadership to draw upon the full strengths of their leadership teams. We believe that this approach allows each director some time and space to reflect on their work, stay grounded in the organizational values, and practice more inclusive leadership throughout the entire organization. Shared leadership reflects our value of social justice, advances the sustainability of CIRS, and aligns with our commitment to promote the public interest: develop CIRS while developing others in the process.


We are both thrilled to be working together in this capacity, and look forward to talking with many of you in the months ahead about CIRS and our embrace of shared leadership.


Gail Wadsworth                             Michael Courville  

Co-Executive Director                   Co-Executive Director




Michael Courville is an experienced nonprofit director and social researcher. He brings over twenty years of experience to CIRS working on rural issues, sustainable food systems, community development, social policy, and organizational capacity building. He is the founder of Open Mind Consulting and served in a combined role as Director of Community Programs and Development at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA).  While at CRLA, he led the Fund for Rural Equity in partnership with the Irvine, Hewlett and Packard Foundations. He has also led a number of formal program and learning evaluations for nonprofits, with an emphasis on qualitative methods and research design. He believes that a combination of research, reflective leadership, and civic engagement helps to advance equality and enhance our capacity to build more caring communities.

His past projects have included an investigation of agricultural export production in Latin America and the impact on small producers in Honduras, a process study of family-centered social service interventions in rural areas of Fresno and Riverside Counties, cross-generational leadership in nonprofits, and a formal analysis of farmworker heat stress prevention methods in California. His writing has appeared in Social Policy, the Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare, and the Management Information Exchange Journal. He was also co-editor and co-author of Promised Land: Competing Visions of Agrarian Reform (Food First Books, 2006). Michael holds graduate degrees from the University of California, Berkeley in political economy and social welfare. 

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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



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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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.


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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Flying Mule Farm is a family-owned commercial sheep operation located in Auburn, California co-founded by Dan and Samia Macon. Dan is a lifelong resident of the Sierra Nevada Foothills and has a degree in agriculture economics from UC Davis. Because of this year's historic drought in California, and dry years since 2007, the Macons have had to make several changes and reductions to the size of the flock. Below is a personal story of how the drought is affecting Dan and his family's ability to make a living. For more information on the Macons and Flying Mule Farm please check out the Flying Mule Farm website , Facebook page and Dan Macon's personal blog

Audio courtesy of the UCDavisPlants Soundcloud

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California is experiencing a long term drought. As a result, CIRS is examining various aspects of the California water system. This week, we are looking at a desert region where per capita water use is the highest in the state  for a non-industrial area at 736 gallons per person per day.


(Graphic from of the San jome Mercury News) 


The Coachella Valley is located in eastern Riverside County, California. The entire valley sits in the basin north of the Salton Sea bounded by various strands of the very active San Andreas Fault System. The San Andreas Fault traverses the Valley's east side. The Santa Rosa Mountains to the West are part of the Elsinore Fault Zone.The Inland Empire-Salton Trough region is geologically and seismologically the most complex part of the San Andreas Fault system in southern California. Over the past 15 million years, several strands of the main San Andreas Fault have moved coastal California northwestward in relation to the desert interior. The trough of the Coachella Valley is surrounded by mountain ranges rising up to 11,000 feet in elevation while the valley floor drops to 250 feet below sea level at its lowest around the town of Mecca. In the summer, daytime temperatures range from 104 ° F to 112 ° F and winter temperatures range from 68 F to 88 F making the Coachella Valley a very popular winter resort. The Valley is the northwestern extension of the Sonoran Desert to the southeast and is extremely arid. The majority of rainfall occurs during the winter months. Rain may sometimes fall during the summer months as a result of the desert monsoon.


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Impact of California’s drought on farmworkers

The effects of this year’s drought in California are being discussed in both statewide and national media. California produces vegetables, fruits, nuts and dairy products for most of the country and for international export. Debate rages about what foods use the most water, what products will be most affected and how consumer food bills will increase. One of the groups of people most seriously impacted by the reduction in planting but least discussed is the farmworker population.

Farm laborers are already one of the most vulnerable sectors of the population and the drought this year will put them even more at risk. The average annual income for a farmworker is $13,800. This places many farmworkers at risk for hunger, poor housing and subsequent health impacts. In some rural California communities that rely almost exclusively on agriculture for work, unemployment rates are already high, even at peak season.

Drought Map 


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This article is adapted from a presentation on Food Justice given to the American Planning Association California Chapter meeting in Visalia, CA in 2013.

When addressing food justice, there are several issues farm workers deal with. The two to be discussed here are: access to food and cost of food. When addressing planning issues for rural regions in the context of food justice, we need to review what the barriers are to farm worker justice in the built environment and develop ideas for improvement.

•    Where do laborers work and where do they live? 
•    How does this affect housing, transportation and food access?
•    How do we balance farmland preservation and affordable housing for workers?
•    What does transit oriented development mean in creation of affordable and accessible transport in rural regions?

In 2007, CIRS completed a study in Fresno of farm worker food security. We found that 45% of the workers interviewed in the most productive agricultural county in the US, are food insecure. We conducted a similar study in the Salinas Valley (America’s Salad Bowl) and found a staggering 66% of workers interviewed were food insecure.

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Every year at Thanksgiving I am reminded of the people who grow and harvest our food. I am constantly immersed in research on the food system and the people who work in it but thinking about the food on my table and how it got there is especially poignant at feast time. In California we are blessed with abundant year round locally grown nuts, meats, grains, fruits and vegetables. The farmers and hired workers who labor to produce this food that feeds our nation do so under challenging conditions.

abc 1 5-yearold with buckets 091029 ssh

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In California, farmworkers in general, and the indigenous in particular, are undercounted by official census takers. Ignorance about the indigenous population—one of the poorest groups in California—has led to widespread unawareness of this community’s needs; service providers in some regions may even be unaware of the community’s existence.  The language barriers and the unique cultural traits of the population make it critical that customized programs be implemented to accommodate the significant differences with other Mexican immigrants.  These videos are posted both for the stories conveyed and to introduce viewers to the sound of some indigenous Mexican languages. Here, Fausto is speaking Mixtec Alto and Jesus is speaking Mixtec. For more information and videos go to the Indigenous Farmworker Study

Fausto - English from Indigenous Farmworkers on Vimeo.


Jesus - English from Indigenous Farmworkers on Vimeo.

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In California, farmworkers in general, and the indigenous in particular, are undercounted by official census takers. Ignorance about the indigenous population—one of the poorest groups in California—has led to widespread unawareness of this community’s needs; service providers in some regions may even be unaware of the community’s existence.  The language barriers and the unique cultural traits of the population make it critical that customized programs be implemented to accommodate the significant differences with other Mexican immigrants.  These videos are posted both for the stories conveyed and to introduce viewers to the sound of some indigenous Mexican languages. Here, Felipe is speaking Mixtec and Juan is speaking Zapotec. For more information and videos go to the Indigenous Farmworker Study

Felipe - English from Indigenous Farmworkers on Vimeo.

Juan - English from Indigenous Farmworkers on Vimeo.


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Press Conference:          June 12, 2013, 10:00am, COLLEGE OF THE DESERT (MECCA CAMPUS) 61-120 BUCHANAN STREET, MECCA CA 92254

Community Forum:         June 12, 2013, 5:30pm, College of the Desert (Mecca Campus) 

Contact:             Elizabeth Toledo, Building Healthy Communities:760-578-9605

                              Megan Beaman, Pueblo Unido CDC: 760-406-8900


The report is expected to be a tremendous asset to ongoing work toward the improvement of Eastern Coachella Valley conditions.  “The lack of consolidated and unbiased data documenting the inequities of our region has been one of the greatest challenges we face in our work for better infrastructure, water quality, housing, and environmental health.  It has been incredibly frustrating to us at times to have decision-makers and policy-makers say or imply that we are exaggerating about our community experiences, or that they need to see science before they can help.  This data will assist us greatly in demonstrating that our experiences are based in hard facts and statistics,” said Megan Beaman of Pueblo Unido CDC.

The group will present the report briefly by press conference on June 12, 2013, and the whole report and in-depth analysis will be presented at a community forum that same evening. 

Non-profit organizations contributing to the production and release of this report are:  Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation; California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc.; Inland Congregations United for Change; and Comité Cívico del Valle.



Elizabeth R. Toledo

Building Healthy Communities (BHC) Eastern Coachella Valley

P: 760.972.4628 | C: 760.578.9605 | F: 760.674.9923

Connect with BHC:

"Like" us on Facebook: Eastern Coachella Valley Building Healthy Communities

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In California, farmworkers in general, and the indigenous in particular, are undercounted by official census takers.  Ignorance about the indigenous population—one of the poorest groups in California—has led to widespread unawareness of this community’s needs; service providers in some regions may even be unaware of the community’s existence.  The language barriers and the unique cultural traits of the population make it critical that customized programs be implemented to accommodate the significant differences with other Mexican immigrants.  These videos are posted both for the stories conveyed and to introduce viewers to the sound of some indigenous Mexican languages. Here, Alejandro is speaking Triqui and Emila is speaking Chatino. For more information and videos go to the Indigenous Farmworker Study

Alejandro - English from Indigenous Farmworkers on Vimeo.

Emilia - English from Indigenous Farmworkers on Vimeo.

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Tagged in: Agricultural Labor
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In 2012, we created a community risk assessment tool to help workers to determine how to reduce their individual risk for heat related illness at home and in their communities. It’s called “Are you at risk for heat Illness at home? Keeping you and your family safe in the heat.”

Our problem is this: we don’t have enough funding to translate and print this tool and get it out to rural community organizations that would use it. Since we uploaded this document and its partner document (Site and Community Assessment Tool) three months ago, 300 copies of both have been downloaded.

We think “Are you at risk…” will be more accessible to small community organizations if it’s provided as a ready-to-use tool, printed and in the hands of community outreach workers. So, today, I’m asking you to make a donation specifically for this purpose.

The total cost for translation, printing and shipping 2,000 of these assessment tools is only $2,000:

  • $300 for translation
  • $1,500 for printing 2,000 copies
  • $200 for shipping to community organizations throughout the state

It’s not a lot of money but it will do a lot of good.

CIRS is a public interest research organization.  Sounds dull-- but the research we conduct often centers on stories.

  • Stories of farmers.
  • Stories of farm workers.
  • Stories of rural California communities.

We talk to people—a lot.  We listen to what they’re saying and create tools to help them get their stories out into the world in a way that is effective.  We aim to change policy and foster advocacy in rural California where many residents simply are not being heard. One of our main projects over the past two years has focused on reducing the risk of heat stress for residents in rural communities where it’s a life and death issue.

Please support this effort by contributing online at our Crowdtilt page.

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FEB 25, 2013

The House Committee on Agriculture

Tamara Hinton, 202.225.0184

WASHINGTON – Today, Chairman Frank Lucas and Ranking Member Collin Peterson issued the following statement in response to the recent release of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) report on the various definitions of rural used in programs administered by the agency. The 2008 Farm Bill required USDA to complete this report by June 18, 2010 to assess how the various definitions have impacted rural development programs and to make recommendations on ways to better target funds.


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This press release was issued by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.


SACRAMENTO, CA (February 19, 2013)

On Friday, February 15, 2013, Judge Perantoni of the Riverside County Superior Court, after learning that RBI Packing, LLC of Mecca, California fired approximately 55 farm workers, ordered RBI to stop discriminating against its employees on the basis of their union activity and to offer them priority in hiring for all agricultural jobs at the company’s Blythe-based lemon ranch. 


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Interviews with female farm workers were conducted by Vallerye Mosquera and Luis Magana in 2011. The stories below were excerpted from three of these interviews and edited by Gail Wadsworth for posting here.

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California Institute for Rural Studies organized a small group session at the “Strengthening Regional Food Systems” conference recently held at University of California, Davis.  This conference was organized to discuss how policy changes and actions by the private sector and other stakeholders can address impediments to the creation of strong regional food systems and to support innovative initiatives currently underway at the local, regional, and national levels. The meeting was also intended to build stronger partnerships among key actors working on various aspects of regional food systems.  The meeting was organized and hosted by AGree.

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by Gail Wadsworth and Vallerye Mosquera

The California Institute for Rural Studies, University of California, Davis and the Organización de Trabajadores Agrícolas de California recently completed a collaborative research project that focused on identifying the residential and community factors related to heat stress for farmworkers living in Stockton, California and the surrounding region. The goal of this research was to create a pilot tool for assessing community and residential site factors (i.e., those factors to which they are exposed outside of the agricultural work environment) that can exacerbate farmworkers’ exposure to heat and increase their risk of heat-related illness. Photo_1web

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Tyrone Hayes, Ph.D., Professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, California, shares his research on the widely used herbicide Atrazine and its disturbing effects on frogs, the environment, and on public health. We learn that Atrazine is the most widely used herbicide in North America. Atrazine is used throughout the United States to control weeds in agricultural fields, residential lawns, Christmas tree farms, and, golf courses, despite evidence of its toxic nature. Professor Hayes’ research published in Narture magazine shows that there is enough Atrazine in rainwater in Iowa to make male frogs “yolk eggs in their testes.” This module shows what can happen when a company in Switzerland is allowed to market their products in America when they can not be sold in Switzerland or most of Europe.

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