The San Joaquin Valley is the agricultural powerhouse of the United States and California. California accounts for an eighth of U.S. farm sales, largely because it produces high value fruit and nut, vegetable and melon, and horticultural specialty (FVH) crops such as nursery products and flowers. Over three-fourths of the state's $37 billion in farm sales in 2010 were crop commodities, and almost 90 percent of the $28 billion in California crop sales represented labor-intensive FVH commodities.

About half of California's farm sales and farm employment are produced in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley with four million residents that stretches from Stockton in the north to Bakersfield in the south. The leading U.S. farm county is Fresno, which had farm sales of almost $6 billion in 2010.

Fresno's budget, and air and water in the San Joaquin Valley

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The Wall Street Journal profiled the city of Fresno's bleak finances October 31, 2013. Fresno, a city of 500,000 residents, had the least cash on hand of any of the 250 largest US cities. Fresno had less than a day's reserves, compared with a median 80+ days for large US cities.

One cause of Fresno's cash crunch is a $26 million convention-center garage that lost business to new facilities at California State University, Fresno in the northern part of the city. Garage deficits were financed in part by borrowing from other city funds. Eventually, the city began to lay off employees, some 1,200 or 30 percent of its 4,200 workers, between 2009 and 2013.

The US Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that farm worker employment averaged 49,000 in Fresno county in 2012 and average annual earnings were $25,500, which was $1,000 a year less than in 2009. BEA estimates include the wages of farm workers hired directly by farmers as well as the wages of workers brought to farms by contractors and other intermediaries. BEA reported that average annual wages in accommodation and food services were $20,500, and that this sector employed an average 24,800 workers in Fresno county in 2012.

One economist noted the disconnect between farm profits and employee wages in Fresno county: "When crop prices are up and things are going great, employees don't get paid any more. And when prices go in the tank and farms are losing money, the employees are still getting paid."

Average annual wages in Fresno county were $51,400 in 2012. The largest sector of employment was government, which employed an average 64,000 workers in Fresno county and paid an average $79,000 a year.

California's official poverty rate, 16.5 percent, is higher than the US rate, 15.1 percent. Using an alternative measure of poverty, almost 24 percent of California residents were poor.


The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, responsible for air quality for four million residents, wants the federal government to end a requirement that the District collect extra fees from drivers to reduce pollution. The District argues that ozone levels have fallen enough to meet the EPA's 1979 standard, but the EPA wants more data before allowing the fees to be eliminated.

The number of days in which San Joaquin Valley ozone levels exceeded EPA standards fell from 37 in 2003 to zero in 2013.

Businesses in the San Joaquin Valley's eight counties spent an estimated $40 billion over the last 25 years to comply with clean air rules. The District says that returns to further expenditures to curb air pollution are diminishing, but some advocates say that San Joaquin Valley air is still too polluted for children and the elderly. Both sides agree that 80 percent of San Joaquin Valley air pollution is from mobile sources, but the District says that most of the cars and trucks that emit are regulated by the state, not by local governments, limiting the effects of its policies.


 Many small San Joaquin Valley cities lack clean water, even though the California Department of Public Health has over $450 million in federal funds to help San Joaquin Valley cities to clean up public water supplies. The DPH in summer 2013 pledged to distribute $800 million by 2016 to help improve water quality, four times more than the $200 million distributed over the past three years.

Small cities that include many residents from Mexico often have trouble maintaining water systems, since federal and state monies cannot be used for maintenance of water infrastructure. After federal and state aid funds develop safe public drinking water systems, some water systems close because local residents do not want to pay higher fees for operation and maintenance. Some say that Mexican immigrants who are accustomed to buying drinking water in Mexico do not believe that tap water in the US is safe, and are unwilling to pay for safe tap water.


This post was an excerpt of the most recent Rural Migration News published in January 2014.

Rural Migration News summarizes the most important migration-related issues affecting agriculture and rural America. Topics are grouped by category: Rural America, Farm Workers, Immigration, Other and Resources.

There are two editions of Rural Migration News. The paper edition has about 10,000 words and the email version about 20,000 words.

Distribution is by email. If you wish to subscribe, send your email address to Current and back issues may be accessed at

The paper edition is available by mail for $30 domestic and $50 foreign for one year and $55 and $95 for a two-year subscription. Make checks payable to Migration Dialogue and send to: Philip Martin, Department of Ag and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, California 95616 USA.

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Philip Martin is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California- Davis, chair of the University of California's Comparative Immigration and Integration Program, and editor of the monthly Migration News and the quarterly Rural Migration News.


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