Question and Answer interview with Ken and Melanie Light on their book Valley of Shadows and Dreams.

Rural California in the News

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There are many issues related to California’s Central Valley that have been in the news recently. Topics such as social justice, farmworker health and labor conditions, immigration and its role in labor fluctuations/shortages, how pesticides are affecting drainwater and the health of people and animals living in the Valley and the ability of lawmakers to shift the future of agriculture in the country. This post is a collection of these issues. Hopefully this will be an opportunity to learn more about a topic you were unaware of, or a chance to learn more about issues currently influencing the region.

Santa Clara Students Walk for Farmworker Justice

Students and faculty members from Santa Clara University are walking more than 200 miles for a class called "Walk Across California," which "discusses issues of sustainability, environmental justice and social activism." The walk started Friday (June 15) "at Ocean Beach in San Francisco and is scheduled to end June 30 at Yosemite National Park. The Santa Clara group has traveled about 15 miles every day." The group of 12 students and four faculty members recently stopped in Stockton, California. "David Popalisky, an associate professor at Santa Clara in the dance and theater department, created and organized the walk. He said Stockton was on the itinerary for one specific reason: '"This is the heart of farm-working injustices," Popalisky said. "That's why Stockton has so much importance to this walk."'

Farmworkers Sue Chuy and Sons Labor

Earlier this month, farmworkers in the Coachella Valley sued Chuy and Sons Labor for making them work in extreme conditions. The farmworkers were fired because they refused to work when temperatures reached more than 110 degrees. According to an article, "The lawsuit claims that supervisors from Chuy and Sons Labor pushed crews to fill and empty baskets of bell peppers as quickly as possible, and even urged them to run. When the workers complained, the supervisors dismissed them for the day and told them to come back the next morning. They did, but their bosses didn’t."

Labor Shortage in the Valley?

The Valley's labor shortage in detailed in an article published byTighter border enforcement, increased smuggling costs for immigrants and drug-related violence are contributing to fewer people coming to the U.S. from Mexico -- longtime source of undocumented workers for Valley farmers. And while critics of illegal immigration may be pleased with the current decline, farmers are worried."

However, not everyone is resigning to the fact that there is a shortage of labor. Maria Machuca, a spokeswoman for the United Farm Workers Union said in the article, "Simple economics tells us that if there was in fact a labor shortage, we would be seeing an increase in wages and better benefits for workers," said Machuca. "We are not seeing that yet in non-union companies."

Selenium in the Central Valley

An article in the Huffington Post Los Angeles called, "California's Selenium Time Bomb Keeps Ticking," details another issue in the San Joaquin Valley. The author of the article Glen Martin describes the problem, "Readers of a certain age will remember the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge imbroglio of 30 years ago. This federal waterfowl reserve in California received selenium-contaminated "drainwater" from the giant corporate farms of the western San Joaquin Valley. (Drainwater results from the seasonal flushing of fields with freshwater to remove accumulated salts; the selenium in the soil dissolves with the salts, and is likewise transported.)"

"The logical solution is to "retire" the irrigated croplands of the western San Joaquin. This is the course proposed by the U.S. Geological Survey, one of the few federal agencies to retain a shred of independence and credibility on the selenium issue. Shutting down the '"Westside,'" however, would deeply enrage the constituency that counts most in Washington: people with lots of money. Wealthy Westside corporate farmers have things just where they want them. They get water at below market prices delivered via a federal boondoggle known as the Central Valley Project. Some of their crops are highly subsidized, such as cotton. It's an elegant double dip: taxpayers support both the delivery of the water and the production of the crop.

Farm Bill 2012

Although the Agriculture Reform, Food and Jobs Act of 2012, also known as the farm bill, does not deal specifically with California's Central Valley, the decisions made by lawmakers in Washington, D.C., greatly influences agriculture in California. Also, relating to our post from last week, the amendment that would have created a national standard for egg-laying hens was not one of the 73 amendments voted on by the Senate.

Last week, the Senate's version of the farm bill passed 64-35. The bill will now move to the House of Representatives. The chairman of the House Agricultural Committee, Frank Lucas (R-OK), said work on the bill will begin July 11. The current farm bill that was passed in 2008, known as the Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008, will expire at the end of September.

An article in the New York Times, from June 21, details some of the programs and changes in the Senate proposal. Here are some of the highlights:

  • "Although the bill is known as the farm bill, the majority of the spending, about $80 billion a year, goes to the food stamp program. The Senate bill would cut a total of $23.6 billion from current spending levels, including about $4.5 billion from food stamps, but senators rejected several proposals that would have made even deeper cuts."
  • "The bill eliminates about $5 billion a year in direct payments that have been given to farmers and farmland owners, whether or not they grew crops. It makes the highly subsidized crop insurance program the primary safety net when crop prices drop. Currently, the government subsidizes about 62 percent of the crop insurance premiums, and the policies typically guarantee 75 percent to 85 percent of a farmer’s revenue. The crop insurance subsidy would cost about $9 billion a year."
  • "But for the first time crop insurance would be subject to payment limits, and recipients of the subsidy would have to follow soil and water conservation requirements, as they do in other farm programs. The bill reduces the premium subsidy for farmers with adjusted gross incomes of more than $750,000. The measure would affect only 1,500 out of the 1.5 million farmers and save $1 billion over 10 years."
  • "Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington research organization, said the bill failed to achieve real savings because it expanded crop insurance. Still, he said, “'We applaud the provisions that require farmers who receive crop insurance subsidies to carry out basic environmental protections on their farms and to reduce insurance subsidies for the largest and most successful agribusinesses.”'
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