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.

Production and Poverty Paradox

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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.

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High farm sales and high poverty rates go together in the San Joaquin Valley. Over a quarter of Fresno County's 935,000 residents, 27 percent, had incomes below the poverty line in 2010, and over a third of Fresno County's school-aged children were poor. Neighboring Tulare County had the second-highest farm sales, almost $5 billion, and the second-highest poverty rates.

Over 20 percent of residents of San Joaquin Valley cities such as Fresno and Merced lived in high-poverty neighborhoods in 2010, defined as those with poverty rates of 40 percent or more.

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Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution says that the San Joaquin Valley added jobs during the construction boom of 2002-07, and now offers fewer farm jobs for those who lost construction jobs. Berube echoes many reports by concluding that the San Joaquin Valley must improve the skills of residents and diversify the economy away from reliance on seasonal farm jobs. However, many San Joaquin Valley youth go away to college and do not return because there are few jobs for college graduates.

Almost half of the San Joaquin Valley residents are Hispanic. Despite high poverty rates and double-digit unemployment, the San Joaquin Valley continues to attract immigrants from rural Mexico. Indeed, so many rural Mexicans have moved to the San Joaquin Valley in the past decade that many Fresno county cities have per capita incomes that are similar to the per capita income of Mexico, about $10,000 or $14,000 at purchasing power parity (PPP) in 2010 (PPP makes adjustments to reflect the fact that living is cheaper in Mexico).

Unemployment rates in major farming counties in recent years have topped 17 percent during the winter months. California's unemployment rate was almost 11 percent in the winter of 2011-2012, significantly above the U.S. rate of 8.3 percent in March of 2012. One reason California's rate has not declined is because more state residents are seeking jobs in the improving economy.

The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies' Heath Policy Institute released a report, on February 29, 2012 as part of its Place Matters Initiative, emphasizing that 30 percent of San Joaquin Valley residents did not have high school diplomas, compared to 15 percent of U.S. residents. It found a wide variance in life expectancy by zip code, from 69 to 90, with the lowest life expectancy in zip codes with more low-income Hispanics. Poor air quality was also more common in areas with more low-income Hispanics, helping to explain why one-sixth of children in the San Joaquin Valley are diagnosed with asthma before reaching 18 years of age.

The so-called Latino health paradox was explored in the Place Matters report. The health status of immigrant Hispanics is similar to that of non-Hispanic whites, but health status deteriorates for second- and third- generation Latinos raised in the San Joaquin Valley. Reasons for deteriorating health outcomes range from poor diets to the availability of fast and processed foods. The Place Matters report calls on federal, state, and local policy makers to increase and reorient spending to improve the health status of poor San Joaquin Valley residents.

Parlier

Parlier

Parlier, the buckle of the raisin belt in Fresno County, epitomizes the farm worker cities of the San Joaquin Valley. Parlier had almost 15,000 residents in 2010, and their youthful age profile was similar to that of Mexico; 30 percent of Parlier's residents were under 15, and less than six percent were over 65. Almost all of Parlier's residents are Hispanic, and 80 percent speak a language other than English at home. Parlier's per capita income was $10,800 in 2009, half the average for Fresno County.

The rural Mexicans who move to Parlier are seeking higher incomes and more opportunities. If they had stayed in rural Mexico, they would have had incomes lower than the Mexican average. Moving to Parlier is rational for rural Mexicans because it helps them to increase their incomes from perhaps half the Mexican average in Mexico to the Mexican average in the U.S. Many immigrant parents say they want to give their children more opportunity by moving to the U.S.

Calexico

The AP reported on border commuter workers in California's Imperial Valley on April 1, 2012. Many of the field workers employed in Imperial County, where the unemployment rate was almost 27 percent in February of 2012, live in Mexicali and commute daily to the U.S. Many begin their commute very early, at 2 or 3 a.m., so that they can cross the border and walk to La Dona, a gathering spot for workers and crew leaders. The wait to cross the border has increased from 10 to 20 minutes in the 1990s to an hour or two today.

Crews depart from Calexico for the fields between 5 and 6 a.m., returning between 2 and 4 p.m. in the afternoon. California's minimum wage is $8 an hour, and most workers earn the minimum wage in hourly jobs, and $9 to $10 an hour in piece-rate jobs.

Interviews with local farmers suggest that U.S. workers will not do farm work. Steve Scaroni believes that Americans would not take the jobs he offers even if he paid $15 an hour rather than $9 an hour because "nobody raises their kids to be farmworkers." Jack Vessey, who grows vegetables and melons on 10,000 owned and leased acres, uses Scaroni crews for harvesting.

The Imperial Valley includes about 480,000 acres of farmland between the Mexican border and the Salton Sea. It receives about 20 percent of Colorado River water via the 82-mile All-American Canal that was constructed in the 1940s, enough for six million homes. Under the "first in time, first in right" water law, farmers who productively began to use Colorado River water retain the right to continue using it.

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In 2003, the 1,300-employee Imperial Irrigation District agreed to sell water to San Diego over the next 75 years, the largest farm-to-city water transfer in the arid west. About 6,000 acres of Imperial farmland have been idled to send water to San Diego via the Colorado Aqueduct owned by the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. Most studies find that the payments made by San Diego for this water have more multiplier effects on employment in the Imperial Valley than would have occurred if the idled land had been farmed.

Federal, state and local government agencies, from the 1,240 Border Patrol agents to two state prisons that employ 2,400 guards, employ a third of the Imperial Valley workers. However, most private sector jobs offer low wages, such as sales jobs in three Wal-Mart Supercenters that cater to shoppers from Mexicali, a city of a million.

Stockton

Stockton may become the largest U.S. city to declare bankruptcy if mediation with public employee unions and major bond creditors fails. The city of 290,000 faces a budget deficit of $20 million to $40 million because of pension and health benefit promises to public employees and waterfront redevelopment efforts. Both were to be paid by developer fees from new housing, but development slowed after 2007. Forbes magazine has twice named Stockton the worst U.S. city.

Bankruptcy is normally a collective process. Procedures encourage creditors to come together under court oversight and negotiate a plan to share the losses equitably for the sake of the greater good. When private firms go bankrupt, the federal government, which insures traditional company pensions, takes over the defunct plan and pays retirees their benefits, up to statutory limits. There is no insurance backstop for municipal pensions, but Calpers, the state pension system, argues that the state's constitution bars any reductions in pensions promised to workers. Vallejo reduced health care benefits for public employees, both active and retired, when it filed for bankruptcy, but not pension benefits.

Farmworkers

Heat

The United Farmworkers of America (UFW) is urging enactment of AB 2346, a bill that would allow farmworkers to sue employers to enforce heat safety regulations. Supporters liken the sue the employer provisions for failing to provide water and shade to "a citizen's arrest."

The regulations require farm employers to: 1) make available at least a quart of water per worker per hour; 2) provide access to shade for at least five minutes for workers suffering from heat illness; 3) train workers and their supervisors about heat illness; and 4) have a written plan to deal with workers suffering from heat illness.

California enacted heat safety regulations as an emergency measure in 2005 and made them permanent in 2006. The UFW sued the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) in 2009, alleging that the state was not enforcing heat safety regulations. Cal/OSHA conducted 1,070 heat-related inspections in 2009, and reported only one heat-related farm worker death between 2009 and 2011, compared with six between 2005 and 2008.

The UFW says that Cal/OSHA investigated only a third of the 75 heat-related complaints it submitted in 2011 and issued only three citations. Ellen Widess of the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) promised stepped up enforcement of state labor laws in the summer of 2012, including heat stress regulations that require training, water and shade.

Farm Labor Contractors (FLCs)

Sun Pacific Farming of Bakersfield laid off 2,100 workers employed to produce table grapes and kiwis in March of 2012 and said it will hire workers as needed via labor contractors. Sun Pacific, whose acreage has been declining, said that 70 percent of its seasonal workers are provided by FLCs, and that the change means that 100 percent will be supplied by FLCs.

Sun World International in March of 2011 made a similar change from direct hiring to obtaining seasonal workers via FLCs.

The state's Division of Labor Standards Enforcement in February of 2012 announced the creation of a criminal investigation unit to investigate cases of workers' compensation violations, theft of labor, payment of wages with bounced checks, unlicensed farm labor contractors and garment manufacturers, child labor violations, and kickbacks on public works projects.

Overtime

California requires employers to pay 1.5 times the usual wage to farmworkers employed more than 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week. AB 1313 would make overtime regulation in agriculture the same as that in the nonfarm economy, that is, require premium pay after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week.

Federal labor law does not require premium pay for overtime in agriculture. Only Hawaii, Maryland, and Minnesota, require premium pay after farmworkers are employed above a weekly hours limit, but not for overtime on a daily basis. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in July of 2010, vetoed a similar bill that would have removed special overtime regulations for agriculture.

FLSA

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The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) invoked the "hot goods" enforcement provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act to block the shipment of strawberries that were picked by FLC Jorge Castro Farms at Pezzini Berry Farms in Salinas in the fall of 2011. Pezzini sold the berries to Cal Pacific Specialty Foods, where the DOL held up shipments of about 10,000 pounds of berries until FLC Castro paid back wages to the pickers and penalties for allowing a 13-year-old to pick during school hours.

 The back wages arose from FLC Jorge Castro charging workers for housing and failing to disclose the charges at the time of recruitment.

California Rural Legal Assistance sued Calandri SonRise Farms of Lancaster, California in April of 2012, alleging that Calandri failed to pay minimum wages to onion harvesters. The CRLA suit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that "Workers were made to live in squalid, makeshift camps on the edges of the onion fields, [they] resorted to bathing in irrigation reservoirs and other unsafe places because their employer-provided housing lacked running water or adequate toilet facilities."  

Calandri denied the charges.

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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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