CIRS Blog about Rural California

With California’s reservoirs overflowing, it’s official: an end to the five-year drought is in sight. A year ago, 90 percent of California was in some state of drought; today that number is 20 percent and falling.

But when it rains, it pours, and after some of the driest years on record, the “Pineapple Express” has delivered the wettest winter in recent history. After years of water restrictions, dry fields, and general uncertainty, having so much rain all at once has been a mixed blessing for farmers. It has come with a different set of challenges and complications, from flooded fields to sluggish farmers market sales.

Although farmers market shoppers are already seeing early signs of spring, such as green garlic and a healthy crop of asparagus, the season may come later than we’ve all become accustomed to in recent drought-stricken years.

massa sheep rain

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WASHINGTON—Fresno resident and folklorist Amy Kitchener will help tend the nation’s collective memories as a trustee of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The co-founder and executive director of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts, with offices in Fresno, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles, Kitchener has been tapped for a six-year term on the American Folklife Center’s board of trustees. The position will put her atop a world-class archive and expose her to a wide array of cultural movers and shakers.

“We’re the stewards, guiding the center,” Kitchener said in an interview March 7. “It’s an exciting prospect.”

Congress established the American Folklife Center in 1976 to “preserve and present American folklife” through research, documentation, archival preservation, live performance and more. The center, among other efforts, hosts the Veterans History Project, which stores the personal accounts of American war veterans, as well as the Civil Rights History Project.

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By Paulina Rojas

SAN BERNARDINO, Calif., Weeping as she narrated her story, Lupé (not her real name) an undocumented immigrant living in the Inland Empire, said she began feeling helpless and scared when her young son began having convulsions a few years ago. Like her, he had no health insurance.

Luckily for her, the nearby SAC Health System (SACHS), a federally qualified health clinic that does not turn uninsured patients away, enrolled the boy as a patient. The medications the clinic provided kept the boy’s convulsions under check.

Last May, when California launched its Health for All Kids program, SACHS helped enroll Lupé’s son in full-scope Medi-Cal, California’s name for the government program for poor people known as Medicaid in the rest of the nation.

Designed to provide health insurance for undocumented children who were left out of the Affordable Care Act because of their immigration status, the Health for All Kids is largely (71 percent) funded by the state, with the rest paid out of federal funds for emergency coverage.

Lupé’s son is among an estimated 250,000 children in California who have so far benefited from the program, said Dr. Jason Lohr, a family medicine practitioner at SACHS.

Lohr was a panelist at a February 7 round table ethnic media briefing here co-sponsored by New America Media and SACHS. Some 51 stakeholders, advocacy groups and media participated.

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WASHINGTON — The lead author in the House of Representatives of a big and controversial California water bill that passed last year is back for more.

With a Republican in the White House and the GOP controlling Congress, Rep. David Valadao, R-Calif., said Tuesday that he was hoping to build on last year’s legislation that was loved by farmers and loathed by environmentalists. 

The bill scales back an ambitious San Joaquin River restoration program, speeds completion of California dam feasibility studies and locks in certain water deliveries to Sacramento Valley irrigation districts, among other things. Parts of the bill would not have been accepted by the Obama administration, but the Trump team is different.

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By Derek Walter

For Jen Smith, just feeding her family requires mind-bending effort — three times a day. That’s because her 8-year-old son Marty Smith is allergic to a host of foods, including those that contain or are cooked in peanut oil, soy or dairy.

He has a condition called eosinophilic esophagitiswhich is exacerbated by food allergies and causes his esophagus to become inflamed.

To get dinner on the table, Smith, a teacher in Clovis, must carefully examine all ingredients and find recipes that work with her son’s limited diet. She ends up spending hours each week on extra food prep for her son and hundreds of dollars annually on specialty foods that her son isn’t allergic to.

Coping with food allergies can be daunting for any family, but, due to the extra labor and grocery costs, they often hit low-income families hardest.

“When you buy packaged foods expect the price to double or triple,” said Smith, who carefully budgets food expenses to feed her family of five on a teacher’s salary. “If I’m baking something with chocolate chips, I have to use a specific brand that is far more expensive. But it’s the only choice, because everything else is made with soy.”

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WASHINGTON — The political terrain appears favorable for a mega-million-dollar irrigation drainage deal, with Congress still fully in Republican hands and California’s sprawling Westlands Water District with influential allies.

But there are complications. One is a legal cloud over a neighboring water district. The other comes with the state’s two Democratic senators, who remain uncommitted.

Legislation putting the drainage deal into effect could be introduced at any time.

“I think I have the support of leadership,” Rep. David Valadao, R-Hanford, said in an interview.

But with that legislation will come a Capitol Hill fight.

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WASHINGTON —California Republican Rep. David Valadao of Hanford is pushing for an immigration overhaul, placing himself in the middle of the very issue that’s ripping both parties apart. 

Through public statements, legislation and now an earnestly worded plea to President Donald Trump, Valadao has positioned himself as one of the few congressional Republicans daring to support a comprehensive package that includes a pathway to legal status for immigrants who are already in this country illegally.

“For too long, extremes on either side of the aisle have discouraged constructive discussion regarding immigration,” Valadao said in the two-page letter sent to Trump on Tuesday, “but I believe with new executive leadership, now is the time to enact meaningful reform.”

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California's farm sales fell from $54 billion in 2014 to $47 billion in 2015, largely because of the declining price of milk, whose value fell from $9.4 billion to $6.3 billion. The value of almonds fell by $0.5 billion, and the value of walnuts by almost $1 billion.

However, farmers are continue to plant more nuts. Bearing almond acreage has more than doubled from 418,000 acres in 1995 to 900,000 in 2016, and yields rose even faster from 370 million pounds to over two billion pounds. Walnut acreage rose from 177,000 in 1988 to 315,000 in 2016, and production more than doubled to 670,000 tons. California has 310,000 acres of pistachios expected to generate 555 million pounds in 2016.

Most nut farmers generate profits of $1,000 to $2,000 an acre, with pistachios the most profitable nut crop.

More acres of nuts are expected to come into production, including 220,000 acres of almonds, 70,000 acres of pistachios, and 65,000 acres of walnuts. The cost of establishing an acre of walnuts is estimated to be $3,800, an acre of almonds $2,300, and an acre of pistachios $1,900. Much of the new nut acreage is being developed by pension and hedge funds seeking current returns and capital gains as land prices rise.

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California enacted a law in 2016 (SB 3) raising the minimum wage from $10 to $15 an hour by 2022 and requiring farmers to pay 8/40 overtime (AB 1066), that is, 1.5 times normal wages after eight hours a day and 40 hours a week by 2022 (employers with 25 or fewer employees have extra time to comply). The state's minimum wage went to $10.50 an hour on January 1, 2017.

Western Growers surveyed its members in November 2016, and 150 growers reported that they plan to increase mechanization (77 percent) and reduce production of labor-intensive crops in California (33 percent), including 60 growers who hired fewer than 100 workers at peak.

Responding growers reported that their employees worked an average 9.6 hours a day and 56 hours a week at $12.40 an hour, suggesting 5.5 day workweeks. Instead of paying overtime wages, most farms said they will reduce hours to 8/40, so that workers would be employed 16 fewer hours a week. A third of respondents said they would reduce benefits provided to farmworkers because of higher minimum wages and 8/40 overtime by having employees contribute more for heath insurance or reduce employer 401K and retirement contributions.

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In his budget released on January 10th, Governor Jerry Brown proposed on-going investments in climate smart agriculture programs, including the new Healthy Soils Program. The budget proposes to maintain current funding levels. However, there’s a catch. The funding will only become available if the legislature votes by two-thirds to extend the cap-and-trade program beyond the year 2020 when the program is set to expire. Why the catch?

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By Hannah Guzik

If the federal Affordable Care Act is repealed, as some Republican lawmakers and President-elect Donald Trump have proposed, nearly 5 million Californians could lose health coverage, according to a new report.

In the last two years, the health law has enabled about 3.7 million California adults to enroll in the state’s low-income health program, known as Medi-Cal, and 1.2 million residents to receive subsidies to help them pay for insurance through Covered California. Repealing the health law could have a “devastating impact” on these groups, according to the December report from the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education and the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

In recent days, Trump and some Republican legislators have said that they want to repeal the health law and replace it with something else. It’s unclear whether the replacement would still provide funding for health coverage to adults under Medi-Cal or provide subsidies to those who purchase insurance on the state’s exchange.

Under the ACA, the number of uninsured residents in the state has decreased by almost half, from 6.5 million in 2013 to 3.3 million in 2015, according to the report. Since the majority of the health law’s provisions took effect in 2014, California has seen the largest decline in the uninsured rate of any state nationwide.

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By Paulina Rojas

Coachella Unincorporated Editor’s Note: Stories about female farmworkers often examine issues experienced by these women in their work environments, in the fields. There has been extensive reporting on the abuse and harsh working conditions these women face daily. But we rarely get to see what life is like for these hardworking women at home, off the fields. This story uplifts the voices of women who find themselves stuck in cycles of poverty, unable to find any moment for rest, and it looks at how traditional gender roles in farmworker communities only perpetuate that cycle.

MECCA, Calif. — Alicia Benito’s shift picking limes in the fields in and around Mecca, a rural community about three hours east of Los Angeles, starts at 8 a.m. But like a lot of female farmworkers, her day gets going long before first light. 

“First I have to make lunch for the children, my husband and myself,” said Benito, a wife and mother of three, ages 9, 7 and 1. The family shares a rented one story house in a neighborhood surrounded by farm fields. “At 6:30 a.m. I wake up the kids and get them ready. At 7 a.m. I drop off the oldest ones at the school bus stop and then I take my youngest one to daycare.” 

Benito is short and soft spoken, her hands are small but strong. She appears shy and serious at first but just a few minutes into our conversation she smiles and cracks a joke. Her laughter immediately brightens the mood of an unusually cold and dark winter evening. 

After her whirlwind morning routine, Benito, 27, heads to the fields where she spends 8 or more hours a day crouched under trees and exposed to the harsh desert sun. She does this six days a week, often working 50-60 hour work weeks.

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Washington — Northern California and Oregon irrigation districts have won a key round in a long-running legal battle as they seek compensation for their loss of water in the Klamath River Basin.

In a 53-page opinion, U.S. Court of Federal Claims Judge Marilyn Blank Horn concluded the federal government’s 2001 diversion of Klamath River Basin water amounted to a “physical taking” of the irrigation districts’ property. Horn’s ruling Dec. 21 rejected the government’s argument that the diversion instead amounted to a “regulatory taking.”

The technical-sounding difference could shape the final dollar-and-cents’ outcome. As attorney Josh Patashnik put it in a Santa Clara Law Review article, a judge’s determination of a physical rather than regulatory taking “often plays a central role in determining whether property owners are paid compensation.”

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By Claudia Boyd-Barrett

Amid life’s everyday challenges and responsibilities, two worries weigh constantly on Jorge Zaleta’s mind.

The first is the health of his intellectually disabled son, Jorge Zaleta Jr., who at 15 years old needs around-the-clock supervision.

Second, Zaleta worries about his and his wife’s undocumented immigration status, which he fears could get them deported from the United States at any moment — leaving their son, who is an American citizen, to fend for himself.

“You’re always living under that uncertainty, that from one moment to the next, (while you’re) walking in the street or driving, you might get stopped,” said Zaleta, a Spanish speaker who immigrated to the United States 17 years ago and lives in Oakland. “We don’t have stability as a family to be able to give (our son) stability.”

Zaleta and his wife are among hundreds, if not thousands, of undocumented parents in California struggling to take care of U.S.-born children with special needs while at the same time living in fear of deportation. These parents face the same pressures any parent of a special needs child contends with: making sure their child gets the medical care, therapy, educational help and supervision they need, while balancing jobs and household responsibilities. But these families also grapple with the uncertainty of living in the shadows, and are barred from receiving the full range of government assistance that could help them care for their disabled children.

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WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday quietly signed and bequeathed to President-elect Donald Trump a massive infrastructure bill designed to control floods, fund dams and deliver more water to farmers in California's Central Valley.

While attempting to mollify critics’ concerns over potential harm to the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, Obama signed the $12 billion bill in a distinctly low-key act. The still-controversial California provisions were wrapped inside a package stuffed with politically popular projects, ranging from Sacramento-area levees to clean-water aid for beleaguered Flint, Michigan.

“It authorizes vital water projects across the country to restore watersheds, improve waterways and flood control, and improve drinking water infrastructure,” Obama stated, adding that “help for Flint is a priority for this administration.”

Dubbed the Water Infrastructure Improvements for the Nation Act, the bill passed both House and Senate by veto-proof margins following years of maneuvering and debate. Obama’s signature was never really in doubt, though administration officials had previously resisted some of the specific California provisions.

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Fresno was the leading U.S. farm county until 2013, when the drought reduced irrigation water available to large farmers on the western side of the county. Fresno's farm sales for 2015 were $6.6 billion, down from $7 billion in 2014, and led by $1.2 billion worth of almonds from 186,000 acres and followed by $900 million for grapes from 195,000 acres. Fruit and nut crops worth $3.3 billion were half the value of Fresno farm sales.

Tulare county's farm sales dropped from $8.1 billion in 2014 to $6.9 billion in 2015, with lower milk prices for the county's 285 dairies explaining the drop.

There were many commodity stories in summer 2016. California's 900,000 acres of almonds are expected to produce a record two billion pound crop in 2016. Grower prices are expected to be about $2.50 a pound.

Table grape acreage is expanding to over 83,000 bearing acres. Workers in the San Joaquin Valley were being paid $10 to $10.50 an hour in summer 2016, plus $0.30 to $0.50 per 22-pound box, with a trio of two pickers and one packer sharing the piece rate. A trio picking 12 boxes an hour would share $3.60 to $6, or earn $11 to $13 an hour or $100 a day. Working six-day weeks for 18 weeks or 108 days, grape pickers could earn $10,800 or more a season.

Table olives have declined to 15,000 acres and 63,000 tons in 2016, in part because of the $500-a-ton cost of getting olives picked by hand. Many growers are shifting to nuts, which can be harvested mechanically.

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WASHINGTON —Numerous California raisin growers are seeking federal compensation for crops surrendered years ago as part of an old supply management system.

Three new court decisions could help them.

In two lawsuits that seek to become a large class-action, and a separate suit filed by a single Fresno County farm, growers seek government payments to offset what’s been deemed a government “taking” of their property. A federal judge this week kept all three lawsuits alive, rejecting Justice Department efforts to dismiss them.

“At this point, the government should just settle and write the checks,” said attorney James A. Moody, who represents the Fresno County based Lion Farms. “In my view, the case is over at this point.”

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By Gail Wadsworth and Elizabeth Henderson

 

The goal of fair labor standards is to achieve decent and humane working conditions for all employees. The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) is a federal law which establishes minimum wage, overtime pay eligibility, recordkeeping, and child labor standards affecting full-time and part-time workers in the private sector and in federal, state, and local governments. Agriculture in the U.S. is exempt from several of the FSLA requirements, such as overtime pay and child labor laws.

 

Many consumers are not aware of these legal exemptions but are aware of poor working conditions for workers on farms. Several organizations are working within the U.S. to improve standards on farms for laborers.

 

The Fair World Project recently examined some of the key challenges facing farmworkers and analyzed seven of the eco-social certifications that appear on our food. They found two programs with strong standards and good enforcement to help ensure workers are well treated: the Fair Food Program and the Agricultural Justice Project.

 

Only one of these recommended certifiers actively operates in California, the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP). We recently contacted AJP to get some questions answered for consumers in California who are interested in eco-social justice certification.

 

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Giving Thanks

Consumers in the United States are especially fortunate to have access to fresh food at all times of the year. In our supermarket produce aisles it’s hard to tell what season it is when fresh fruits and vegetables are available all the time. We can be thankful for this abundance and especially in California where we have a year-round growing season. But hidden in the abundance of produce on the shelves is a darker story of food chain workers who struggle to eat the foods they grow and package.

 

Food Equity along the Chain

 

Equity is an essential characteristic of a healthy food system. Access to healthy, fresh, sustainably grown food is a basic human right. Ironically, this right is often denied to workers who are directly engaged (frontline workers) along the food chain.

 

The Food Chain Workers Alliance recently updated their report “The Hands that Feed Us” from 2012 with the new report, “No Piece of the Pie.”  The report is full of sobering data. The food industry, employing 21.5 million people is the single largest employment sector in the US. And, despite steady growth of the sector, wages for workers have only risen twenty cents an hour in the last four years. As a result, food workers are increasingly turning to food assistance programs, like SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Access Program also known as Food Stamps) to help feed themselves and their families. Median wages for front line food workers are $16,000 while industry CEOs have a salary of $120,000.

  • Despite employment growth, the food chain pays the lowest hourly median wage to frontline workers compared to workers in all other industries.
  • The annual median wage for food chain workers is $16,000 and the hourly median wage is $10, well below the median wages across all industries of $36,468 and $17.53.
  • Food chain workers rely on public assistance and are more food insecure than other workers. Thirteen percent of all food workers, nearly 2.8 million workers, relied on SNAP to feed their household in 2016.
    • This was 2.2 times the rate of all other industries, a much higher rate than in 2010 when food workers had to use food stamps at 1.8 times the rate of all other industries.
    • Food insecurity in households supported by a food chain worker rose to 4.6 million during the Great Recession ("No Piece of the Pie," Executive Summary, Pages 1-2) 
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There is not enough farmworker housing. A combination of economic incentives, stricter regulation of housing quality, and worker preferences suggests there will continue be a shortage of affordable and decent housing for seasonal farmworkers.

Until the 1960s, many farmers housed seasonal workers on their farms in a bid to attract them and to have workers available when they were needed. On-farm housing was often offered at little or no cost, and workers did not incur costs to commute to work.

Unionization and tenant rights, as well as tougher regulations and enforcement, encouraged many farmers to eliminate on-farm housing, which they could do in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s and continue to attract workers because unauthorized migrants flooded into the United States. Today, most farmworkers live in farmworker cities, often crowded into single family homes, and many commute in car- and van-pools to work.

Federal and state governments operate farmworker housing centers, most of which give preference to families and offer a range of health, education and other services to workers and their children. Solo males generally live off of the farm and away from subsidized centers, especially when they work in short-season crops, such as the three-month table grape harvest in the Coachella Valley.

California needs more housing, but zoning laws that require developers to "maintain neighborhood character" and limit how many unrelated people can live together raise housing prices and slow the migration of poorer people to boom areas such as San Francisco. Many of the tech workers in San Francisco earn $150,000 to $200,000 a year, and the city's median house price in summer 2016 was $1.1 million.

By some estimates, United States GDP could be increased by 10 percent if zoning restrictions were eased so that poor people could move to richer areas and enjoy higher wages without spending their extra earnings on housing. A state law supported by Governor Jerry Brown would make it harder for cities to saddle developers with open-ended design, permit and environmental reviews. Many people in desirable places want to pull up the drawbridge, arguing that allowing more people into their cities would degrade the quality of life.

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