CIRS Blog about Rural California
California endured its fourth year of drought in 2015, but farm sales appear headed for another record. Water was shifted from low-value crops such as alfalfa to higher-value nuts, and prices for many farm commodities were strong.
California agriculture "normally" uses about 33 million acre feet of water. In 2015, agriculture used 30 million acre feet. Two-thirds of the nine million fewer acre feet of surface water available in 2015 was replaced with groundwater pumped from underground aquifers. Groundwater is normally 40 percent of the water used by agriculture, and 60 percent in dry years.
The water in underground aquifers accumulated over centuries, and cannot be replaced quickly. California in 2014 became the last western state to regulate groundwater pumping, enacting laws that created local groundwater sustainability agencies to register private wells, monitor the water-measuring devices that must be attached to pumps, and regulate groundwater pumping. The agencies are financed by fees charged to farmers and other water users.
Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation Center
Soil health management is key to solving the climate change problems attributable to farming systems. One way to improve soil health is through adopting sustainable conservation systems that include conservation tillage (CT), cover cropping and other practices. CT describes a variety of cropping methods that involve leaving the previous year’s crop residue on top of the soil and planting the next crop right into it. To increase organic matter both above and below the soil surface, cover crops of a single or multiple plant species can also be grown between major crop rotations. Since crop residues are left on the soil surface and not tilled under, CT reduces the number of tractor passes needed, thereby cutting labor and fuel costs. Minimizing mechanical disturbance to the soil reduces erosion and runoff, increases water infiltration rate and retention, and increases carbon sequestration—all important strategies in climate change mitigation. Precision irrigation is another conservation practice that seeks to increase the efficiency of irrigation systems, by reducing pumping time and energy use.
Starting in 1998, Dr. Jeff Mitchell of UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR) and a group of farmers, researchers, and agriculture professionals have been collaborating in California’s San Joaquin Valley to optimize the techniques and benefits of CT. Together, they formed the Conservation Agriculture Systems Innovation (CASI) Center with the goal of increasing the adoption of conservation farming systems to over 50 percent of California’s cropping acreage by 2028. CASI conducts research, demonstrations, and outreach to growers, agencies, and environmental and consumer groups.
CASI’s mission is twofold: improve the livelihoods of California farmers while conserving and improving natural resources. Working directly with growers and public agency representatives allows CASI researchers to develop projects that reflect an understanding of whole-farm systems and the importance of combining conservation practices to optimize climate benefits.
Kingsburg cherry farmer Allen Jackson laments last season’s paltry harvest. Dry and warmer than normal temperatures contributed to fewer cherries and less revenue.
“There were some areas where there wasn’t enough fruit on the tree to even try picking it,” said Jackson, who grows 11 varieties of cherries. “But things are looking much better now.”
Jackson and other tree fruit farmers are welcoming the return of cooler daytime temperatures and foggy weather – staples of San Joaquin Valley winters and two factors needed for good fruit development.
Farmers are no strangers to struggle or drought. But this four-year drought is different than others, they say. It’s more widespread, touching nearly everyone who turns on the tap or starts an irrigation pump.
This past summer, wells dried up and farmland sat idle. The drought also came to mean that life on the farm has likely changed forever.
“In the early years when we went through a drought, we tended to say that this too shall pass,” said Richard Waycott, president of the Almond Board of California in Modesto. “But there is a different consciousness now. People are looking at the future very differently.”
Farmers talk of a new reality – one in which droughts are more of the rule than the exception, and water availability, both above and below ground, becomes less certain.
Council Votes to Expand Funding, New Program Guidelines
This week, the state of California greatly expanded funding for the country’s first climate change and farmland conservation program. The Sustainable Agricultural Lands Conservation Program (SALCP) funds conservation easements on agricultural lands to permanently protect them and reduce sprawl development. The program also funds efforts by local governments to improve their land use planning and policy development to support long-term conservation of agricultural lands in their region.
The Strategic Growth Council (Council), made up of members of Governor Jerry Brown’s cabinet and appointed public members, voted to increase SALCP funding to $40 million, up from $5 million last year. The SALCP funding of $40 million represents nearly half of what the state has invested in farmland conservation in the past 18 years through its California Farmland Conservancy Program.
This significant new funding for farmland conservation in the state should help address the on-going significant loss of agricultural land in California, which averages 50,000 acres annually.
SALCP brings together farmland conservation with climate change by focusing on reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with the conversion of agricultural lands to urban, suburban and rural ranchette development. The program was created following research at UC Davis by Louise Jackson, Stephen Wheeler and others that found that an acre of urban land in Yolo County emitted 70 times more greenhouse gas emissions compared to an acre of irrigated cropland. The climate benefits of farmland, including its ability to capture and store atmospheric carbon, are lost when the land is converted to urban or other non-agricultural uses.
WASHINGTON -- Angry California Republicans threw in the towel late Thursday, conceding that a California water bill that had divided the state was dead for the year.
In a remarkably acrimonious ending to negotiations that once seemed close to bearing fruit, GOP House members acknowledged the bill’s failure while putting the blame squarely on California’s two Democratic senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
“It’s dead, unfortunately,” Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, said in an interview Thursday afternoon, adding in a later statement that “our good faith negotiations came to naught.”
The utter collapse of negotiations means a California water package that in its latest manifestation spanned 92 pages will not be slipped into a much larger, much-pass omnibus federal spending package needed to keep the federal government open. If legislative efforts are revived, they will come in the new year.
Don Villarejo, a leading farm labor researcher, highlighted 40 years of continuity and change in California agriculture and farm labor. The continuities include low incomes and poverty for many seasonal workers, while the changes include fewer and larger growers, more intermediaries who bring workers to farms, and fewer union contracts.
There have been important regulatory changes aimed at protecting farm workers, from the federal MSPA (1974) to the state ALRA (1975), but they have not prevented declining earnings. In 1974, California farm employers reported an average $2.60 per hour, which BLS says is $12.49 in 2014 (http://data.bls.gov/cgi-bin/cpicalc.pl), when reported earnings were $11.33. California farm worker earnings were 52 percent of manufacturing worker earnings in both 1974 and 2014 despite a raft of federal and state laws that aimed to protect and empower farm workers.
The shift to hiring workers via farm labor contractors (FLCs) and other intermediaries is also associated with fewer benefits, from housing to health insurance. There were 9,300 farm labor contractors registered with DOL in May 2015, including 4,100 or 43 percent in California.
“That land is so rich you could eat it with a spoon!” exclaimed Tom Willey, a pioneering organic farmer in Madera, referring to the swath of land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley that makes up the Westlands Water District. Willey would know. He has farmed for a stint in Westlands and has farmed in the Valley for decades.
He went on: “They used to say that any idiot could be a good farmer out there because the soil was just so fertile. It was true, absolutely true. And there’s no question that, under a different set of circumstances, 160-acre farms could have been successful out there.”
That figure, 160 acres, is significant. Until 1982, there was a law on the books – the 1902 Reclamation Act – that limited the size of farms allowed to use government-subsidized irrigation water across the western U.S. to just 160 acres. That’s much, much smaller than the kind of massive-scale agricultural development that characterizes California farming in general and the Valley in particular.
What may sound to modern readers like a quaint rule was actually meant to be an important safeguard against consolidation of land, power and wealth in the developing West.
Most people understand that California agriculture is big, but unless you have spent time in the Valley it’s hard to imagine how vast the industry really is. Farms stretch for uninterrupted miles, sprawling across tens of thousands of acres.
The Westlands Water District spans 600,000 acres (the size of Rhode Island) with fewer than 600 landowners. And farmland values are sky-high in California – the USDA’s 2015 Land Values Summary lists California’s average cropland price at $10,690 per acre.
This makes it nearly impossible for aspiring farmers, whether they’re young folks or former farmworkers, to become farm owners. Had the 160-acre rule been enforced, the situation would be much different; California agriculture, at least in places using subsidized irrigation water, would have been dominated by family-scale farms.
So what happened?
In the late 1970s, a group of Fresno-based activists trained a laser focus on this rule and on enforcement of Reclamation Law to promote small farm development, stirring up a surprising – if forgotten – amount of dust.
National Land for People was founded in 1964 by a journalist, photographer and energetic, populist visionary from Wisconsin named George Ballis. NLP’s goal was straightforward: They wanted small farmers and farmworkers to own the 160-acre parcels that the Reclamation Act promised. They drew their motto – La tierra pertenece al que la trabaja/Land belongs to those who work it – from Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
Ballis teamed with a group of people who were committed to bringing attention to the fact that water law was not being enforced in California – and that a small collection of large landowners were getting rich off of government water subsidy.
There was Berge Bulbulian, Armenian raisin-grape grower and self-described “farmer front-man” with a sharp wit and socialist politics; Marc Lasher, a social worker from New York who wanted to work for justice in the “belly of the monster”; Mary Louise Frampton, a young civil rights lawyer with a novel (and successful) approach to suing for enforcement of the law; Eddie Nolan, organizer of African American farmers in the Valley, and Jessie De La Cruz, one of the first female organizers for the United Farm Workers who would go on to put together an important farming cooperative in the Valley. And there was Maia Ballis, George’s “collaborator in life,” joyful co-conspirator and talented graphic artist.
A July 2015 reunion of NLP members. L to R: Mark Lasher, Berge Bulbulian, Maia Ballas, Mary Louise Frampton. Photo Ildi Carlisle-Cummins
Fired up about what they saw as a wave of “water crimes” being committed in the Valley, the small, volunteer NLP team pieced together detailed records of “questionable land deals” in the Westlands Water District.
From a house-turned-organizing-office in Fresno, the group created maps, graphics and a fiery newsletter sharing their findings with thousands of supporters. George Ballis pulled no punches. In the newsletter, he called corporate farming businesses “the biggies.” He further propagandized NLP’s work with a graphic of an oversized dollar bill that read “Westlands Water District” on the top and “2 Billion Dollar Boondoggle” on the bottom, with the line “Paid for by U.S. Taxpayers” running up the side.
Despite their straight-no-chaser rhetoric, NLP made friends in high places, earning the respect of congressmen like George Miller and officials in the Department of the Interior, who oversaw Reclamation Act projects.
In addition to speaking truth to power in the Valley, the group also made many trips to Washington, D.C. NLP members squeezed into a tiny van to drive across the country to testify at congressional hearings, staying at the YMCA on their no-salary budget. Despite Bulbulian’s urging that NLP buy Ballis a three-piece suit to wear for these occasions, he insisted on sporting a long beard and “hippie” clothes to the hearing. Ballis didn’t soften his argument when he was before Congress, either, exclaiming things like, “This isn’t a hearing, it’s a pep rally!”
However, building key political allies was not enough to force the government to stop the existing illegal actions in the Westlands. Scraping together a little money, the NLP hired Mary Louise Frampton in 1974 to sue the Department of Interior for not enforcing the Reclamation Act. Fresh out of law school and 24 years old, Frampton devised a unique strategy for the suit. Against all odds she won a court order halting land deals across the West. The NLP won appeal after appeal – all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1979.
The Valley buzzed with controversy. NLP members were labeled “communists.” Even as Valley newspapers wrote of “the biggies” preparing for battle, Maia Ballis reported that, “It looked like we had won!”
When the Department of the Interior held hearings on the proposed rules and regulations that they would then use to enforce the law, members of the NLP received death threats. Frampton remembers an FBI agent standing guard outside her motel room in El Centro as protection while she prepared to testify.
Growers went to outrageous lengths to silence the NLP. According to Frampton, they flew helicopters over the outdoor hearings to drown out testimony and pulled in huge farm equipment to kick up clouds of dust over the grandstands.
And then, in 1980, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan strode into the White House, bringing with him a whole new administration – and Department of the Interior leadership. Some activists speculate that promises to overhaul the Reclamation Act helped him get elected.
Whether or not it was a campaign promise, Reagan’s administration worked with Congress to pass the Reclamation Reform Act. Defenders of the new law claimed Reagan’s changes “modernized” the act, updating it to reflect the costs of farming in the 1980s. From the NLP point of view, the law was gutted, with the acreage limitation raised to 960 and the residency requirement eliminated.
Bulbulian read this as a classic capitalist maneuver. “You gamble on breaking the law to make as much profit as possible and then when the law is being enforced you use the profits you made to sway political interests to change the law so your crimes are legal.”
In 1982, NLP admitted defeat on the water issue. Ballis wrote in an NLP newsletter, “We lost not just because of biggie bucks. We lost because what we advocated is against the warp of our time.”
But, he insisted, their work was not over: “The struggle to create a democratic, responsible and sustainable food system goes on. … Now we turn our full attention to creating new cultural, social, economic realities on a small scale.”
In what could be seen as a tactical shift, or possibly as retreat, the Ballises and Lasher uprooted NLP from the Valley, planting it again on 40 acres they called Sun Mountain, east of Fresno at the base of the Sierra Nevada. Here National Land for People morphed into the People Food and Land Foundation, and George poured his boundless energy into building a passive solar house, creating perennial gardens and demonstrating what sustainable living could look like – outside of the reach of “the biggies.”
NLP didn’t win its battle. California farming continued to consolidate, and corporate land holdings ballooned. It’s easy to superimpose 2015 cynicism onto this National Land for People story and wonder whether their Reclamation Act enforcement fervor was foolish.
What is striking about Bulbulian, Maia and George Ballis, Lasher, Frampton and all the other NLP crusaders is the tremendous optimism and idealism that they brought to their work. NLP’s heyday was 30 years ago, not 100, and yet they held an entirely different vision for the Valley – one that would have broken down massive landholdings held by white landowners and transferred them to small farmers and farmworkers of color. They looked at the stark, mostly unpopulated land of Westlands and imagined a string of thriving communities and a base for democracy in the Valley. Their optimism, it seems, was the ultimate political act.
Today, with water on everyone’s mind, Californians have a rare opportunity to rethink how we want to use this precious, and highly subsidized, resource. Is it to deliver profit into the hands of a few? Or is there another possibility?
Tom Willey wistfully reflected, “I once wished to hell I’da had 160 acres out there, really.” For many activists in the California food movement, it’s hard not to agree.
WASHINGTON -- Winemakers from northwestern Idaho to the foothills of California’s Fresno County produce distinct vintages but share a common dream of seeing benefits flow from federal recognition.
In what’s become a rite of passage, the different groups of winemakers have sought designation of their respective regions as viticultural areas. It can be a years-long ordeal that proponents hope will result in marketing fizz.
“This area has a lot of viticultural history,” Karl Umiker, co-owner of the Lewiston, Idaho-based Clearwater Canyon Cellars, said in an interview Nov. 12, “and this will be a way we can draw people’s attention to it.”
If approved, the proposed 306,650-acre Lewis-Clark Valley Viticultural Area at the confluence of the Snake and Clearwater rivers would be Idaho’s second federally recognized winemaking region. An existing Snake River Valley area, straddling southwestern Idaho and parts of Oregon, was established in 2007.
The 2015 legislative year in California started off with a bang, climate policy-wise.
Speaking before the assembled members of the Legislature at his January inaugural address, Governor Jerry Brown outlined several bold objectives for the year 2030, including goals to produce 50 percent of our electricity from renewable sources, reduce petroleum use by 50 percent, and double the energy efficiency of existing buildings.
Perhaps most radical was the Governor’s declaration that “we must manage farm and rangelands, forests and wetlands so they can store carbon.” By this he meant agricultural practices—including many in the organic toolkit—that can draw down and hold atmospheric carbon in soils, perennial crops and conservation plantings.
Furthermore, in his budget proposal, Governor Brown included a new program called the Healthy Soils Initiative that “ensures that our agricultural soils have adequate soil organic matter (SOM). Increasing the amount of SOM from its current levels in soils can provide multiple benefits.” Existing and transitioning organic producers should be among those to benefit from this initiative since soil organic matter is a cornerstone of good organic practices.
The drought was the major farming story during summer 2015.
An estimated 542,000 acres were fallowed in 2015, up from 490,00 acres in 2014, as farmers used about 10 percent less water than in non-drought years. In 2010, agriculture consumed 33 million acre feet of irrigation water, while urban uses, including landscaping, consumed 8.3 million acre feet. One acre foot is 326,000 gallons.
In 2015, agriculture was expected to use about 30 million acre feet of water. The rain deficit between 2012 and 2015 is equivalent to one year's rain, which averages 20 inches across the state.
Senior holders of water rights were required to report how much water they were withdrawing from rivers and streams, and faced fines for taking excess water set at $1,000 a day and $2,500 an acre foot.
Forecasters are predicting record rainfall in California in 2015, as conditions for a wet El Nino rainy season in 2015-16 are apparent in the Pacific Ocean. Most of California's rain is from atmospheric rivers that bring water from the Pacific Ocean inland.
In recent years, fewer winter air currents reduced these so-called Pineapple Expresses, which are like hurricanes without wind. The last major El Nino was in 1997-98.
WASHINGTON —Ever hopeful lawmakers on Thursday conjured the vision of a compromise California water bill that succeeds instead of fails.
It may be a mirage.
But in a long-awaited hearing, the chairwoman of a key Senate committee zeroed in on some specific, concrete details that could be the basis for real-world legislation. Water storage, recycling and desalination projects could be the foundation for a deal, some believe.
“We’ve got some things we can be building on,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. “Clearly, we’ve got some real differences. The way we’re going to work this out is to work together.”
In California’s Central Valley, farmers have been coping with diminishing water supplies, rising water costs, and other impacts of the ongoing drought. At CalCAN’s Climate and Agriculture Summit in March, Tom Willey of T&D Willey Farms discussed the impacts of drought and how he has responded to water shortages on his farm in Madera County.
Since 1981, Tom has grown an array of organic vegetables on his 75-acre farm with his wife Denesse. Specialty markets, restaurants, and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) members enjoy Tom’s produce. Until recently, Tom served as Slow Food USA’s governor for the Central Valley, and he also advocates for sustainable agriculture through his writing, speaking, event organizing, and his monthly radio program, “Down on the Farm.”
SL: You spoke at our Summit in March about challenges regarding the drought and water issues. Now that we’re in the heat of summer, what’s the status on your farm and the region generally?
TW: We lost a shallow well on the farm in the past month or so, and we had to come up with an alternative supply. Shallow wells are going dry all over the county. It’s impossible to drill a new one or deepen an older one unless you’re already on a waiting list for a driller—most are booked for up to a year or two. On our farm, we plumbed into our deeper (500 ft) irrigation well. This well is designed to pump 1,000 gallons per minute, but at the moment, performance is closer to 650 gallons per minute. What I can say is that another dry winter would definitely spell disaster.
WASHINGTON - A top Interior Department official Tuesday will sign a San Joaquin Valley irrigation settlement with the Westlands Water District, signaling the end of a long-running legal battle, but marking the start of a hot new political fight.
After years of wrangling, negotiators agreed to a deal that absolves the federal government of the responsibility to provide irrigation drainage to farms in thte Westlands district. The government’s failure to provide the drainage as part of building the Central Valley Project led to tainted soil and serious environmental problems.
In return, according to lawmakers briefed on the deal Friday, the 600,000-acre Westlands district will retire at least 100,000 acres of farmland. The nation’s largest water district will also receive a potentially an advantageous new type of contract and have its own remaining debt to the government forgiven, among other changes.
By Don Villarejo and Gal Wadsworth
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the groundbreaking Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA). At the time that it was enacted, it was a progressive way to provide, for the first time, legal protections for farmworkers who engage in direct action to improve their wages. It is arguably the best pro-labor law in the nation.
Despite this, California’s farmworkers remain the state’s poorest-paid production workers. Current annual average wage rates paid to California’s direct-hire farm laborers are lower, when adjusted for four decades of inflation, than they were in 1974, before the law was passed. Seasonally employed crop worker wage rates are even lower. And fewer farmworkers today are covered by labor-management agreements than in 1974.
Our main thesis in this article is that the economic status of California’s farm laborers has deteriorated, despite the Agricultural Labor Relations Act and the remarkably positive performance of the industry as a whole.
The prospect that ALRA’s paradigm of labor versus capital would ultimately benefit most workers has largely been a failure. Labor unions and employers now battle in the courts and state legislature to gain advantage against one another, while many workers’ meager economic gains come from increases in the state’s minimum wage.
Why have wages decreased?
Implementation of the ALRA led to prolonged struggles in the legislature, the courts, and in the agency itself. During its initial 6-month period, hundreds of union representation elections were conducted and numerous labor-management agreements signed.
Annual average wage rates for farmworkers rose dramatically.
But the industry fought back. A newly elected Republican governor (Ronald Reagan) appointed a pro-employer ALRB General Counsel in 1983, and the agency’s budget was slashed. By 1986, pro-labor members of the ALRB were a minority. Labor-management agreements expired, pro-union farmworkers were fired or blacklisted without recourse, and the General Counsel publicly campaigned against union activities.
Wage rates (measured in constant 2014 dollars), including earnings and paid employment benefits, have actually declined for direct-hire field & livestock workers since that initial rapid increase.
In 1974, farmers and ranchers reported to the USDA Farm Labor Survey (USDA FLSUSDA) the annual average wage rate for California’s direct-hire field & livestock labor (production workers) was $2.60 per hour ($13.50 per hour in inflation-adjusted 2014 dollars). But in 2014, California’s farmers and ranchers reported the annual average wage rate for direct-hire field and livestock workers was $11.33 per hour, or $2.19 per hour below what was needed to keep up with inflation.
Employers say they cannot afford to pay higher wages. But impressive economic performance of California agriculture is exemplified by the increase of farm cash receipts from the sale of agricultural commodities during this same period. In 1974, sales were about $7 billion (or the equivalent of $34 billion in 2012 dollars), while the corresponding figure in 2012 was $43 billion [Martin. 2015].
Thus, California farm operators realized real sales growth of 26%.
At the same time and just as remarkable, California farm production became ever more concentrated. By 2012, California’s largest farms had a 63% share of all farm sales in the state. In all of the other states combined, farms of that size had less than a 28% share of all farm sales. California’s 64,200+ small farms accounting for 82% of all farms in the state had a combined total of just 5% of farm sales.
Size concentration is important in today’s context because many of the largest produce farms are vertically integrated – described as grower-packer-shippers – and more likely to negotiate year-round supply contracts directly with supermarket chains, fast-food venders, fresh-cut processors, and other large-volume purchasers. While benefitting from economies of scale, these arrangements may result in large grower-packer-shipper operations becoming more vulnerable to the concerns of retail customers, especially regarding food safety. During the late 1970/s protracted labor dispute and boycott of Red Coach brand lettuce, the UFW relied on this vulnerability to focus boycott activities.
The United Farm Workers of America, led by Cesar Chavez, responded to the anti-union administration of the ALRA in the 1980s by pouring substantial resources and effort into a struggle to beat back pro-employer actions. In fact, the UFW stopped organizing in the fields to focus on defending the ALRA. It’s clear from the data on income presented above that the law has not worked.
It is well-known that farmers and ranchers do not command the major share of consumer food expenditures. In other parts of the nation alternative forms of concerted action by farm workers have led to improvements in their earnings. Most significantly, these successful efforts have involved mobilizing consumers to leverage food processors, supermarkets and fast food outlets to assume a significant share of the responsibility for improving farmworker wages. Since most of consumers’ food dollars go to processors and vendors, not to farmers, it is increasingly apparent they must share responsibility for the wages of those who produce food products.
Farm worker organizations pioneered the mobilization of consumers to pressure food system vendors, whether processors, supermarkets or fast food chains, to underwrite increases in farm labor earnings. This approach has relied on boycotts outside the framework of traditional labor-management relations.
The first notable instances of this alternative form of concerted action were developed in the 1970s by the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), initially among processing tomato workers in the Midwest. The national boycott of Campbell Soup Co. sought to bring the company to the table to underwrite a significant share of improved farm worker wages. Some years later, FLOC used the same tactic to force Vlasic Pickle Company to underwrite improved earnings for cucumber workers in North Carolina.
In Florida, since the mid-1990s the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) has mobilized nationwide consumer pressure on large corporations like Wal-Mart to directly supplement tomato harvester earnings by an additional penny per pound. Wages increased up to 17%, depending on picker productivity. And all Florida tomato workers benefited, not just CIW members.
This past summer, Stop & Shop supermarkets, along with the other stores owned by Ahold, agreed to participate in the CIW program. Stop & Shop is the first of the major “pure” supermarket chains to sign up with CIW.
The CIW agreement with Wal-Mart contemplates expanding coverage in the future to other produce items, not just tomatoes. While the primary focus of this form of concerted action is to raise farm worker earnings, other changes in workplace conditions have also been developed under CIW agreements, including formal grievance procedures, workplace safety education, and training about sexual harassment in the workplace----all on paid company time.
More recently, consumer petitions to U.S. food vendors, stimulated by a dramatic Los Angeles Times exposé, directly led to increased wages for 30,000 Mexican farmworkers in Baja California’s produce export industry. Their main leader was Fidel Sanchez, a veteran of CIW organizing, and they mounted the same tactic as CIW, i.e., seeking to directly persuade major supermarkets to underwrite their demands. At least one grower-packer-shipper with operations in the affected region commented privately that a vendor contacted the firm directly wanting answers to the workers’ complaints.
Based on our review of current conditions, it is clear that a new paradigm is needed for labor relations in California agriculture. Food marketers, processors, farmers and ranchers, farm workers and farm labor organizations should be brought to the table to inform policy makers on developing mechanisms whereby all parties assume joint responsibility for improving the economic status of farm labor.
Representatives of farm labor, farmers, food processors, and food vendors need to be brought together in a new paradigm in order to organize and empower farm workers. Farmers and farm worker organizations need to recognize this opportunity and their common interests. Farmers and ranchers need workers. Workers and farmers have a common interest in coping with the current drought, in the immigrant rights crisis driving the farm labor shortage, and in the quality of rural housing and healthcare.
Unlike direct worker-grower discourse about wages and working conditions, the effective mobilization of consumers has become effective because some vendors realize they are the principal point of contact for consumers’ relationship to the modern food system. If consumers can be persuaded that improvements in farm labor wages and working conditions are a necessary component of food purchase choices, then underwriting those improvements may become a wise business choice.
Progress to improve the economic status of farm labor families requires cooperation among all the major players in the food system: farmers and ranchers, food processing companies, supermarkets, fast food vendors, and farm labor organizations.
It appears that farm labor organizations are currently the weakest link among the major players in the food chain. With fewer than 10,000 California farmworkers represented by collective bargaining agreements, and employers choosing to fight for every possible advantage in the courts and the state legislature, there is an obvious imbalance between labor and the corporations that now dominate the food system. Only when farmworkers are organized and empowered will cooperation of all participants in the food system become meaningful. There is an urgent need to examine alternatives to the ALRB. We propose that change will come only through cooperation of stakeholders across the food chain. And pressure needs to be exerted by consumers who care about the workers who grow and harvest their food.
Consumers can be instrumental in improving the lives of farmworkers.
You can start by telling your grocer to contribute a fair share of wages paid to those who put food on your table.
 See “Average Wage Rates for Field and Livestock Workers Combined, States and Regions, 1974-1980,” published by the United States Department of Agriculture (ERS-NASS) as electronic file flbulwg1.xls and distributed, on demand, via a 3.5” floppy diskette. The file was originally published in Lotus 1-2-3 format and converted to Excel format by the author. As noted in that document, “Estimates by State and Region, for the various methods of pay and types of workers begin with 1974.” Adjustment for inflation to 2014 dollars was accomplished by reference to the California Consumer Price Index published by the California Department of Industrial Relations. Cf. https://www.dir.ca.gov/OPRL/CAPriceIndex.htm
 See USDA, Farm Labor, November 20, 2014, “Annual Average Wage Rates – Regions and United State: 2013-2014,” p. 24.
Amidst California’s ongoing drought, farms and ranches have taken a variety of steps to adjust their practices to cope with less water and sustained heat.
A new report commissioned by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) finds that, as a result of these coping mechanisms, the agriculture sector consumes noticeably more electricity in drought years than in normal years. What’s more, the increase in electricity usage varies significantly by agricultural sub-sector.
A detailed look at this data reveals some of the opportunities to achieve even greater water and energy efficiencies so that agricultural producers can survive future droughts without suffering astronomical energy costs on top of all the other stresses a drought can bring.
The first in our Cal Ag Roots series of articles on pivotal moments in California Agricultural history. Photos by: Richard Steven Street
When you think of California cuisine, do you imagine baby lettuces doused in olive oil, and carefully arranged on white plates?
If you’ve ever driven down the Highway 99 corridor, which cuts through California’s Central Valley, you might have a different sense of the state’s contributions to global food culture. Driving 99 any hour of the day or night, from July through September, you’ll likely have to swerve around trucks mounded impossibly high with tomatoes. You’ll pass acres and acres of dense, low tomato plants being harvested by machines that spit them out into trailers bound for a string of processing facilities that dot the valley.
This year promises to be a record for processing tomatoes, with a projected 14.3 million tons harvested. California’s Central Valley will, yet again, play a critical role in ensuring that one of America’s favorite condiments—ketchup—remains in plentiful supply. On the surface, this cheap condiment might not seem to have anything to do with California cuisine. But, as it turns out, there’s an incredible tale that ties the two together in surprising ways.
Field crop acreages are declining across the state, as water shortages and uncertainties continue to challenge California growers. Water scarcity has forced farmers to fallow land and sacrifice thirsty annual crops for more drought-tolerant perennials.
According to a recent USDA National Agriculture Statistics Survey (NASS) report, acreages are shrinking for several major field crops. Corn, sunflower, rice and cotton are among the victims of this historic drought. California growers planted 430,000 acres of corn this year, 17 percent less than the 520,000 acres planted in 2014. Sunflower acreage has dropped by 20 percent, with 35,000 acres planted this year, compared to 44,000 acres in 2014.