CIRS Blog about Rural California
Earlier this month, on behalf of the California Climate & Agriculture Network (CalCAN), I attended two unique and thought-provoking international conferences in Paris, France. The following is a report back on the two events.
The by-invitation conferences were loosely coordinated and overlapping, and both were the first of their kind. They were attended by approximately 350 people from at least 40 countries and every continent. Several CalCAN partners attended, as did Jenny Lester-Moffitt, Deputy Secretary with CDFA.
The Future of Food in a Changing World was organized by the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, a collaboration of philanthropic foundations. The first conference brought together 250 experts and leaders from the local to the global to gain deeper insights into the connections between climate change and food systems, to craft visions of the food systems we need today and tomorrow, and to chart potential pathways to get there.
The second conference was titled Sequestering Carbon in Soil: Addressing the Climate Threat and was organized by Breakthrough Strategies & Solutions, philanthropic consultants. I served as a conference planning committee member along with others from Canada, Germany, France, Ghana and California. We met for six months leading up to the conference to provide input on the conference objectives, structure, content, speakers and participants.
Agriculture has two major sectors, crops and livestock. Crops require the most hired workers, many of whom work seasonally, while livestock employs a higher share of year-round workers. Total crop labor expenditures were $23 billion in 2012, and livestock labor expenditures were $10 billion.
All data sources agree that California has about 30 percent of U.S. crop worker employment, followed by three states with 5 to 6 percent, Washington, Florida and Texas. Two more states have about 3 percent of crop worker employment, Michigan and Oregon, so that over half of crop worker employment is in six states.
The distribution of hours worked in livestock is different. Texas and California each have 10 percent of livestock hours worked, followed by Wisconsin with 6 percent and Iowa and New York with almost 4 percent each, so that one third of livestock hours worked are in the five leading states. Livestock hours are less concentrated than crop hours because there is no California among livestock states.
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.
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)
By Renata Brillinger
The Soil Carbon Challenge digs directly into the ground with the farmers, ranchers, and landowners who can manage land to improve soil health. Peter Donovan, a leader in demonstrating the connection between land management practices and increased soil carbon, founded the Soil Carbon Challenge—“an international prize competition to see how fast land managers can turn atmospheric carbon into water-holding, fertility-enhancing soil organic matter.” Peter has established an approach to scientifically showing (not just telling) the nexus of appropriate land management, soils, and carbon sequestration.
When managed correctly, soil can become a “sink” for atmospheric carbon while also providing benefits such as increased water holding capacity, decreased erosion and runoff, and improved health, productivity, and resilience due to enhanced populations and diversity of soil microorganisms.
Peter believes in showing possibility by measuring change over time, and recognizing actual results. As such, The Soil Carbon Coalition supports “a different kind of science”, believing science is “based on shared evidence, open participation, specific locations and situations, and on learning to manage wholes more than parts.”
By Beth Smoker
Earlier this month, the state’s Strategic Growth Council (SGC) awarded $37.4 million in project funding for the Sustainable Agriculture Land Conservation (SALC) Program. This landmark climate change and agriculture program, administered by the Department of Conservation and overseen by the SGC, funds agricultural conservation easements to protect agricultural land from sprawl development and local governments projects to develop strategies and policies for long-term agricultural conservation – all with the aim of reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with land use and vehicle miles traveled. Since 2015, SALC Program has invested over $42 million in farmland conservation.
In this second year of the SALC Program, the SGC approved the Department of Conservation’s recommendations to award one planning grant and 20 agriculture conservation easements, permanently preserving nearly 19,000 acres of crop and rangeland in California. Two of the agriculture conservation easements are located in disadvantaged communities where low-income residents are disproportionately impacted by pollution.
This is an excerpt of an article posted on August 17, 2016 on the California Climate and Agriculture Network website. For more information about the program check out another post on the CalCAN website.
By Ken Jacobs and Ian Perry
This article comes from the U.C. Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education website. It was posted on March 30, 2016, before Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law in April that is scheduled to raise California's minimum wage to $15 by 2022.
Forty years after the enactment of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) in California, the economic status of California’s farm laborers has deteriorated, despite the remarkably positive performance of the industry as a whole.
A 2015 study by Don Villarejo compared the hourly wage rate for field workers in California over a 54-year period (1960-2014) (A New Paradigm is Needed for Labor Relations in Agriculture: California Agriculture and Farm Labor, 1975-2014. California Institute for Rural Studies) The long view shows that since 1974 farmworkers “have made no progress whatsoever in improving their earnings relative to other production workers in the state.”
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.
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.
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.
Rose Marie Burroughs, along with her husband Ward and three of their children, organically farm in Merced County. Their products are branded under Burroughs Family Farms, and include the ABC’s of organics: almonds, beef, chickens, dairy, eggs…and olive oil, as well as artisan gouda cheese. Rosie and Ward serve as members of CalCAN’s Farmer Advisory Council.
Rosie attended a recent hearing on Central Valley climate adaptation held at UC Merced. We produced this summary of the proceedings.
How will drought, higher temperatures and extreme weather associated with climate change have an impact on our region in the coming decades? And how can we adapt to these challenges?
State Senator Bob Wieckowski (Fremont) and the Senate Environmental Quality Committee brought these questions to a legislative hearing at UC Merced on September 22nd. Farm Bureau member Rosie Burroughs attended and provided public testimony to the Committee, suggesting some ways to help growers adapt to climate change impacts.
We heard from panelists and scientists representing several state agencies and regional authorities. Significant shifts to the water cycle due to changing climate trends could have a sizable impact unless we rethink how we store and manage water, they said. More extreme heat days could have health impacts on outdoor workers and low-income communities. Central Valley agriculture may bear the brunt of the changes unless we have the tools we need to adapt.