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WASHINGTON —Organic growers in California and other farm states appear split over an industry promotion proposal that’s blossomed into a heated dispute.

Some growers want aseparate program that touts organic products in much the same way that other programs promote cotton, beef or eggs. Others want no part of generic advertising for organics funded by industry “check-off” fees.

With a Wednesday public comment deadline imminent, more than 11,000 public responses had flooded the Agriculture Department as of Friday. The volume and pace of the organic program commentaries led the “What’s Trending” section of the entire federal regulatory website, and they reflect wildly different perspectives.

On the one hand:

“The check-off model provides a tried and true vehicle for the organic sector to invest our own dollars in our collective continued growth at no cost to the taxpayer,” Steven Nichols, a certified organic egg producer in San Bernardino County, stated on April 6.

On the other:

“I have been an organic farmer in California for the past 10 years and the last thing I need is another layer of burdensome, time consuming and costly overhead to my already very busy life,” Fresno County farmer Eldon Thiesen wrote the Agriculture Department on March 23.

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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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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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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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Labor 

California's labor force in summer 2016 was 19.1 million, including 18.1 million who were employed. Los Angeles County has a labor force of five million, followed by 1.6 million each in Orange and San Diego counties, and almost one million each in Riverside and San Bernardino countries, that is, the five major southern California counties have almost 55 percent of the state's labor force.

About 16.5 million California workers are employed in nonfarm wage and salary jobs; there are 430,000 hired farm workers. Four sectors include two-thirds of the state's wage and salary workers: trade, three million, followed by professional and business services, education and health services, and government, which each employ 2.5 million.

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Washington, D.C. — San Joaquin Valley officials picture a world in which:

State Route 99 grows wider in Merced, Madera and Tulare counties. Stronger roads support the region’s heavy dairy tankers. New reservoirs get built. And, not least, some bipartisan cooperation blossoms on Capitol Hill.

Farfetched? Maybe. But this week, elected representatives and staffers from eight Valley counties are making their collective case to an often-fitful Congress. They’re following the adage, sometimes applicable in lobbying as in life, that fortune favors the bold.

“We’re bringing attention to the needs of the Valley, and making sure that all of our legislators know where we stand,” Stanislaus County Supervisor Bill O’Brien said Wednesday, adding that “we also get different audiences than we normally get with just the congressmen.”

O’Brien, for instance, was speaking in the Cannon House Office Building, where three House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee staffers were briefing the visitors. In the afternoon, the Valley officials talked about clean air rules at the Environmental Protection Agency.

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The 2015-16 water year was close to normal; the state's 154 major reservoirs held almost 22 million acre-feet of water on April 1, 2016, more than 85 percent of normal. Federal and state farm water contractors are likely to get half or more of the water that they want. Each water district contracts for a specific share of the surface water available to the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, and CVP and SWP managers provide a percentage of each district's contracted water based on availability.

The California water system accumulates water as snow in northern California mountains and moves the water south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta as the snow melts in summer. However, pumping water from the delta into the aqueduct that moves water south is often restricted to preserve juvenile fish that can be sucked into the pumps.

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By Derek Walter

The Central Valley has long been plagued with some of the dirtiest air in the nation. It usually hits those with the most vulnerable lungs the hardest, including elementary school-age kids with asthma.

While the Valley’s air is trending in the right direction, it’s still a challenge for schools to facilitate physical education and outdoor sports, especially with the pressure to fight childhood obesity by keeping kids active.

Schools are turning to a number of solutions that leverage a real-time air-quality monitoring network with creative ways to keep kids moving even when they need to head indoors. As we inch towards the summer months and the temperature rises, schools are working on their alternative physical education plans.

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California's minimum wage went to $10 an hour January 1, 2016.

California in April 2016 approved SB 3 to raise the state's $10 an hour minimum wage to $15 by 2022 for large employers, and by 2023 for employers with 25 or fewer workers. The minimum wage will rise by $1 an hour in January each year beginning in 2017, and increase with inflation from 2024. The governor can suspend minimum wage increases for a year in recessions or if there are serious budget crises.

SB 3 was enacted to head off a $15 an hour union-sponsored initiative on the November 2016 ballot that was expected to be approved by voters.

The minimum wage increase is expected to affect 5.4 million of California's 15.1 million workers, raising their wages by an average $2.20 an hour or $3,700 a year. The University of California, Berkeley's Center for Labor Research and Education estimates that almost 40 percent of those affected by the $15 minimum wage are 20 to 29, and that over half have a high school education or less. Over 55 percent of those expected to benefit from the rising minimum wage are Latino. A third of California workers affected are in retail trade and food services; less than five percent are in agriculture.

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WASHINGTON - Northern California lawmakers are turning up the heat on the Westlands Water District, with coordinated calls for congressional hearings and tougher Obama administration scrutiny.

Citing recent enforcement action by the Securities and Exchange Commission, House Democrats from outside the San Joaquin Valley on Thursday initiated what one lawmaker termed “an investigation” into the district and its proposed irrigation drainage deal with the administration.

“The Westlands Water District plays by its own rules, and trusting them with an agreement of this magnitude should give every member of Congress serious pause,” said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

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Westside farmers got dismal news April 1 when the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation announced a 5 percent water allocation for 2016.

Farmers say the paltry allocation will mean thousands of acres in one of the nation’s most productive farming regions will continue to be fallowed.

“This is going to hurt,” said Sal Parra, a westside grower who farms various crops. “We have already fallowed about 5,000 acres and cut back our workers’ hours. It’s like we can’t get ahead.”

The San Joaquin Valley, especially the westside, has been hit especially hard by a four-year drought. In the sprawling Westlands Water District, officials say at least 200,000 acres will not be farmed because of a lack of water.

Over the last two years, farmers in Westlands have received a zero water allocation from the Central Valley Project – the system that supplies water to farmers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

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WASHINGTON —The White House on Tuesday unveiled several billion dollars’ worth of corporate commitments to water research and development during a high-level summit.

Pegged to World Water Day, the summit was intended to draw attention to specific state and corporate pledges as well as new Obama administration initiatives prompted in part by Western states’ drought and the Flint, Michigan, drinking water scandal.

The corporate promises include a commitment by GE to invest $500 million over the next decade on water and reuse technologies, and a pledge by San Francisco-based Ultra Capital to invest $1.5 billion in decentralized “water management solutions.”

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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.

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Washington -- The now-distant December of 1988 was a big month for California water lawsuits that would last a generation and eventually land in Congress’ lap, where their ripples linger to this day.

Each of the two major lawsuits, introduced within weeks of each other 27 years ago, offers enduring lessons – in law, in politics and in the long, long time it takes to get things done in Washington.

“Nothing is easy around here,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Jan. 13. “Not even a motherhood resolution is easy.”

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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.

 

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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.

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“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.

NLP ReunionSMALLER

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.

Ildi Carlisle-Cummins is the Director of Cal Ag Roots, a project of California Institute for Rural Studies. This article was originally published on the Fresno Bee website on Nov. 30 as an op-ed.

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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.

 

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Commodities

Almonds are irrigated with 3.5 acre feet or 42 inches of water, and the typical 124 almond trees per acre yield an average 2,270 pounds of nuts. One cubic foot of water is 7.5 gallons, and one acre is 43,560 square feet, so 502 gallons of water are used to produce a pound of almonds: (7.48 x 3.5 x 43,560 )/2,270 = 502. With about 380 almonds per pound, each almond requires about 1.3 gallons of water.

California's acreage of long-staple Pima cotton declined as more farmers switched to almonds. California had over 300,000 acres of Pima cotton in 2011, and fewer than 100,000 acres in 2015. Despite cotton yields of over 1,200 pounds per acre, nuts and processing tomatoes require less water per dollar of revenue.

Over 70 percent of California grapes and almonds are irrigated with drip or a similar low-water technology. However, less than 10 percent of the alfalfa and corn used to feed dairy cows uses water-saving technologies; flood irrigation is typical.

A Fresno State study (www.fresnostate.edu/academics/drought/) focused on the effects of the drought in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley, emphasizing that areas most dependent on surface water suffered most. The report called for water budgeting, that is, recognizing the true value of water and pricing it accordingly.

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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.”

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