CIRS Blog about Rural California

BY SEAN COCKERHAM AND MICHAEL DOYLE

WASHINGTON — California Republicans representing some of the nation’s most Obamacare-dependent areas in America took a giant political risk on Thursday by voting to repeal the landmark health care law, as they believed their political danger was eased as they got something to brag about back home.

They said they were convinced for much the same reason as so many other undecided Republicans who helped give GOP leaders the health care win they had so desperately sought: The addition of $8 billion to the bill to help with insurance costs for people with pre-existing conditions.

The congressmen dismissed estimates that the money isn’t nearly enough: an analysis by the liberal Center for American Progress said it would subsidize care for only 76,000 people out of millions.

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By Derek Walter

On a recent Tuesday morning, a bustling health care clinic is filled with the sounds you’d expect to hear from children who need to see the doctor. Coughing, sneezing and sighs from an upset stomach fill the air.

But this isn’t a doctor’s office or emergency room. Instead it’s at Gaston Middle School in Fresno. While the enhanced services are a welcome addition for students, faculty and staff members who are trying to keep everyone well, there’s another purpose that it serves — helping kids stay in school or make a more rapid return.

The clinic, which is run by health provider company Clinica Sierra Vista, isn’t just a larger school nurse’s office. It’s a full-blown clinic, which features primary-care services, pediatric care and immunizations. The school district said during a board meeting last year that the free clinics would be paid for by health providers and federal subsidies.

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California, which had one of its wettest years ever in 2016-17, declared a drought emergency in January 2014 and ended it in April 2017. Over 30 inches of rain fell in parts of the Central Valley that normally receive less than 20 inches, and some Sierra mountain areas received over 60 feet of snow.

Instead of worrying about whether there would be enough water for summer irrigation, many water managers worried about having enough room in dams and reservoirs to prevent flooding. The water content of the Sierra snowpack, which normally peaks in April, was over 160 percent of average in April 2017, compared to five percent of average in April 2015. In 1983, the April Sierra snowpack had a water content that was over 200 percent of average.

California normally uses about 33 million acre feet of water, including 26 million acre feet for farming and nine million acre feet for consumers and industry. Among urban residents, half of water is used for lawns and landscaping.

In normal rain years, about 38 percent of the water used for agricultural irrigation is groundwater. During drought years, less surface water is conveyed via dams and canals, and groundwater is 60 percent of agricultural irrigation water. Land often subsides as water is pumped from underground, falling 50 feet or more in many areas of the San Joaquin Valley during the 2012-16 drought.

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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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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.

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By Linda Childers

Seeing one of her sons struggle to breathe is an all too familiar sight for Natalie Sua of Fresno. Three of her six children have been diagnosed with asthma, a chronic disease in which the airways swell and produce extra mucus.

In the past, when one of the three, who are all boys, had a severe asthma attack, Sua would rush him to the emergency room. But, now, thanks to Fresno’s Asthma Impact Model, she has learned how to reduce asthma triggers in her home and largely keep her sons’ asthma under control.

“We used to visit the ER three to four times a year, or more, when one of the children had a bad asthma attack,” Sua said. “In the past year, we’ve only had to go once or twice.

Launched in 2013, the Asthma Impact Model, focuses on helping low-income families in the Central Valley better manage their children’s asthma, thus avoiding ER visits. The program was designed by the Central California Asthma Collaborative and Clinica Sierra Vista, a Fresno health clinic.

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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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