CIRS Blog about Rural California
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.
You may have been hearing the phrase “climate smart agriculture” more lately. Governor Brown embraced the term in his 2016-17 budget proposal. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a climate smart agriculture initiative. And international climate efforts include the UN’s work on support climate smart agricultural practices.
So what is climate smart agriculture? Like the phrase “sustainable agriculture,” it is not universally defined, and it is used to mean many things to many people.
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations takes credit for first coining the term in the lead up to the 2010 Hague Conference on Food Security, Agriculture and Climate Change. The FAO defines climate smart agriculture as “a means of identifying which production systems and enabling institutions are best suited to respond to the challenges of climate change for specific locations, to maintain and enhance the capacity of agriculture to support food security in a sustainable way.”
The FAO identifies three pillars to the concept:
- Sustainably increasing agricultural productivity and incomes
- Adapting and building resilience to climate change
- Reducing and/or removing greenhouse gases emissions, where possible
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.”
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.”
WASHINGTON — The El Niño storms drenching California won’t suffice to solve the state’s drought and won’t permanently save the Central Valley’s vulnerable salmon, federal scientists are cautioning.
In an apolitical assessment that comes amid a highly political time, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration experts stress that this year’s El Niño bounty is both useful and limited. It might well be followed, moreover, by a swing back to a different kind of weather complication called La Niña.
Not all water demands are going to be met, 100 percent, by the recovery we’re seeing relative to the last four years,” NOAA research meteorologist Martin Hoerling said Wednesday in a news briefing. “There are systemic issues with water supply that go beyond precipitation in any given year.”
County agricultural commissioners released reports of the value of commodities produced the year before. Tulare County had farm sales of $8 billion in 2014, led by $2.5 billion worth of milk, followed by Kern country's $7.5 billion led by grapes worth $1.7 billion. Fresno county had farm sales of $7 billion, led by $1.3 billion worth of almonds.
California produces 20 percent of U.S. milk, but the state's milk output declined in 2015 as farmers grappled with higher feed costs attributed to drought. California surpassed Wisconsin as the leading dairy state in the early 1990s, but in recent years milk output has increased in Michigan, New York and Wisconsin, states with lower-cost land and plenty of water for pasture and feed. Milk prices have also fallen to less than $17 a hundredweight in Fall 2015, reflecting a global surge in milk production.
By Ramon Ramirez and Andrea Miller
Lawmakers convened this month for Oregon’s 2016 legislative session, and one of the most heavily anticipated issues they are addressing is Oregon’s minimum wage. It’s no secret that Oregon’s current minimum wage is not enough on which to get by: A full-time minimum wage worker earns less than $20,000 a year, which is simply not enough to afford basic needs, like housing, child care and transportation.
But what a lot of people may not realize is how our stagnated minimum wage has directly impacted Oregon’s historically underrepresented communities. More than half a million Oregonians are working in minimum wage jobs, and these individuals are disproportionately people of color. While people of color make up 42 percent of minimum wage workers, they constitute only 32 percent of the work force. In Oregon, nearly half of our Latino and African-American workers are employed in low-wage industries.
These are workers like Maria and Cristobal, farm workers who became U.S. citizens in hopes of finding a better life for their family. They’ve been working in agriculture for more than 30 years now: Fighting wildfires, planting seeds, picking berries, processing fruits and vegetables, planting and cutting Christmas trees, and preparing the many plants and trees that decorate our communities. You name it, they’ve done it. And what has been their reward? A household income of $18,000 and minimum wage pay their entire working life.
The resulting consequences of this economic policy are obvious. In Oregon, poverty and race go hand-in-hand. In Oregon’s most populous county — Multnomah — while communities of color represent 28 percent of the county’s population, they comprise 44 percent of its population living in poverty. Thirty-six percent of African-Americans in the county live in poverty, as do 35 percent of Native Americans, 35 percent of Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, and 31 percent of Latinos. As the general economic health of Oregon worsens, poverty and economic inequality disproportionately affect communities of color.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein on Wednesday relaunched a big California water bill, in what might be cast as the triumph of hope over experience.
Unveiling her third proposal in the past two years for ways to divide California’s water supply among many competing interests, Feinstein packaged her latest 184-page measure as a reasonable compromise that draws the best from past Capitol Hill efforts.
“Drafting this bill has been difficult, probably the hardest bill I’ve worked on in my 23 years in the Senate,” Feinstein said. “But it’s important, and that’s why we’ve been working so hard, holding dozens and dozens of meetings and revising the bill over and over again.”
As part of the bill’s unveiling, Feinstein disclosed words of encouragement from parties who usually are on opposite sides of the water battle, including Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove, and water agencies that serve agricultural interests, including the South Valley Water Association, the Westlands Water District and the Kern County Water Agency.
California's minimum wage rose from $9 to $10 an hour January 1, 2016.
AB 20, which would have required the state to initiate discussions with the federal government to seek a waiver that would allow the state's Employment Development Department to issue work permits to unauthorized farm workers if there are not enough U.S. workers to fill available jobs, stalled in the Legislature in 2015 and was not approved. Under AB 20, the immediate family members of workers with permits could have received permits to reside legally in California.
Kansas, Utah and Colorado tried to create similar state-facilitated guest worker programs, but the federal government did not grant required waivers, so these states wound up with state-run programs to help farm employers to apply for guest workers under the H-2A program.
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.
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.”
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.
At California Institute for Rural Studies we believe:
•Farmers and farmworkers should be able to support their families in a healthy environment and with dignity.
•There is power in independent scientific research.
•Farming is essential to civilization.
•All members of our communities have valuable knowledge.
•Collaboration for the common good is essential.
For 38 years we have acted on these values by conducting sound independent research. Below you will see what we did in 2015 and what we plan to do in 2016.
We hope it motivates you to support our work today. Your donations keep us independent!
We did a lot in 2015
We've been concerned about farmworker housing for decades and in 2015, we commissioned Dr. Don Villarejo, to write a summary on the current status of farmworker housing and health. Our work on housing in the Eastern Coachella Valley is generating results with the completion of community-wide surveys in Coachella, Mecca and Thermal. We are currently working in North Shore, on the troubled Salton Sea.
We helped other advocates understand the importance of scientific sampling methods with a presentation on our methods to housing advocates in Washington, DC.
"CIRS successfully brings the much-needed voice of disenfranchised men and women working in the food industry to the attention to those who would otherwise not hear about these stories. I appreciate Gail and Sarah's attention to including the various diverse missing narratives that make up the rural food movement. As a new filmmaker working with African American farmers, CIRS invited me to participate in screening the film trailer of my upcoming documentary. Since that initial screening two years ago at a CIRS program, the organization has continued to support my work and the work of farmers of color. Thank you and keep up this important work!”
Dr. Gail Meyers, Co-Founder, Farms to Grow
We took a look at the Agricultural Labor Relations Act on its 40th anniversary. What we found is that farm workers are actually making less money now than they did in 1974. The legacy of the ALRA is unfortunately, farm workers living in poverty.
We are proud to have CIRS as a member of the Food Chain Workers Alliance. CIRS' research in partnership with farmworkers organizations is a model for everyone everywhere - they conduct research with, not just about, farmworkers. That is so important in lifting up the challenges facing farmworkers and the solutions that they want.
Joann Lo, Co-Director, Food Chain Workers Alliance
Our new project, Cal Ag Roots, spearheaded by Ildi Carlisle- Cummins, is unearthing stories of California agricultural history to help food movement leaders craft informed change strategies. The project launched this fall, producing a series of three stories that focused on three pivotal moments in California farming: the end of the Bracero Program, the battle to enforce acreage limitations in the Central Valley, and the invention of the mechanical tomato harvester.
“Historically, the California Institute for Rural Studies took on research questions that were too politically controversial for traditional universities in the state to even consider. Today, CIRS continues this work through programs like the Cal Ag Roots project and as a location for critical studies of food and agriculture in California.”
Daniel O’Connell, PhD, Co-Director of Food Commons Fresno
Our sold-out Docks to Delta event on the Capitol Corridor Amtrak train featured live podcasts of all three stories, performed for 90 riders. Two of our stories have made an impact in traditional media as well-- the National Land for People story was recently featured in the Fresno Bee, and both Civil Eats and Davis Enterprise published the tomato harvester story.
"For young farmers and food advocates looking ahead to the future, understanding the past and the broader context in which they work is crucial. The California Institute for Rural Studies brings that, with a cultural, historical and social perspective desperately needed for a more holistic conversation about how we in California feed ourselves."
Evan Wiig, Executive Director, The Farmers Guild
2015 was the International Year of Soil! We responded by posting a series of articles on the Rural California Report on soils: why they’re important, how to care for them and what we lose when we lose them. These posts will be compiled into a folio for easy access.
In Merced County, we worked with a group of growers to help them focus on their needs. We found out that there are currently mechanisms available to them for cooperative marketing but that there are still many needs to help promote their products.
Keeping in line with our past work on farmworker food security, we completed a study of Yolo County.
Look for the results soon!
Our continued participation in the California Heat Illness Prevention Study (CHIPS) with UC Davis will help inform future workplace practices to better prevent heat stress, and protect farmworker health. We have completed focus groups with over 100 farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley since beginning the study in 2012. Through our continued research, we have gained a more complex understanding of how current regulatory policy and workplace practices inhibit or advance farmworker health. Our preliminary findings will be presented in the forthcoming winter edition of the Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems and Community Development.
"One time I got sick from overheating. I felt like I was suffocating, not really dizzy, but desperate to get out of the fields. It was in the blueberry fields. I went to find shade, drank water, and put water on my face, and I felt better after that. I put cold water on a paper towel, put it under my hat, and went back into the field. I didn't ask for any help, because I wanted to work and make money."
Farmworker woman in Stockton, from “The Story of Fruit”
Our plan for 2016
We’re in the process of looking at promising practices in farmworker housing. We will complete a review of these in 2016 and post a paper. We think it’s important to look toward improvements using examples of successes.
Our review of data on farm worker wages and the ALRA has spurred us to envision a farm worker wage initiative. Linking to the work of our colleagues at the Food Chain Workers Alliance and the Fight for 15, we will be working on increasing wages to $15 an hour for farm laborers in one region of the state. If we are successful, we will replicate our work in other agricultural regions.
In 2016, all current Cal Ag Roots stories will be available as podcasts for download through the Cal Ag Roots Story Hub, which also features short articles on the stories. We will be performing our first three-part story series in Davis, Merced, Sonoma and Santa Cruz and will be working on a second set of Cal Ag Roots stories. Look out for these dates in upcoming e-newsletters.
In Merced County, as our next step, we will be working with growers to develop educational tools for outreach to their local community members. We think Merced residents should know about these remarkable growers.
And finally, in 2016 we hope to launch our Women in Agriculture project. Through several events (including the “Celebrating Women in Agriculture” event at Full Belly Farm, pictured right) we heard from women growers that they would like a forum for discussing challenges they face that are unique to them. We plan to hold a series of regional roundtables in rural California that bring together women employers and women farmworkers. We think these groups of women will be powerful in addressing barriers to success and in developing solutions together.
need your support
"There is so much interest in food these days and much talk about sustainability in agriculture, but mostly from an environmental vantage. Sustainable agriculture is not possible without a sustainable pool of labor - one that is treated well and paid fairly. Too few of our policy makers seem to understand this but, thankfully, CIRS is working assiduously to change this.
Social justice and food security go hand in hand. Thanks to CIRS, more and more influencers are realizing this. CIRS plays an absolutely critical role in linking the massive food supply chain to those on whose backs this system rests. If you eat, you should support CIRS."
Sanjay Rawal, Director of “Food Chains” documentary film
This all costs money and while we are able to secure funding for our large projects, some of our work goes unfunded. We especially need funds to complete our Promising Practices in Farm Labor Housing work, our collaboration with Merced growers and our Women in Agriculture initiative.
How to give
Since we don’t have members, we need people like you, all across the state to work with us. We’re looking for supporters who have an interest in seeing social justice for rural residents. Each of you is an important partner for our work. We need your donations to help us expand our work and conduct research that is responsive to the needs of rural communities and rural workers.
To ensure all that we do and all that we hope to do, please donate to CIRS. Help us empower rural residents, educate all sectors of the state about rural California, and improve policies related to rural regions.
Together we can affect real change.
Thank You and Happy Holidays
From All of Us,
Gail, Michael, Ildi, Sarah & Jaime
at California Institute for Rural Studies
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.
“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.