Farming through the Drought: From Pescadero to the Central Valley

A few days ago, my co-worker opened our valves to irrigate, and no water came out. Not having water come gushing through your pipes when you have fields that need water, animals that need to drink, and future produce orders to fill, is a profoundly disturbing, anxiety producing moment. After investigating and trying some typical solutions, the water was still not flowing. With no answer before the end of the day, I spent a night envisioning the worst scenarios possible. Somehow we had used all the water in the well before the groundwater could replenish it, our well collapsed, a dead fox got sucked into the well pump, etc. Though it turns out that resetting the pump provided a temporary fix, the pump finally broke down a day later and needed replacing.

While we still have water in our well, and hopefully will make it through the season until rain comes, other communities across California are not as fortunate. This is not to say that the drought does not impact our farm. When non-farmers visit us, the second question they usually ask if how we are impacted by the drought. Our scale allows us to water more conservatively than most production farms; we can take the liberty of checking soil moisture to see if beds really need water. We use drip irrigation for all our crops, and do not use usually overhead to water in new plantings. However, we are still growing typical vegetable crops, and are not farming in a substantially different way. As the amount groundwater decreases, the water in our well becomes more and more salty. Sometimes our water is so salty, newly watered in crops will have roots that appear bone dry, because they cannot uptake the water with so much salt.

While the quality and consistency of our water may falter, other communities in California no longer have water at all. This summer I traveled with youth from our summer intern program to the Central Valley, where the impacts of the California drought are profound.

As we drove down the 99 South, temperatures climbed, and  hillsides turned from patchy green to completely dry and barren. Fields of green veggies were replaced by commercial feedlots, fields of corn, and almond trees. There are stands of one type of weed that has developed as a superweed (they are as tall as medium-size trees), after being consistently sprayed with Round-up. We drive by large production operations, including the Pom Factory, and the Sun Maid raisin facilities. This region is the heart of food production, processing, and packaging, and is strongly affected by the pollution and impacts of industry.

 

We stopped first in Tulare county, which is home to a number of “unincorporated communities such as Tooleville. This areas were originally settled and established by migrant workers from the Dustbowl, the deep South, and more currently workers from Central America and Mexico. For years the government has ignored these communities, believing the people would live if no resources were given to the areas. These communities are not recognized by the government, and today have no access to city water, or other services provided by municipal districts such as lights, or roads.

While the community has very few resources, and members of the community struggle with meeting basic human needs, such as accessing food and water, the town is surrounded by lush fields of fruit and nut trees,  in which the community members work. None of this food stays in the community. None of the water stays in the community either. According to the water rights, it is channeled from these communities to irrigate the high value crops on the hillsides, including olives, grapes, blueberries, oranges, walnuts, and growing plots of clementine cuties. Some of the water from this region is even brought down canals to Los Angeles.

In towns such as Tooleville and El Rancho, when the wells are dry, there is no way for the people to get water, as they are not recognized as part of a city. Even when there is water, the water there is so highly polluted with nitrates from neighboring agricultural fields that it cannot be used for drinking or even bathing. Buying water and bringing it in becomes the only option, which is unaffordable for the low-income residents.

There are some community advocacy groups that are doing really great work. We spoke with the director of El Quinto Sol de America, an organization that advocates for health and empowerment of farmworker communities. She wants to start a women owned cooperative farm in Tooleville, to provide women a way to create their own economy. People are interested in building ownership in the community and increasing access to the land, so that people there can have direct access and control over the food they grow.

There is an intense disparity  between the vast amounts of produce grown here, and the hunger and poverty of the  communities who work in the fields and packing houses. The director of El Quinto Sol, Irma, explains to us how local dairies have “dump days”, when the dairy companies in Tulare County dump all the milk from the day out onto the floor, in order to control the price of the milk on the market. Despite directly handling the crops, working in the packing houses, and having the knowledge of how to work on land, the people in this community cannot access the land or the resources to utilize it. There is little opportunity for folks to have leadership or a voice in their community. Community members tell us that many who grow up in the Central Valley see it as a place to leave as soon as they can, not a place that people try to come to back to.

Our youth came to the Central Valley  to visit the communities and farms that compose the prime agricultural region of our country, and to meet other youth from these communities and hear about their lives. The youth from our program met with youth from a number of local youth organizations; Harvesting Hope, The Young Men’s Initiative, El Quinto Sol, The Madera Youth Leaders Coalition. These youth leaders came together in the first cross-regional summit for youth in food justice work. Despite being from drastically different places, our youth traded experiences with the youth from the Central Valley. The challenges faced by young people in the Central Valley are much different than those of our urban youth; but surprisingly parallel.

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The youth summit is held in a massive warehouse packed with dry goods; jars of peanut butter, boxes of instant mashed potatoes, bags of dried cranberries (for some reason, there has been a glut of cranberries this season, the warehouse director explains). This warehouse is the main distribution center for food banks in Tulare County, and is run and operated by an organization called Food Link. According to the warehouse director, there has been a 58% increase in food bank need from 2013 to 2014, and despite many young people coming from families that work on farms, 1 out of 2 young people under the age of 18 in Tulare County are food insecure. Forty seven percent of youth live below the poverty line, and thirty eight percent of the households in Tulare County are food insecure. Many people in Tulare County are from indigenous communities in Mexico, do not speak Spanish, and have trouble accessing community resources.

Tulare County is one the counties in California hit hardest by the drought; many farmers are growing less crops, which means less labor is needed. FoodLink has been successfully providing emergency food assistance for hundreds of families in Tulare County, and attempts to procure and distribute masses of produce from farms with bumper crops,  but struggles with being having enough labor to sort and process all these foods. As we are led through the warehouse, a sprightly young volunteer sorts through massive pallets of plums with cosmetic damage that have been donated to FoodLink. It seems an impossible feat that he can sort through so many containers before the day is over. While many people donate to this center with good intention, it is sometimes donated in ways that is not usable, or is culturally inappropriate for the communities of Tulare. On the other hand, other people donated old or undesirable food to FoodLink, and simply see it as an opportunity to clean out their pantry. It takes a lot of people power to sort and process all the food that moves through this place, and they do not have enough.

Throughout the day the youth discussed their experiences with the food system, and the major issues their communities are facing related to food, who was being impacted most, and what types of actions they were taking to creating change. While our youth interns come from urban environments, and are well familiar with the urban food desert, the youth of the Central Valley communities described similar food deserts; lack of access to healthy, nutritious food, despite being surrounded by lush fields of produce. Some youth shared stories of going to school hungry while their parents went to work in the fields, or passing through heavy  pesticide drift on the way to school. Youth from the Central Valley were involved with gleaning projects, food distribution efforts, and community advocacy surrounding pesticide issues. Many expressed that they had joined their community service groups to feel like they had a “voice” in their communities.

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Currently, El Quinto Sol de America is working on creating a “Healthy Kids Zone”, a minimal standard of protection for pesticide application buffer zones between fields and schools. They want to educate youth about chemicals that are beings sprayed in their communities, and how people in their neighborhoods can protect themselves. Many families don’t know how to report pesticide drift, or are undocumented and fear deportation, and therefore do not report violations acts of pesticide regulations. Fresno County currently ranks at the highest usage of pesticide rates in the country, with application rates of 34 million lbs of pesticide per year. The current regulation is that there is a ¼ mile buffer zone for aerial application between schools and fields. However, this regulation does not apply to ground application, which can still cause massive health impacts and environmental effects. One recent victory was that Chlorpyrifos, a highly toxic pesticide used for orange trees, recently became a restricted material, and will be subject to more strict regulatory enforcement.

After sharing stories, the youth discussed how they can act in solidarity with each other, and support the struggles and celebrate the triumphs of each other, despite being hundreds of miles apart. Our youth interns shared some resources for national coalition building, such as the annual Rooted In Community gathering and network,  and the Youth Food Bill of Rights. They visioned together, talked about potential education projects, advocacy, and service projects, and how they could use technology to their power, using social media to connect to each other and share their projects. They talk about how to move away from a “food bank” model, to a food system model in which they have more control and access to the production of food.

While the dominant model of farming here in the Central Valley is large, input-based, and socially and environmentally unjust and unsustainable, there are some people that are farming differently, and places that are providing help to the communities of the Central Valley. We met a family of Hmong farmers, who ran a small, diversified farm growing dozens of types of Asian crops, while being surrounded by hundred of acres of mono-cropped almond groves. They grow crops such as moringa, long beans, bitter melon, taro, lemon grass, and sugarcane, and sell in Asian markets across the state. There are beacons of hope; we visit the Center for the Development of Indigenous Oaxacan, a resource center for the huge population of farmworkers from Mexico living in the Central Valley that do not speak Spanish (estimated at ⅓ of farmworkers in the Central Valley), but are from indigenous Zapotec and Mixtec communities. We also visit FIRM, a center in Fresno for Refugees that provides garden spaces to refugees to grow traditional crops from their homeland. They have a large, beautiful garden filled with Hmong plants, and are also developing gardens for African and Ukrainian refugees.

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Li and Kylie, Hmong owners of a small, diversified farm

Later that week, we met with local community organizers, who shared their experience of growing up, leaving, and returning to their community.  Organizers from the Central Valley expressed their frustrations of seeing their communities passed over for grants, and other sources of resources which go to areas that have more “developed” projects, such as the Bay Area, yet the pride and power they have been able to create in their neighborhoods through art, activism, and organizing. We talked about what it would truly look like to build solidarity across regions, and how that would require a commitment to really building deep, authentic relationships.

Our students reflected about how they would bring this experience home,  and how would they continue to share the stories of the youth in the central valley, an area that while producing a huge amount of produces and meats for our country, is disproportionately impacted by the negative effects of the production of these foods.  I’m still thinking about this myself; how I can share the experiences I have had on these trip, and how I can be in solidarity with fellow farmers and food activists in the Central Valley; hopefully this posting is one tiny step in sharing some knowledge about the struggles and triumphs of the vibrant, powerful communities that produce the majority food for our country.

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