04 January 2016

Poor (farmworkers) will always be among us?

California farmworker in 1936
A guest post from Bill K:*

The Chronicle’s reporter Marissa Lang and photographer Leah Mills have provided readers with an excellent, unvarnished, disturbing look at how too many in California’s farm labor force survive in an agricultural economy that strives, like every other sector, to squeeze out human labor.

The difference between the San Joaquin Valley cycles of grinding farm work followed by winters – or even years – of poverty, compared to the recent meltdown of jobs in other industries, is that they have been going on, as the article notes, for generations, ever since large-scale reservoir development enabled the shift from well- and local ditch dependent family farms to ‘factory’ farms. Lest readers think the current drought brought on the suffering reported by the Chronicle team I’d refer them to Lloyd Carter’s excellent 2009 Golden Gate University Law Journal article ‘Reaping Riches in a Wretched Region: Subsidized Industrial Farming and Its Link to Perpetual Poverty’.

Before becoming a lawyer Mr. Carter was a longtime Fresno-based newsman descended from an eastside San Joaquin Valley farming family. Mr. Carter’s journal article demonstrates that the grinding poverty of western Fresno County, including the community of Mendota featured in this week’s Chronicle story, is some of the worst found anywhere in the U.S.

Bottom Line The account of Westlands Water District bulldozing the farmworkers’ shanties captured in this week’s story is one of hundreds of such stories I have encountered in my long life in California. It’s high time to get the misery in which these farmworkers live out in the open and to shape a more responsible future for them as large-scale agribusiness steadily replaces traditional farming in the western San Joaquin Valley.

DZ: Read this for more of California's history of agribusiness and this for background on Westland's subsidized existence.

* This (published) letter to the editor came from another in Bill's correspondent list:
Marissa Lang’s Dec. 20 story (“Without water, work or homes”) on the dire state of Mendota’s farmworkers eloquently illuminates their dilemma, but it mischaracterizes the root causes of their plight.

A central theme of Lang’s story is that “less water means fewer crops. And fewer crops mean fewer jobs.” Lang cited reduced government water project deliveries to the Westlands Water District, the largest irrigation district in the nation and an agribusiness bulwark of the western San Joaquin Valley, as a primary factor in farmworker impoverishment. The drought, however, is not the prime mover in Mendota’s high unemployment. Indeed, the Fresno County community’s jobless rate has remained consistently high for decades: Between 2000 and 2010, unemployment dipped below 25 percent only twice. In 2003, when government project water deliveries were more than 75 percent of contracted amounts, Mendota’s unemployment figures still exceeded 30 percent.

The main driver for Mendota’s economic misery isn’t a dearth of water; it’s an operational shift by Westlands’ corporate farms. The district is leading the state’s almond boom, converting thousands of acres of land once used for vegetables to nut orchards. Almonds require both far more water and far less labor than row crops.

It’s true that the shanty towns on the district’s property and the abject poverty manifested in “Westside” communities such as Huron and Firebaugh are a disgrace. But rather than succor these hard-pressed workers, Westlands exploits them for public relations gains. The district is reaping extravagant profits, in large part due to the federal water it receives at subsidized rates. But instead of investing even minimally in its workers, Westlands allows them to live in utter squalor, using their holiday season eviction as a wedge to demand more water.

Tom Stokely, director
California Water Impact Network, Mount Shasta

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