Can Small-Scale Farmers Grow a Healthier Central Valley?

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Yves here. Given that progressive candidates stumping in Iowa have been getting an enthusiastic hearing when they bring up the hardships family farmers have endured and what they might do to alleviate those problems, we may be close to seeing the “appropriate” scale of farming become a political as well as an ecological issue. Not that the death of Big Ag is imminent, mind you. But the presumption that it is efficient (when you incorporate, say sustainability and water use) which is capitalist terms, is equated to virtue, is starting to be challenged.

By Jessica Kurtz. Originally published by High Country News as part of Grist’s Climate Desk collaboration

From above, the crops of California’s Central Valley look like a giant tile floor. Some of the tiles are fuzzy; these are the densely planted almond and mandarin groves that dominate large swaths of the Valley. Others are striped; these are rows of grapes growing on long trellises. They stretch for 450 miles across the heart of California, many belonging to industrial farm operators that net millions of dollars a year in profits.

What a satellite image won’t show you are the complicated social and political frameworks that govern the Central Valley. For every wealthy landowner, there are thousands of workers, many undocumented, laboring in the fields. The inequalities are glaring: The Valley is home to some of the most impoverished cities in the country. Many residents, surrounded by agricultural bounty, live in food deserts.

Aidee Guzman takes soil samples from the Berkeley Student Organic Garden.

Aidee Guzman takes soil samples from the Berkeley Student Organic Garden. Sarah Craig for HCN

When Aidee Guzman, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the University of California, Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, shows me these satellite images, she sees something else entirely. She zooms in past the hodgepodge of tiles and focuses on one of the small plots of land she’s been researching. LaCha Her, for example, a Hmong refugee who resettled in the valley decades ago, has a 25-acre farm — minuscule by the standards of Fresno County, where the average farm is 345 acres and many are over 1,000 acres. Despite its small size, Her’s farm grows an abundance of produce, upwards of 70 crops a year, including specialty items like ginger, lemongrass, water spinach, asparagus, taro, mint, and broccoli, a diversity that is rare in the valley.

Guzman is focusing on these small farms to find out whether, ecologically, this diversity has any positive effects on soil health. Her work won’t be published for another two years, but there is already a large body of research that explains how large monocropping operations strip soils of their nutrients and make them less capable of storing carbon, which contributes to global warming once the carbon is released in the air. As she works, she is documenting a potential alternative to the industrial mega-farms of the valley and the West.

Guzman talks fast, her vocabulary punctuated by the occasional curse word. Twenty-six-years old, she was born and raised in the Central Valley. Her parents migrated from El Pedregal, a small town in central Mexico where agriculture is a way of life, even as extreme poverty has forced many to leave. They worked seasonal jobs, her father pin-balling between Washington, California, and Florida and switching between fields of cantaloupe and apple orchards, her mother picking lettuce and packaging tomatoes. The Central Valley’s acres upon acres of almonds and grapes were the backdrop to Guzman’s youth, and Firebaugh, her hometown, has been referenced in studies about the poverty and pollution that plague the area.

Many of the region’s inequalities can be traced to the effects industrial agriculture has had on the environment. Industrial dairies, truck emissions, and the intensive use of fertilizers help explain why counties here consistently rank as the worst in the state for air pollution. Yet through her research, Guzman hopes to tell a different story about the place she calls home. In these fields, in a valley that is often painted as a forgotten place by outsiders, Guzman finds seeds of resilience among the immigrant communities. Guzman sees the Central Valley as home to a thriving oasis of diversity, where culturally relevant food grows and gives jobs to people in an area where unemployment is high. What Guzman is trying to prove now is that these farming ventures are important environmentally, too.

“I have to convince Berkeley folks that Fresno matters,” Guzman tells me at a local restaurant, between bites of quesadillas stuffed with squash blossoms and huitlacoche, a black fungus that grows on corn. “Even my advisor was surprised I wanted to work there,” she said. Typically, students will flock to work at organic farms in Sacramento or Napa Valley. But Guzman has grown used to having to advocate for her childhood home, bridging the divide between the sustainable agriculture movement and the Central Valley, or what she calls “the Valley of the Beast.”

Through such research, Guzman and other social-ecologists are helping to expand the definition of agroecology, or the application of ecological principles to farming. Elsewhere in the world, for groups like La Via Campesina — described as “the international peasant’s voice” — agroecology has come to embody a social movement invested in helping peasant farmers challenge the social impacts of Big Ag. But in the United States, it is mostly confined to academia, and thought of solely in terms of its benefits to the environment — rather than people. Researchers are more likely to equate it to “white hippy dippy” farmers, as Guzman jokingly calls them, instead of marginalized groups facing agricultural inequalities.

Given this blind spot, in 2016 Guzman designed a research project with Fresno-based small farm advisor Ruth Dahlquist-Willard, from the University of California cooperative extension program. Guzman surveyed 30 small-scale farms run by refugee and immigrant farmers like Her, and took over 400 soil samples. She hopes to determine whether the soils and beneficial organisms that live there, known as arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, are healthier in these highly diversified cropping systems. She is also looking at pollinator numbers to see how they vary between small-scale diversified systems and monoculture farms. Preliminary results indicate that the smaller and diversified farms are attracting a greater number of native pollinators, an important factor in a region where monocultures and pesticide sprays have been detrimental to bee populations.

Highly diversified farms make up a small percent of the acreage in the valley, and some people might argue that this makes their impact negligible. “But I disagree,” Guzman told me. “Sustainable farming practices are happening in the valley, and if these farmers are actually providing (soil health benefits) then, shouldn’t we think about them more? And support them?”

Fresno and Tulare counties together had approximately 8,000 small-scale farms, according to the 2012 agriculture census. Many of these are operated by immigrants or refugees, said Dahlquist-Willard, who focuses on the two counties. While the census numbers can be unreliable (“farmers don’t like to fill out paperwork,” Dahlquist-Willard says), a 2007 survey found approximately 900 Hmong farmers in Fresno County. As for the Latino farmers — many of whom started out as farmworkers — Dahlquist-Willard has noticed that they are entering farm ownership at a younger age than white farmers, creating “the next generation of family farms.”

One of those farmers is Isais Hernandez, a portly middle-aged man whose white chin stubble contrasts with his tan skin. On his 33-acre parcel, Hernandez grows Japanese, Chinese, Italian, and Thai varieties of eggplant, as well as other fruits and vegetables. Originally from Michoacán, Mexico, he started out working alongside his parents on a farm that was run by Japanese farmers. “I never worked for gringos,” he told me with a chuckle. After years of saving their earnings, he and some family members were able to buy their own property. Later, he purchased this parcel of land, too.

Last summer, Guzman visited Hernandez to look at his farm’s soil health. Hernandez didn’t really know too much about the research Guzman was conducting, but he offered insight into why her work is so important here. Gesturing to the farms around him, he expressed frustration over ag subsidies and how they are distributed. “The programs seem to benefit the big companies more than the small farms like us,” he said.

This is true for a few reasons. First, resources for offices like the Cooperative Extension program where Dahlquist-Willard works are limited, so their ability to reach and disseminate information to farmers like Hernandez is constrained. But there is another structural inequality at play: Whenever government resources are up for grabs, they typically go to those who are more plugged in to the system. Other groups can take advantage of the funds simply because they have more resources. Researching these marginalized growers is one way to change that. Not only does that bridge connections between academics and farmers, but it can inform new regulations that might otherwise disproportionately hurt them.

Take, for example, the Irrigated Lands Regulatory Program. The program was created in 2003 with a mission to hold agricultural producers in California accountable for the water contamination typically caused by Big Ag. New reporting requirements ask farmers to fill out paperwork that lists fertilizer inputs and the crops they grow annually, a difficult data point for farmers who grow between 50 and 70 crops over multiple seasons per year, and who don’t have the time, administrative help, or, in some cases, writing skills to fill out the requests.

Guzman’s research could help these farmers by bringing visibility to their small-scale operations before state agencies create new, more onerous rules, Dahlquist-Willard said. “Whatever (regulations) agencies are making, if they don’t know these people are here, they aren’t going to consider them in that decision.” For Guzman, this type of dilemma gets to the true heart of “agroecology,” where, despite the social and political forces that shape these farmers’ lives, they are able to occupy space. “Them existing and surviving in a landscape like this,” she said, “that’s resistance.”

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  1. The Rev Kev

    Large farms or small, I think that a major problem is being left unsaid which could take down all the farms and that is the problem of water exportation. From an article whose link I give further down – “California is the world’s fifth-largest supplier of food. Its Central Valley — a rich plot of agricultural gold that’s nearly the size of West Virginia — is where America gets virtually all of its almonds, tomatoes, pistachios, lemons, and artichokes.” But when you think about it, all that plant matter is made up of water which is being exported out of California, never to return. All that adds up after a while. And this is not taking into account the amount of water needed to grow all this stuff. Found a chart at which shows, for example, that it takes 1.1 Gallons (4.2 liters) to grow one almond. Just one.
    It gets better. Saudi Arabia depleted their aquifers through rapid growth so they did the only thing that they could. They started to grow alfalafa in America for shipment to Saudi Arabia and deplete American aquifers as well. And what happens when you keep on pumping water from underground and shipping it to the rest of the nation and overseas in the form of biomatter? You can see the result here-

    1. coboarts

      I live just on the other side of the Altamont Pass, less than ten miles from the Central Valley. If you want to learn all about the shenanigans that have gone into the federal and state water projects, and how they were always meant for small family farms, and how all that got played, I highly suggest “Rivers of Empire” by Donald Worster, and, of course, for a great read and to learn all about western water, “Cadillac Desert” by Marc Reisner.

      Although I expect it will never be done, I still have a fondness for NAWAPA, The North American Water and Power Alliance. The project was proposed in the 60s, to bring water to the western states from western Canada. It would have produced huge hydro electric, and it would have brought enough water to flush the salts out of the soil, recharge the aquifers, and irrigate crops all the way into Mexico. I can even make the case that it should be done today, but somebody might lose their favorite kayak run.

      Family farms would be nice, but we can’t forget that the ONLY way agriculture is being done in the Central Valley is by the largess of the federal government. And although family farms were the original stated intent, sigh… So, I believe we have limited choices to hydrate before the valley floods with sea level rise, unless we do damn the Golden Gate. We can do NAWAPA, let the military geoengineer the skies or go desalination, bigly. And, although I would prefer passive solar desalination everywhere and “slow,” the power source will probably best be – I’ll stop now. The problem is trying to make this civilization work.

    2. amfortas the hippie

      we should stop trying to cultivate deserts(including the great plains)
      and water isn’t all that’s exported when you sell a tomato–nutrients, carbon.
      local is the only way to be, going forward.

      (and: ive been on a year to wife and kids about high fructose corn syrup….wont go into giant narrative now. suffice to say, maybe we should stop growing—and subsidizing!!!— so much frelling corn)

      1. fellow minnesotan

        “we need to start raising less corn and more hell”– the family farmer opening for Bernie at a recent campaign stop in iowa. loved it.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      Most of the water given to California crops is not exported out of California in the crops. Most of it is exhaled out the leaves of the growing plants into the air around the leaves of the growing plants. Only some of the water is combined with carbon dioxide to make the stage-one carbohydrates which the plant then uses for growth or stores for later growth or fruit and/or seed making.

      And most of the water that falls on California as rain or snow is imported into California from the Pacific Ocean in the form of water vapor on incoming air masses and air currents.

      If California agricultural water use were reduced to the level where zero ground water was ever necessary, then the amount of rigidly-sustainable sky-water used for the rigidly-limited amount of crops grown in California under a rigid skywater budget would not be a problem as big as the current fossil groundwater mining agriculture of California ( or Oglallastan or wherever else also) currently is.

    4. RBHoughton

      As of 2012 Central Valley farmers were using 80% of California’s supply and it represented 50% of their costs. Its flowing down surface channels over 400 miles and evaporation must be another huge loss. It sounds as though a pipeline is required.

  2. Susan the other`

    I’d like to know the elevations/topology in the Central Valley. I thought I read somewhere that it is at and sometimes slightly below sea level. Anybody know?

    1. Fiery Hunt

      Most of the Sacramento River Delta ( we just call it the Delta ) where San Francisco Bay meets the the Sacramento river is prime farm country and sits behind ancient levees.
      Most “land” behind those levees is anywhere from 15 to 30 feet below sea level.

      Reisner’s “A Dangerous Place” foresees that a 7.+ Earthquake on the Hayward fault would affect the salt content of the freshwater delta….flooding farmland with salt water.

      Good times.

  3. peonista

    The problem we produce farmers have in Michigan is 2-3 weeks before each crop comes into season locally the grocery stores are flooded with California, Mexico and Central America produce. Thus three weeks ago there were amazing sales on asparagus. Now that Michigan asparagus is in season, shoppers have moved on. Stores are full of Driscoll Farm strawberries, giant and cheap. Michigan strawberries are 2-3 weeks away, a little late this year due to a cool spring. The same is true with everything we can grow, tomatoes, beans, squash, blueberries, cherries, peaches etc. It kills the market for us; and we have plenty of water! If we had “sustainability laws” that prohibited the importation of crops that can be grown locally we would see a rejuvenation of midwestern truck farming. Of course consumers would have to eat more seasonally. Not sure anyone would stand for this.

    1. grayslady

      I only eat seasonally–not only is it more affordable, but the produce is better tasting. I also like looking forward to the different produce seasons. Michigan asparagus is the best. No contest. I’m looking forward to seeing it in the stores. As for strawberries, I will only buy from a local farm now. Why pay good money for red cardboard in the grocery stores?

    2. coboarts

      That was a problem with the irrigation of the Central Valley from the outset. As well stated in the books I mentioned above, much of the irrigated land, irrigated at tax payer expense and acquired by those appropriately connected, was then used to grow crops that were already being grown elsewhere naturally, undercutting those farmers. I’m not a fan of central planning, but rampant insanity isn’t a good counter argument. And to cross pollinate, besides promoting the hating of our fellows, the onslaught of constant and everywhere fear is a mask that needs to be ripped off, IMHO.

    3. drumlin woodchuckles

      I get Michigan asparagus and other things here at the Ann Arbor farmers market. Also, there are some stores in Ann Arbor which offer Michigan-grown fruits and vegetables when these exist.

      Enough people are buying them so that their growers can stay in bussiness at their current level. So some people already are standing for this. Some people not yet, of course.

      If California were to grow exactly precisely ZERO fruits, vegetables, etc. for export beyond California, then NON-California would be FORCED to eat non-California foods. Some of that food would be yet more Carbon-Bigfooting foreign produce, but some more of it might be local and regional.

      How could California grow ZERO food for export without losing money and bussiness? I don’t know, but an idea occurs to me. What if all the currently food-for-export farmland in California were switched over to high-resin high-thermal fuel-grade marijuana for burning in the power plants of California? For California-grown electricity?

  4. Wukchumni

    You grow where the money is and you grow there often is what i’ve always said, almonds & pistachios dominate new plantings, while citrus is holding it’s ground in enclaves where it holds terrain.

    Its almost all tree crops from the foothills well into the central valley except for a bit of corn, until you get to where they grow alfalfa for dairy cows. I see little farms owned by Hispanics like the ones described in the article on the outskirts of Visalia, mostly annual crops, but small potatoes.

    The issue with having so many mouths to feed, is hitting salt water/brackish water at certain levels on their wells, which is around 1,000 feet in some areas where the trees are. A cabin owner friend who’s a farmer told me there’s some place where they were drilling down 5,000 feet near Bakersfield and still getting freshwater, so go figure.

  5. Wukchumni

    I saw a photo album of an anonymous vast wheat farm with quite an array of well done shots of life on the farm by a professional photographer no doubt, somewhere circa gay 90’s, that is until a small sign almost hidden as you had to look for it in the photo, silently said ‘Corcoran’.

    As per The Octopus-by Frank Norris, wheat was where it was at in the central valley. That and battling the railroads.

  6. Fred

    All I know is that fruits and vegetables taste better at the local food stands and farmers market.

  7. drumlin woodchuckles

    That researcher’s racyss reference to “white hippy dippy” farmers mars an otherwise good project and life’s work.

    White hippy dippy farmers are just as marginalized as any other non-big non-corporate farmers in an agribusiness matrix-forcefield carefully designed to persecute and discriminate against small farmers of whatever ethnoracial background.

    Dismissing “white hippy dippy” farmers on anti-white raycss grounds is a perfect example of the RPOC ( Rayciss Pursunz Ov Culur) raycizzm which will earn its practitioners a lot of deep and abiding hatred in the long run.

    ( I respelled some words to see if respelling them would evade the “Moderation” which spelling them correctly triggers every single time).

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      ^^^”White hippy dippy farmers are just as marginalized as any other non-big non-corporate farmers in an agribusiness matrix-forcefield carefully designed to persecute and discriminate against small farmers of whatever ethnoracial background.”^^^

      thank you…although i’ve grown a rather thick skin and carapace.
      vincit omni veritas, and all…

  8. Henry

    As I understand it we can grow more nutritious food, use much less water, benefit the wildlife and make more money per acre, so actually pay farm workers a living wage, all while working in a gorgeous healthy environment that gets better over time. We have the technology. I’ve seen it; Singing Frogs Farm ( I’m not sure if it would scale up to 100 acre farms, which in my mind would be a good thing as society would be better off with lots of 5 to 10 acre farms rather than a few 100 acre farms. I think this is the first step in the coming societal (r)evolution since it is not that difficult on small scale farms to shift from the role of destroyer and trying to be less bad to actually participating in making this a better world to live.

  9. RBHoughton

    The point about the vast data requirements government makes of small-scale farmers is duplicated in the EU in respect of banking.

    The EC appears intent on eliminating the many small community banks with just 10-12 staff by placing on them the same onerous reporting requirements that they require of Deutsche and Barclays.

    This is a brain-numbing way of administration – irritating because its unnecessary.

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      i should point out: Texas once had a wonderfully designed organic certification program(thank you, Jim Hightower!)…not onerous at all…
      but that’s before the market(sic) was flooded with giant corps(e) doing “organic(tm)”, after the federal takeover and sequestration of even the word, “organic”.(I gave up on being certified after losing that battle)
      the regs don’t HAVE to be onerous…but the Big Boys like it that way, and that’s who the regulation writers work for.
      That last thing is what needs to change.

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