It’s a bet! California Grown products on the line in football wager with New Mexico

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross is wagering a basket of California Grown products on the second annual “Ag Day” football game tonight between Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and New Mexico State in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The challenge was made by New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture (and archrival) Jeff Witte. If (when) Cal Poly wins, a basket of New Mexico agricultural products will be sent to California.  Go Mustangs!

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross is wagering a basket of California Grown products on the second annual “Ag Day” football game tonight between Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and New Mexico State in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The challenge was made by New Mexico Secretary of Agriculture (and archrival) Jeff Witte. If (when) Cal Poly wins, a basket of New Mexico agricultural products will be sent to California. Go Mustangs!

Thanks to California Grown and Cal Poly for their  generous donations to the basket.

Thanks to California Grown and Cal Poly for their generous donations to the basket.

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California Grown gets new chairwoman – from The Packer

Cherie Watte

Cherie Watte

By Mike Hornick

Cherie Watte, executive director of the California Asparagus Commission, is the new board chairwoman of California Grown, succeeding Kasey Cronquist, chief executive officer of the California Cut Flower Commission.

The Buy California Marketing Agreement manages the California Grown campaign.
Executive committee members on the California Grown board include vice chair Spencer Halsey, associate director of the California Association of Gardens and Nurseries; and secretary treasurer Karla Stockli, chief executive officer of the California Fig Advisory Board.

Before becoming executive director of the California Asparagus Commission, Watte was director of international trade policy at the California Department of Food and Agriculture. She was also appointed manager of the department’s agricultural export program by then-Gov. Pete Wilson.

Prior to her CDFA appointment, Watte was the director of national affairs and research for the California Farm Bureau Federation. Other roles included legislative assistant to congressman Tony Coelho on the U.S. House of Representatives committee on agriculture. She is a former member of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s agricultural trade advisory committee on fruits and vegetables.

“(Cherie) knows firsthand what it takes to be an active farmer in California, since she is the fourth generation of her family to farm in the Imperial Valley,” Nick Matteis, executive director of California Grown, said in a news release.

“We have a lot going on with consumer promotions and newly formed retail and foodservice partnerships,” Watte said. “Farmers and ranchers in California face many challenges, and this program is a bright spot for them.”

Cronquist guided the campaign through the revamping of its promotions program and membership expansion.

Link to article

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Drought lessons from a sheep rancher – from UC Davis

thompson-2tw

By Brad Hooker

While a severe drought continues to devastate California agriculture, one sheep rancher in Oroville has found a centuries-old solution at the bottom of his wood stove — and researchers at UC Davis are paying attention.

After dumping ash from a weekend cookout in his backyard, Mel Thompson noticed the grass grew a little better. On the advice of Glenn Nader, a UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor based in Yuba City, Thompson took the initiative to research wood ash on his own, going as far as to establish a connection with an Oroville-based energy plant 20 minutes away, which was paying millions to deliver wood ash to the landfill.

Today, the difference in growth from that wood ash can be seen in two adjoining pastures on Thompson’s foothill ranch. One layered in ash three years ago has chest-high grass despite the drought, while the untreated pasture has considerably shorter ground cover.

While the benefits of supplementing crops with ash have long been known, the UC Davis researchers were interested in specifically how it was altering the soil composition to promote plant growth and how it could help other ranchers in this Northern California region.

“It has improved our feed production significantly,” says Thompson. “With that, in conjunction with fencing and the rotational grazing, we seem to be doing OK through this drought period.”

Ken Tate, a plant sciences professor and a Cooperative Extension rangeland watershed specialist, recentlysurveyed more than 500 ranchers and says Thompson falls into the roughly 5 percent of California ranchers practicing these types of strategies in hopes of gaining more productivity from their land.

“Mel is what we call an early adopter, someone who has a large toolbox and a lot of information that he makes use of,” Tate says. “He’s an innovator and experimenter in the industry.”

Link to item on UC Davis web site

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US rice farmers see opportunity in China – from the Los Angeles Times

U.S. rice farmers see export market in China
Fourth-generation rice grower Josh Sheppard is accompanied by his dog, Tonka, on his farm in Biggs, Calif. (Carl Costas / For The Times)

 

By David Pierson

Gregg Yielding was given a quixotic task: travel to China and determine if consumers there would be willing to eat American rice.

So he set up tables at some of the most popular supermarkets in southern China, hung American flags and began dishing out steamy samples of rice from Arkansas and California.

“At first they’d say, ‘There’s rice in the U.S.?” said Yielding, head of emerging markets for the U.S. Rice Producers Assn., a Houston-based trade group. “And we’d have to show them a map to explain that it’s grown in California and the South. Then they’d try it, and they would really like it.”

Chinese importers, distributors and grocery chains lined up. Selling U.S. rice to China seemed like a slam-dunk. But eight years after Yielding’s first venture on behalf of the U.S. industry, not a single shipment of American rice has officially made it into Chinese hands.

That won’t happen until the two countries agree on a so-called phytosanitary protocol, which determines the necessary steps U.S. rice exporters must take to mitigate pests such as insects. The disagreement highlights the growing pressure on U.S. agricultural producers to either accommodate China or risk being shut out of the world’s largest emerging consumer market.

That might not have mattered a decade ago when U.S. farmers could rely on domestic buyers or traditional foreign markets such as Mexico and Canada. Today, China’s swelling appetite for food is touching agribusiness everywhere and forcing companies to choose whether to adapt.

Those that comply are seeing dividends. American agricultural exports to China rose to a record $25.8 billion last year from $5 billion a decade earlier.

Until a few years ago, no one would have considered exporting much rice to China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of the grain.

Tim Johnson, president and chief executive of the California Rice Commission, called it “the ultimate example of selling ice to the Eskimos.”

But starting in 2012, China went on a spree, scooping up millions of tons of the grain from countries such as Vietnam, Pakistan and India. China is now on pace to import a record 3.4 million tons of rice this year — six times more than it did in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Those that comply are seeing dividends. American agricultural exports to China rose to a record $25.8 billion last year from $5 billion a decade earlier.

Until a few years ago, no one would have considered exporting much rice to China, the world’s largest producer and consumer of the grain.

Tim Johnson, president and chief executive of the California Rice Commission, called it “the ultimate example of selling ice to the Eskimos.”

But starting in 2012, China went on a spree, scooping up millions of tons of the grain from countries such as Vietnam, Pakistan and India. China is now on pace to import a record 3.4 million tons of rice this year — six times more than it did in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Other industries remain shut out. The U.S. beef industry is still trying to overturn a 2003 ban on American cattle over mad cow disease. Starting late last year, nearly a million tons of U.S. corn have been rejected at Chinese ports because of inclusion of an unapproved genetically modified strain. And some American pork imports were halted this month over fears they contained traces of ractopamine.

“Demand is growing so quickly in China for so many food products — and with so many places to get them from — China can pick and choose,” said Jim Harkness, a senior advisor on China for the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. “From a U.S. perspective, it looks like the Chinese are being picky and erecting non-tariff barriers for political reasons. But I think from the Chinese perspective, the U.S. is an outlier in some cases. Ractopamine is banned in over 100 countries.”

In addition to China, the European Union and Russia also ban the additive. It’s deemed a risk to people with cardiovascular problems.

While other products struggle to win access, the U.S. rice growers are hopeful that officials in Washington and Beijing can come to terms as early as next year. If they do, analysts estimate, U.S. rice exports to China could reach several hundred million dollars a year. That would make China a top buyer of the American grain, on par with Mexico and Japan.

Though it produces only 2% of the world’s rice, the U.S. accounts for nearly 10% of the rice traded globally — enough to make it the fifth-biggest exporter. About half the rice grown in the U.S. ends up abroad. Still, rice consumption in China is so high the country could eat through America’s annual production in 17 days.

The growing Chinese appetite for imported rice may partly reflect surging food demand, analysts said. But it’s mostly driven by arbitrage, as government policies have kept domestic rice prices high to protect Chinese farmers. Rice mills in China decided it was cheaper to buy foreign supplies.

American rice producers can’t meet that sort of mass demand — nor do they want to. Their interest is in selling packaged rice to China to fill a high-end niche. The rice producers association’s survey of Chinese consumers buttressed that idea. Despite the concerns of Chinese regulators, shoppers in China overwhelmingly perceived U.S. rice as a safe alternative in a country hit by myriad food safety scandals.

Josh Sheppard, a fourth-generation rice grower in Biggs, Calif., about 60 miles north of Sacramento, said he’d welcome Chinese buyers because they probably would pay more for his grains than U.S. customers — much the way Japanese buyers currently do. That’s especially important now when drought has cut rice acreage in the state by 25%.

 

The cooperative is managed by Stuart Hoetger, co-founder of Stogan Group, an agricultural consulting firm in Chico, Calif.  Hoetger has arranged a partnership between the rice growers and Chinese food and agriculture conglomerate Wufeng.

Medium grain rice known as Calrose grown by the cooperative is being shipped in limited quantities to Chinese ports, where Wufeng is redirecting it to customers in small markets such as the Solomon Islands, the idea being Hoetger and his growers will be ready to ship to China shortly after a trade agreement is finalized.

“If China asks for something, you do it,” Hoetger said. “You ask any farmer that’s sold to China in the last few years and they’ll tell you they’ve made a lot of money.”

Link to article

 

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California agriculture needs groundwater reform – Opinion piece from the Monterey Herald

Groundwater 3

Miles Reiter is a member of the California State Board of Food and Agriculture and chairman and CEO of Driscoll’s, a leading supplier of fresh berries.

By Miles Reiter

Reliable groundwater supplies in California are essential to the health and well-being of all Americans. Much of the food consumed in the United States, including about half of the fruits and vegetables, is grown in California. Without an improved management system of groundwater in the state, California’s agricultural capacity will become smaller and unreliable. The healthiest elements of the nation’s food supply will become highly variable in availability and cost, with some items almost disappearing entirely.

California’s groundwater resources are in jeopardy. They have been steadily declining throughout much of the state for many years, with current declines at rates never seen before. Along the Central Coast, where I live, groundwater makes up over 80 percent of the water supply. As a result of extraction in excess of replenishment, we are experiencing increased saltwater intrusion into the groundwater and general declines in water quality throughout the area. If this trend is not halted, we simply will not be able to provide the healthy food, jobs and economic vitality that go with a sound agricultural infrastructure.

If we are to protect California’s agricultural capacity, we must do a better job of protecting our groundwater. The solution needs to start at the local level. Four years ago, before the current drought started, our community in the Pajaro Valley around Watsonville was concerned about declining groundwater levels and saltwater intrusion. Local landowners and growers, the Resource Conservation District of Santa Cruz County and other groups joined together to launch a forward-thinking and action-oriented public/private partnership called the Community Water Dialogue.

Our mission was to solve the valley’s water problems. Our goals from the beginning included protecting the valley’s agricultural capacity, deploying diverse strategies that would require costs and sacrifices by all to restore the aquifer, and recognizing that we needed to solve our problems on our own and could not rely on outside fixes. We deployed a number of water-saving strategies that have made a difference. We have a long way to go to a sustainable valley, but pumping in 2013 was more or less the same as the amount pumped in 2008, despite a series of very dry seasons. Our efforts have not been easy, and not without long and passionate debate about the right approach. There will undoubtedly be decisions in the future that will be difficult and often painful.

I strongly support managing our precious groundwater resource through a combination of local management operating within the context of statewide objectives and support. We must recognize that significant change in the way we utilize our groundwater is needed. When half-measures and partial fixes were adopted in the past, they have not worked. It is time that California adopts a comprehensive, long-term plan that will protect this resource against overuse and future droughts. Local agencies need tools and the authority to effectively manage their groundwater.

Those who want to maintain the status quo argue that sustainably managing our groundwater will reduce our agricultural economy and devalue land. I have absolutely no doubt that we will do far greater damage to our economy and our communities if we fail to act. The result of inaction will mean running out of groundwater, worsening subsidence, and increasing saltwater intrusion.

My family has farmed California’s incredibly rich Central Coast for nearly 150 years. Groundwater depletion threatens the future; however, our local efforts to address this issue give us a chance to save productive farmland and the communities that depend upon it. Similar situations exist throughout the state. It is critically important that the state create a structure in which these local efforts are supported and empowered with the clear objective of stabilizing our groundwater resource. We need action from our lawmakers — now more than ever.

Link to article

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CDFA releases draft Statewide Plant Pest Prevention and Management Program EIR – News Release

SACRAMENTO, August 25, 2014 – The California Department of Food and Agriculture, in accordance with CEQA guidelines, has released the draft Statewide Plant Pest Prevention and Management Program Environmental Impact Report (EIR).

The draft Program EIR is a crucial step as CDFA carries out its responsibility to protect the state’s food supply and natural resources. Responding to invasive species such as plant pests and diseases is one of the primary ways that CDFA helps farmers and ranchers maintain a constant, dependable and safe supply of food.

The draft Program EIR document provides a comprehensive, transparent overview of management programs to protect California’s food system through the principles of integrated pest management, while also protecting public health and the environment.

The draft Program EIR includes a process to evaluate and include new developments and potential environmental impacts – called Tiering – while providing for public participation throughout the pest management process.

The release of the draft Program EIR triggers a 45-day period for public review and comment. Written and oral comments will be accepted, and all comments received in response to the draft will be addressed in the final Program EIR. CDFA is announcing public meetings to receive comments on the draft Program EIR. The schedule of public meetings is as follows:

Monday, September 22nd – 5:30 p.m.
San Diego County Farm Bureau
1670 E. Valley Parkway
Escondido, CA 92027

Tuesday, September 23rd -5:30 p.m.
Huntington Library
1151 Oxford Road
San Marino, CA 91108

Wednesday, September 24th -5:30 p.m.
Tulare County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office
4427 S. Laspina
Tulare, CA 93274ý
Monday, September 29th -5:30 p.m.
California Department of Food and Agriculture
1220 N Street, Auditorium
Sacramento, CA 95814

Tuesday, September 30th -5:30 p.m.
Napa County Agricultural Commissioner’s Office
1710 Soscol Avenue
Napa, CA 94559


Link to news release

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USDA Reopens Chinese Market Access for California Citrus

ORANGE2_compressedUSDA News Release

Washington, D.C. – Aug. 22, 2014 – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced that California citrus farmers will be able to resume exports to China this season. California citrus exports are valued at $30 million annually.

“Resuming trade before the start of the 2014 citrus shipping season is the result of a lot of effort by a number of USDA employees, who worked very closely with their foreign counterparts to resolve China’s concerns,” said Vilsack. “Their extra effort means California citrus growers can once again ship to this important market.”

A series of scientific exchanges between the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection, and Quarantine (AQSIQ) resulted in an agreement for California citrus to again be exported to China.  APHIS and USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service worked closely with the U.S. citrus industry to ensure the successful outcome.

In April 2013, California-origin citrus was suspended from entering the Chinese market due to interceptions of brown rot (Phytophthora syringae), a soil fungus that affects stored fruit.  Over the next year, USDA worked with China to address China’s plant health concerns and reopen the market for California citrus exports.  Noting the importance of the Chinese market for U.S. citrus producers, Secretary Vilsack raised the issue with Chinese officials during the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade in December 2013.  In April 2014, APHIS and AQSIQ officials met to discuss a proposed work plan that included protocols to effectively reduce the pest risk on citrus product shipped to China.  As a result of these discussions, U.S. and China officials finalized an agreement to resume exports on Aug. 3, 2014.

The Obama Administration, with Secretary Vilsack’s leadership, has significantly expanded export opportunities and reduced barriers to trade, helping to push agricultural exports to record levels.  U.S. agriculture is experiencing its best period in history thanks to the productivity, resiliency, and resourcefulness of our producers and agribusinesses.  Today, net farm income is at record levels while debt has been halved since the 1980s.  Overall, American agriculture supports one in 12 jobs in the United States and provides American consumers with 83 percent of the food we consume, while maintaining affordability and choice. Strong agricultural exports contribute to a positive U.S. trade balance, create jobs, boost economic growth and support President Obama’s National Export Initiative goal of doubling all U.S. exports by the end of 2014.

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Water and the California Farmer – Don Cameron

 

California State Board of Food and Agriculture member Don Cameron at Terranova Ranch in Fresno County.

California State Board of Food and Agriculture member Don Cameron at Terranova Ranch in Fresno County.

“Water and the California Farmer” is a discussion of water in agriculture – Ag’s share of total water use, and the innovative conservation measures already practiced on farms and ranches around the state. More information may be viewed here.

Don Cameron, a member of California’s State Board of Food and Agriculture and general manager of Terranova Ranch, is on the cutting edge of irrigation. His wine grape vineyards stretch for 1,300 acres, so maximizing water is a top priority. Cameron has used drip irrigation on these vineyards since 1982, a time when drip was still uncommon.

Making the switch to micro-irrigation has saved Terranova Ranch 15-20 percent on water costs. When Cameron took over as general manager, he recalls, “I was told we couldn’t grow tomatoes. I was told the ground was too light.” Processing tomatoes now occupy 2,300 acres at Terranova, due in large part to Cameron’s implementation of drip systems. He contends, “We eliminate evaporation from the soil surface and provide uniform distribution of water and reduce fertilizer usage along with producing a 28 percent higher yield. We no longer have excess water accumulation at the end of fields as we did when we furrow irrigated.”

But drip irrigation isn’t the only practice that makes Cameron a pioneer in water use efficiency. During flood periods, which typically occur once every three or four years, he captures flood flows from the Kings River and diverts them to his vineyards to recharge the groundwater supply. Cameron is currently working to expand this practice with a Flood Corridor Grant from the California Department of Water Resources.

Terranova Ranch is also receiving bids for a 1-megawatt solar facility that will be built this summer to decrease dependence on conventional power for the farm’s water pumps. Taken together, these practices are a great example of how micro-irrigation coupled with strategic flooding and renewable energy investments can enhance water efficiency and responsible groundwater maintenance.

An Ag Water Fact Sheet is available as a quick resource on Ag water use.

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Latinos move from fields to office – from the New York Times

Sergio Silva, 53, left, and Adrian Espinoza, 36, are partners at Rancho Espinoza, a flower business in Salinas, Calif. Credit – Jim Wilson/The New York Times

By Tanzina Vega

When he was 15, an immigration raid at a Japanese flower nursery turned Arturo Flores’s life around.

The owners needed a new group of workers to replace the ones removed by immigration officials, and Mr. Flores landed a job cutting flowers. He slowly worked his way up to packaging and delivering them. In the mid-1980s he got a call from two businessmen looking to start their own cut-flower business. They asked him to manage deliveries and distribution. Today Mr. Flores, 50, is the president of Central California Flower Growers in Watsonville, a distributor in Santa Cruz County that sells more than 100 varieties of flowers and other plants.

Farming businesses in the United States are still dominated by whites, but Mr. Flores (whose last name means “flowers” in English) is one of a growing number of Latinos who own or operate farms in the country. While the overall number of farms in the United States decreased by 4 percent from 2007 to 2012, during the same period the number of farms run by Hispanics increased by 21 percent to 67,000 from 55,570, according to data released in May from the government’s 2012 census of agriculture. The numbers signaled a small but consistent pattern of growth in agribusiness among Latinos, many of whom have gone from working in the fields to sitting in the head offices.

Many, like Mr. Flores, emigrated from Mexico in the 1970s and ‘80s and worked their way up from picking produce to managing the business. They have classic American bootstrap stories of grit, determination and a little bit of luck. Some own the land they till while others rent. Many employ Mexicans whose language and job duties they understand intimately.

Salvador Vasquez, 56, who owns Vas Vision Berry Farms, a berry grower for Driscoll’s in Watsonville, came to the United States from Mexico when he was 11. Mr. Vasquez said it was his ability to communicate in English and Spanish with the workers and the supervisors on the farms in Watsonville that helped him move up from being a fruit picker to becoming a supervisor.

But it was not an easy ascent. In 1989, Mr. Vasquez worked as a supervisor during the day and in the fields at night. “If I slept nine hours in five days it was a lot,” he said.

By the 1990s, he supervised more than 2,500 farm employees, and by 2000 he had become part owner of the business. “You have to work hard for the American dream, but it is possible to achieve,” he said.

Sergio Silva, 53, is the chief executive of Rancho Espinoza in Salinas, Calif., a company that grows and distributes calla lily bulbs under the name Coastal Callas. Mr. Silva, whose parents obtained green cards after being guest workers in the California agriculture business, came here from Mexico when he was 13. After struggling to learn English, he dropped out of high school in the 10th grade and went to work in the Salinas Valley, “doing any field work you can think of,” he said.

At 22, Mr. Silva got a job at a vegetable transplant production company, where seeds are started indoors and later moved to fields. It was owned by two venture capitalists, and he worked his way up from dropping seeds in the soil to operating machines and supervising. By 1994 he had invested $15,000 of his savings to buy shares in the company, and he ultimately became its president.

oday he and his partner, Adrian Espinoza, 36, a first-generation Mexican-American, have invested $1.4 million of their own money into the flower company.

The majority of Hispanic-owned agricultural businesses are family-run like Mr. Vasquez’s; he employs his daughters to help him run the business. Jose R. Fernandez, the president of Fernandez Brothers, a strawberry grower for Naturipe Farms in Salinas, whose clients include Stop and Shop, Costco and Safeway, expects his 19-year-old son to go into the business.

Some of the younger, second- or third-generation Hispanics entering the industry have advanced degrees in agriculture or business.

“First-generation farmworkers have worked their way up in terms of responsibility, and now we see many of their children going on to have the opportunity to pursue higher education,” said Charles Boyer, the dean of the Jordan College of Agricultural Sciences and Technology at California State University, Fresno. “These people are increasingly seeing that agriculture has a very wide window of opportunity from the business side to the quality-control side to the science side.” Mr. Espinoza, of Rancho Espinoza, graduated from Fresno State with a degree in plant science.

While more Hispanics are running farms, many of them in the region say federal immigration policies have made it increasingly difficult to find workers. Mr. Vasquez, the berry grower, said 12 acres on his farm were not harvested last year because of the lack of labor. “That’s an incredible loss,” he said. Mr. Silva, the calla lily grower in Salinas, said he supported guest-worker programs that allowed seasonal workers to come into the country legally.

Perhaps because of their own backgrounds, many of the farmers prided themselves on treating their workers well. Mr. Flores, the flower distributor in Watsonville, said he was looking into retirement plans for his workers. He showed off a neat canteen area that included an altar with Catholic symbols like the Virgin Mary, coffee makers and a grill still greasy from the meat that had been cooked on it that day.

Much of the growth in Hispanic-operated farms around the country has been concentrated in small and midsize farms. Some small-scale farmers are hoping that the increased popularity of organic produce will also increase revenue.

Francisco Serrano, 52, used to administer 200 acres of industrial farmland before scaling down to a much smaller organic farm in Watsonville where he grows produce like kale and beets. Mr. Serrano, who tired of the grueling hours at the industrial farm, is leasing 11 acres from a local nonprofit organization called the Agriculture and Land-Based Training Association, or ALBA, which trains mostly Latino students how to become organic farmers.

Like many farmers, Mr. Serrano rents the land because it is cheaper to do so. An acre in this region can cost an average of $40,000. He said the recession had complicated the plans of Hispanic farmers he knew, with some who tried to buy land losing both their homes and land. By contrast, farmers like Mr. Silva are hoping investing in land has a big payoff.

Mr. Silva recently secured a line of credit to purchase an additional 10.26 acres and greenhouses worth $1.3 million. On a recent weekday afternoon, a bouquet of calla lilies in shades of deep purple and hot pink sat on Mr. Silva’s desk. “I just pray like hell that I can make it work,” he said.

Link to story

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Farm workers, Monterey County forge historic accord – from the Salinas Californian

VINEYARDS_47-14

By Dennis L. Taylor

In the first of its kind in the state, an accord has been hammered out between the Monterey County Agricultural Commissioner and a Salinas farm-worker advocacy group to form a panel that will jointly tackle issues such as worker safety and pesticide protection.

The accord is important in both historical and future contexts. Historically, agricultural commissioners and farm-worker groups have not been exactly simpatico. But by striking this accord and forming a Farmworker Advisory Committee attached to the commissioner’s office, the hope is the future will see more collaboration than conflict.

In the past, issues such as farm-worker exposure to pesticides were settled often by acrimonious lawsuits brought by organizations such as the Center for Community Advocacy, the grass-roots farm-worker advocacy group that joined with Agricultural Commissioner Eric Lauritzen to forge the advisory committee.

At the event announcing the pact, there were even moments of levity.

“In 1974, fresh out of college, I came down here to fight growers … like Jim Bogart,” said Juan Uranga, the executive director and lead attorney for CCA, nodding toward the president of the Salinas-based Grower-Shipper Association, who attended the media conference. Bogart, laughing, noted that his board of directors unanimously supported the formation of the advisory committee.

“This is a new era where we focus on commonalities and building the kind of relationships we have now that lead to forming a farm-worker advisory committee,” Uranga said at the conference at the Agricultural Center in Salinas, which houses the commissioner’s office.

In addition to Bogart, the news conference was attended by Chris Reardon, the chief deputy director of the California Department of Pesticide Regulation. Flanking Uranga and Lauritzen were a score of staff members who will compose the advisory committee.

“The advisory committee gives us direct access to farm-worker leaders, to their concerns and to their suggestions,” Lauritzen said. “This gives us the opportunity to engage in positive, productive conversations that will help us fulfill our obligations to the farm-worker community and to the agricultural industry in general.”

One of the committee members is Teo Gonzalez, the chief deputy agricultural commissioner, whose personal story makes him an ideal fit to serve on the committee. Twenty-six years ago Gonzalez was picking lettuce in the Salinas Valley. He earned a degree in agricultural economics from Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo in Mexico City and his green card to work in the United States.

“I talked to my father about coming here, and he told me to go for it,” Gonzalez said after the press conference. “I didn’t know the language but I had my hands.”

Eventually Gonzalez worked up the nerve to walk into Lauritzen’s office, unannounced, and ask for a job. Three months later he was offered a position. That was 14 years ago.

Gonzalez said he hopes the first goal of the committee will be to “establish a baseline for communication.” It’s important, he said, to have clear answers to the questions, “Why are we here and what do we want to accomplish?” – a foundation for action.

The first building block to that foundation is a statement of purpose, worked out between the CCA and the vommissioner’s office, with four key goals:

• To meet at regular intervals with the commissioner and staff to exchange information and ideas to improve the safety of farm workers.

• To help disseminate safety information for the commissioner’s office to farm workers.

• To host annual forums to discuss the commissioner’s jurisdiction over agricultural lands in the county.

• To promote a more sustainable agricultural economy by protecting its most critical resource: farm workers.

With a turbulent history in the Salinas Valley dating back to Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Worker movement in the 1960s and ’70s, and again with the passing of Proposition 187 in 1994 that was seen by many as a racist prohibition preventing undocumented workers from receiving health care, public education or social services, a basic distrust of government and the agricultural industry became grounded in farm-worker culture.

Paulina Mejia, an agricultural inspector and biologist with the Agricultural Commissioner’s office and a member of the advisory committee, said following the press conference Tuesday that one of her immediate goals is to forge trusting relationships with farm workers.

“When I’m out in the fields, there’s a hesitation when we drive up in county trucks,” Mejia said. “Many farm workers don’t understand we are here to help them. I want to ensure they are comfortable enough to approach us.”

Link to story

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