Secretary Ross visits dynamic school Ag programs in Calaveras County

Secretary Ross discusses the importance of healthy soil with students in Calaveras County

Secretary Ross discusses the importance of healthy soil with students in Calaveras County.

CDFA Secretary Karen Ross visited several flourishing school Ag programs in Calaveras County today, getting an opportunity to speak directly with young people who could be part of the next generation of farmers and ranchers in California.

Secretary Ross visited an outdoor classroom at Valley Springs Elementary School, the student-run farm at Calaveras High School, and accompanied students on a field trip to Metzger Farms.

Secretary Ross with students and FFA members at Valley Springs Elementary School.

Secretary Ross with students and FFA members at Valley Springs Elementary School.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All the venues demonstrated the value of a $22,960 grant from CDFA’s CalAgPlate Program to the Calaveras Future Farmers of America (FFA) and Gardens to Grow In for an Ag mentorship program in the region.

Local produce is served for lunch at Calaveras High School.

Local produce was served for lunch at Calaveras High School.

“The power of this program comes from amazing community support at all levels,” said Secretary Ross.  “It is truly a model project and a great example of the tremendous benefits coming from the CalAgPlate program.”

The project has developed a farm-to-school program that is based on linking FFA members to local farmers and to elementary and middle school garden and agriculture programs. FFA members are learning about marketing and distribution by running a vegetable box delivery program (CSA) and selling at farmers’ markets. They also are learning the power of service and giving back to their community by working with food banks. 

 

 

 

 

Students and teachers in Calaveras County join Secretary Ross in a salute to the CalAgPlate program.

Secretary Ross joins her hosts in salutes to the CalAgPlate program at Calaveras High School (above) and at Metzger Farms (below)

Metzger

 

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Romingers to receive UC Davis’ highest individual honor – from the Davis Enterprise

ucd_evelyne_and_rich_rominger_vert_college_celeb_2011_343x453

UC Davis alumni Richard and Evelyne Rominger, who for decades have played prominent roles in the community and in statewide and national agriculture, have been selected to receive the UC Davis Medal, the highest honor the university presents to an individual.

Acting Chancellor Ralph J. Hexter will present the medals to the Romingers during a June 9 gala dinner at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento.

“Rich and Evelyne Rominger have given generously to UC Davis of their time, talents and resources,” Hexter said. “Their loyalty and passion for seeing students flourish and their alma mater grow and prosper is an inspiration for all of us in the Aggie family.”

The Romingers, who live in Winters, will speak June 10 during the 9 a.m. commencement ceremony of the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

First presented in 2002, the medal has previously been awarded to 15 people, recognizing the very highest levels of distinction, personal achievement and contributions to the ideals of higher education on which UCD is founded.

A family affair
Few families are as deeply rooted in UCD and California agriculture as Richard and Evelyne Rominger.

They proudly note that in 1909, both of their fathers attended the first Picnic Day, UCD’s trademark spring open house. Rich, as he is known to most people, says his dad, Albert Rominger, pedaled a bicycle several miles through the countryside to be part of the inaugural event.

 Evelyne’s father, John O. Rowe, graduated from UCD in 1913, and her uncle, John Rogers, was the first UCD farm superintendent, who in 1906 unlocked the gate to the newly acquired 780-acre farm that would become the Davis campus. She and her three brothers all attended UCD.

The Cal Aggie Marching Band — now often referred to as the “Band-uh!” — brought the Rowe and Rominger families together in 1947. Evelyne was the majorette for the then all-male band, and Rich was a front-row trombone player.

“He was the shyest guy in the band; and I thought he was so handsome,” Evelyne said.

Rich attended his freshman year at Sacramento Junior College because UCD was closed during World War II and then served 14 months in the U.S. Navy before the war ended. He played third base on the Aggie baseball team and became a member of Alpha Zeta, the national agricultural honor society.

He graduated summa cum laude in 1949 from UCD, majoring in agronomy and earning a bachelor’s degree in plant sciences, and then returned to help run the family farm near Winters.

Evelyne, intent on obtaining a “broad general education,” served as editor of the Cal Aggie newspaper during the 1949-50 school year. When Knowles Ryerson, dean of the College of Agriculture, returned to UCD after the war, he wanted the campus to be more involved internationally and sent Evelyne and other students to the World Affairs Council conference at Asilomar.

She later became vice president of the student World Affairs Council and a member of Cal Club, established by UC President Robert Gordon Sproul to include student leaders from all UC campuses.

She transferred to UC Berkeley for her senior year so that in 1951 she could graduate with a bachelor of arts degree in English, history and journalism. At the time, UCD offered only a bachelor of science degree in that area.

Government service
Rich and Evelyne married in 1951 and had three sons, Richard, Charlie and Bruce, and one daughter, Ruth. The boys all graduated from UCD; Ruth began at UCD but graduated from UC San Diego. The Romingers also have four granddaughters and three grandsons.

In 1977, recognizing Rich’s agricultural leadership at the regional and state level, Gov. Jerry Brown appointed him to head the California Department of Food and Agriculture. He served as the agency’s director until 1982.

In 1993, Rich was appointed by President Bill Clinton to become deputy secretary and chief operating officer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In that post, among many other duties, he oversaw establishment of national standards for organic farming.

After an eight-year stint in Washington, D.C., he and Evelyne returned to Winters, where their sons and nephews were running the 6,000-acre family farm along with Rich’s brother, Don Rominger, who also had attended UCD.

 

(Watch CDFA’s video about the Rominger family, from the Growing California video series)

 

Legacy of service
Through the years, UC Davis has benefited from the Romingers’ commitment to public service and love for agriculture. Rich serves as an adviser for the chancellor’s office, the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and the Agricultural Sustainability Institute. He previously also was an adviser to the UC Agricultural Issues Center at UCD and the Yolo County Water Resources Board.

In 2004, the Cal Aggie Alumni Association appointed him to serve two years as its representative to the UC Board of Regents, and he has been a member of the UCD Foundation Board.

He also serves on the University of California President’s Advisory Commission on Agriculture and Natural Resources, and the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment, and is a liaison between UC and the agricultural community.

Evelyne was appointed in 1962 by Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown to serve on the Commission of the Californias and has been active in several area health associations. She has been a lifelong advocate for gender equality and social justice issues, serving as a founding board member of the Yolo County Mental Health Association and chair of the California Conference for Comprehensive Health Planning.

She was the first president of the Nelson Art Friends, a group supporting the first art gallery at UCD, and she presided over the dedication of the first Egghead sculpture by the late Robert Arneson near the entrance of Shields Library.

She is a founding board member of the Lincoln Council, which supports the National Agricultural Library, and has been an active volunteer with many area civic groups.

Giving, receiving honors
In 1978, Rich received the Cal Aggie Alumni Association’s Jerry W. Fielder Memorial Award in recognition of his service to UCD. In 1989, he and Evelyne jointly received the Award of Distinction from the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and in 2003 they were honored as Picnic Day parade grand marshals. They also are members of the UCD Chancellor’s Club.

After their son Charlie died in 2006, the Romingers, along with the family of the late animal science professor Eric Bradford, established the Bradford/Rominger Agricultural Sustainability Leadership Award, given each year by the UCD Agricultural Sustainability Institute.

Picnic Day is a must-save date on the Romingers’ calendar, and they are frequently on campus for events at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts. They continue to be ardent advocates for the university, officially and among their wide circle of friends and family.

“Over the years, quite a few people went to UC Davis because we told them to,” Evelyne said. “It’s still a great place to go, no matter what you study, with more majors, and graduate and professional programs, than any other UC campus.”

Link to article

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USDA resumes biomass incentives

The USDA’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) has announced that incentives resume this month for farmers and foresters who grow and harvest biomass for renewable energy and biobased products. The funds come through the Biomass Crop Assistance Program (BCAP), which was reauthorized by the 2014 Farm Bill.

“This program expands the types of feedstock that can be used to make renewable fuels and biobased products, laying the foundation for growing more products made in rural America,” said FSA administrator Val Dolcini. “The Biomass Crop Assistance Program currently supports more than 890 growers and landowners farming nearly 49,000 acres to establish and produce dedicated, nonfood energy crops for delivery to energy conversion facilities, and it is a key piece of USDA’s strategy to grow the rural economy and create new markets for our farmers and ranchers.”

Facilities seeking to be qualified by USDA to accept biomass can begin enrollment until June 6, 2016. BCAP provides financial assistance to farmers and ranchers who establish and maintain new crops of energy biomass, or who harvest and deliver forest or agricultural residues to a USDA-approved facility that creates energy or biobased products.

In fiscal year 2016, there is $3 million available for BCAP. A portion of the funds will be provided to two existing BCAP projects in New York and Ohio/Pennsylvania to expand acres planted to shrub willow and giant miscanthus. Farmers and forest landowners may enroll for biomass establishment and maintenance payments for these two projects between June 15 and Sept. 13, 2016.

Also, between June 15 to Aug. 4, 2016, USDA will accept applications from foresters and farmers seeking incentives to remove biomass residues from fields or national forests for delivery to energy generation facilities. The retrieval payments are provided at match of $1 for $1, up to $20 per dry ton. Eligible crops include corn residue, diseased or insect-infested wood materials, or orchard waste.

To learn more about BCAP or to enroll in updates, visit www.fsa.usda.gov/bcap or contact your local FSA county office. To find your local county office, visit http://offices.usda.gov/.

Link to news release

 

 

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Cow Power at California dairy – from Capital Public Radio

By Amy Quinton

The 700 cows on Cace Van Steyn’s dairy farm in Elk Grove excrete about 98,000 pounds of manure and urine every day. All that waste produces methane.

The dairy is now using a flush system to collect that manure from most of the stalls and carry it to a covered lagoon where an anaerobic digester converts the gas into enough electricity to power 125 homes. Van Steyn says there are other benefits.

“This helps because it makes the manure much more manageable and easier to access and then if you add the generator part of it that helps generate some cash. It’s a win win I think,” says Van Steyn.

Vansteyndairy

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District paid for the largest portion of the $1.4 million project. Another $254,000 came from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“We have to access to funding,” says Van Steyn. “If there is access to funding like SMUD is doing, or USDA or people stepping up, then I would suggest that people seriously look at it and see if it can work for their farm.”

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A 225kW engine-generator is housed inside this red building on the Van Steyn dairy farm.  Amy Quinton / Capital Public Radio

 

NOTE – CDFA also has a dairy digester development program. More information may be found here or on this video. 

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CDFA announces adjustment to milk-for-cheese pricing formula

CDFA has released a letter to dairy processors and producers announcing a permanent adjustment in the price for milk sold for cheese production. Producers will receive an increase in payments from processors, estimated at an average of 96 cents per hundredweight (100 pounds) over a five-year period. This change is not expected to impact retail pricing for fluid milk.

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Dear Dairy Industry Stakeholders:

Today, I have ordered a permanent change to the dry whey scale of the Class 4b pricing formula, effective June 1, 2016. Once dairy product markets improve, this adjustment will provide a needed increase in revenue to producers to promote a stable milk supply.

I still believe adjustments to the pricing formulas are inadequate to address long-term structural challenges facing the dairy industry.  However, we must continue to respond to changing conditions in our industry by using the only tools available through the current milk pricing system.

Financial conditions for producers in California and the U.S. are especially challenging right now due to declining milk prices caused by strong global milk production; high levels of dairy product inventories; and, decreased dairy product sales to key import countries. I also realize that manufacturers of California’s dairy products have made significant investments in this state and they are operating within a much more competitive environment due to weakened global demand. Milk prices and marketing conditions are not expected to recover until the balance between global supply and demand improves.             

As I have frequently stated, we must collaboratively work together to address the issues impacting our industry. Although there could be potential changes pending decisions at the federal level, we must not let that stall efforts now to work within the limitations of the pricing system to promote long-term growth and prosperity of the California dairy sector. Our dairy families and processors who have committed to California deserve no less.

Yours truly,

Karen Ross

Secretary

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Carbon farming a boon for soil and the environment – from the New York Times

Carbon pic By Beth Gardiner

When Gabe Brown and his wife bought their farm near Bismarck, North Dakota, from her parents in 1991, testing found the soil badly depleted, its carbon down to just a quarter of levels once considered natural in the area. Today the Brown farm and ranch is home to a diverse and thriving mix of plants and animals. And carbon, the building block of the rich humus that gives soil its density and nutrients, has more than tripled. That is a boon not just for the farm’s productivity and its bottom line, but also for the global climate.

Agriculture is often cast as an environmental villain, its pesticides tainting water, its hunger for land driving deforestation. Worldwide, it is responsible for nearly a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. Now, though, a growing number of experts, environmentalists and farmers themselves see their fields as a powerful weapon in the fight to slow climate change, their very soil a potentially vast repository for the carbon that is warming the atmosphere. Critically for an industry that must produce an ever-larger bounty to feed a growing global population, restoring lost carbon to the soil also increases its ability to support crops and withstand drought.

“Everyone talks about sustainable,” Mr. Brown said. “Why do we want to sustain a degraded resource? We need to be regenerative, we need to take that carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the cycle, where it belongs.”

Since people began farming, the world’s cultivated soils have lost 50 percent to 70 percent of their natural carbon, said Rattan Lal, a professor of soil science at the Ohio State University. That number is even higher in parts of south Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and the Caribbean, he added. Globally, those depleted soils could reabsorb 80 billion to 100 billion metric tons of carbon, reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide by 38 to 50 parts per million, Mr. Lal said. That does not include the carbon that could be simultaneously sequestered into vegetation, but the numbers are significant on their own, equaling up to 40 percent of the increase in concentrations since pre-industrial times. Last year, atmospheric carbon dioxide for the first time hit a monthly average of 400 parts per million, a symbolic threshold but one that many experts say could indicate that warming will soon spiral beyond control.

When carbon escapes from soil, it combines with oxygen to form carbon dioxide. Sometimes the loss is gradual, the result of plowing that leaves upturned layers of earth exposed to the elements, or of failure to replant or cover fields after harvest. Sometimes it happens more suddenly. The thick prairie sod of America’s Great Plains was a rich carbon store until settlers tore it up for farms, leaving hundreds of millions of tons of topsoil to be blown away in the Dust Bowl years. The destruction of millions of acres of carbon-rich Indonesian peatlands for palm oil plantations is helping to drive climate change today.

Low carbon levels leave the ground nutrient-poor, requiring ever-greater amounts of fertilizer to support crops. They also make for thin soil that is vulnerable to erosion and less able to retain water, so yields suffer quickly in times of drought. To bring levels back up, a set of techniques known as carbon farming, or regenerative farming, encourage and complement the process by which plants draw carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, break it down and sequester carbon into soil. They include refraining from tilling, or turning, the soil; mixing crops together rather than growing large fields of just one type; planting trees and shrubs near or among crops; and leaving stalks and other cuttings on fields to decay.

Mr. Brown keeps his fields planted for as much of the year as possible to minimize nutrient loss. When he mixes clover and oats in the same field, the clover fixes nitrogen into the soil. After the oats are harvested, livestock graze the clover and leave their manure behind. Such strategies have allowed him to stop using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, reducing costs. And the rich soil not only yields higher volumes, but the crops are more nutritionally dense than those grown on depleted land, he says. “Economically, it’s much, much, much more profitable,” he said. Mr. Brown’s approach is very different from the techniques of industrial-scale farming that have taken hold in the United States and other wealthy countries, where single crops stretch over many acres, and fertilizers and pesticides are used heavily.

Things are worse in poorer nations, where farmers’ desperation often means they are unable to care for the soil, Mr. Lal said. He recalled seeing a Mexican sharecropper carting corn straw away from the fields to sell: “I said, ‘Why don’t you leave it on the land? The land will be better next year.’ And he said, ‘This land will not be mine next year, and I need money now.”’

There is some momentum behind a shift. The French government, which helped broker last year’s landmark Paris Agreement on climate change, is pushing an effort to increase soil carbon stocks by 0.4 percent annually, which it says would halt the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Mr. Lal called the target unrealistic, but said achieving just a quarter of that sequestration would be meaningful. In a generation, he said, agriculture could become carbon neutral, removing all the emissions it creates, for example through the energy used by farm equipment.

Worldwide, 5 percent to 10 percent of growers are using regenerative, climate-friendly techniques, said Louis Bockel, a policy officer at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization. That number is likely to increase, he said, as multinational institutions and wealthy nations start incorporating carbon sequestration incentives into existing aid to farmers in poor countries. “More and more additional funding will be available” to encourage such efforts, Mr. Bockel added. “We are moving quite quickly on this.”

Farmers need financing to help them adopt new techniques, though generally only through a two-to-three-year transition period, said Eric Toensmeier, author of “The Carbon Farming Solution.” That money could come through a higher price charged for foods whose cultivation encourages sequestration, via a carbon tax or through trading systems in which polluters buy credits to offset their emissions, he said. Programs known as payment for environmental services, in which governments or others pay farmers for stewardship of land, are another potential avenue.

With that kind of support, the industry could be ready to do things differently, said Ceris Jones, a climate change adviser at the National Farmers Union in Britain. “People say that farmers are pretty conservative, but actually practice can change quite quickly,” she said.

Another obstacle is the lack of an agreed-upon system for measuring carbon sequestration in soil, which will be required as the basis for any payments, Mr. Toensmeier said. Technically, though, many elements of carbon farming are ready to be put into practice quickly, he said. Something as simple as planting trees around fields drastically increases the amount of carbon fixed into soil, Mr. Toensmeier said. “I would love to see a huge, major transformation of agriculture in the industrialized world, but if we started with just adding trees to the system we have, it’s a huge gain,” he said. “We can sort of meet farmers where they are”

It’s not just crops. The earth beneath the world’s grasslands, from America’s Great Plains to the Tibetan Steppe and the Sahel of Africa, holds about a fifth of all soil carbon stocks, the Food and Agriculture Organization estimates. In many places that soil is badly depleted. “This land is waiting to be filled up again with carbon if we could manage it sustainably,” said Courtney White, author of the book “Grass, Soil, Hope.” That means moving livestock frequently so each patch of land is grazed just once a year, mimicking the patterns of the native bison that once roamed the American West, he said. The combination of stimulation during animals’ brief presence and long periods of rest encourages plants to lay down more carbon, Mr. White said. With policies that encourage change, Mr. Toensmeier said, agriculture could benefit the climate rather than harming it. “There do seem to be a remarkable number of win-win opportunities, which is great news,” he said. “You don’t hear a lot of great news about climate change.”

 Link to article

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Recruiting the next generation of state employees – CDFA hosts first annual Career Fair

IMG_3521With an estimated 40 percent of all California state employees eligible to retire in the next five years, and nearly 50 percent here at CDFA, the agency recognizes a substantial need to recruit new employees and this week held its first annual career fair at its Gateway Oaks office in Sacramento.

Invitations went out to local schools and Ag industry affiliates through several means of communication, including social media. The target audience included high school seniors, college students, and people interested in a career change. The response has been quite enthusiastic. Nearly 200 people attended the career fair and more than 1,600 others have inquired about jobs on a recruitment web page maintained by CDFA.

“It is absolutely essential to get Millennials interested in a career with the State,” said CDFA analyst Dana Eagle, one of the Career Fair organizers. “Retiring Baby Boomers have a wealth of institutional knowledge, which makes it critical that we invest in our current workforce and get people interested in coming work for us today.” 

CDFA deputy secretary Kevin Masuhara speaks to an interested group of potential job seekers.

CDFA Deputy Secretary Kevin Masuhara speaks to an interested group of potential job seekers.

Current and future job openings cover the full spectrum of programs at CDFA, including plant health; animal health; dairy food safety; weights and measures – including work in alternative fuels; information technology; marketing; climate smart agriculture; oversight programs for certified farmers markets and organic agriculture; and administration and other support functions.

The agency will need scientists and other subject matter experts as well as veterinarians, entomologists, chemists, technical specialists, analysts, and a full complement of support personnel.

Future inquiries about jobs at CDFA may be directed to the Examination Unit by calling 916-654-0790 or via e-mail at exams@cdfa.ca.gov.

Here are some scenes from CDFA’s 2016 Career Fair.

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Video – CDFA at State Scientist Day 2016

More about State Scientist Day here.

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Children of farm workers becoming tech professionals – from NPR

Upcoming graduates of the CSin3 program gathers for a group photo as their family members snap pictures.

Upcoming graduates of the CSin3 program gather for a group photo as their family members snap pictures.

By Krista Almanza

An unlikely class of college graduates will walk the stage on Saturday. They’re the product of intensive three-year bachelor’s degree program in computer science called CSin3. We first told you about it when it launched three years ago.

This joint venture (formerly called CSIT-in-3), between Hartnell College and Cal State Monterey Bay, aims to train students from California’s agricultural Salinas Valley to compete for careers in nearby Silicon Valley.

In a field dominated by white and Asian men, this first cohort of graduates defies the demographics. It’s more than 80 percent Latino and nearly 50 percent women.

“The skeptics and the doubters should know this is a program that truly works,” says Teresa Matsui of the Matsui Foundation. She’s the daughter of Salinas Valley orchid farmer Andy Matsui, who had the initial idea for the program and then paid for it by giving every student a full-ride scholarship.

The Matsuis wanted to help families similar to those who helped their orchid business grow. Many of the students in this cohort are the children of farm workers or immigrants themselves.

The hope was to prepare them for jobs at Silicon Valley tech giants like Apple, Uber and Salesforce, and some have accepted jobs at those big-name companies.

But since the program launched three years ago, a new opportunity has emerged to do high tech work here in the growing field of agricultural technology.

Two students, Jose Diaz and Monse Hernandez, spent their summer interning at Cisco in Silicon Valley, but later took a second internship at local agriculture tech startup HeavyConnect. It creates software to help farmers streamline administrative tasks.

Diaz and Hernandez built a program that unlocks a tractor’s ignition only after the driver completes a series of safety checks.

“I’m not only doing this project to help the owners, the farmers themselves, but also figure out ways to help the employees because of all the hard work they go through, all the long hours in the sun,” Hernandez says.

While she’s still weighing her post-graduation options, Diaz has accepted a job with HeavyConnect.

“Over at Silicon Valley, I feel I would be another worker maintaining a company. But with HeavyConnect, it’s going to make big change,” Diaz says. “And that’s what I want to do — help the community.”

HeavyConnect co-founder Patrick Zelaya has been so impressed with the CSin3 students that he held off filling full-time positions until graduation. He says it’s an added benefit that they bring both computer science skills and knowledge of the agriculture industry.

“It was just luck that there’s this talent mill of students that are proving themselves to be technical rock stars by completing a four-year degree in three years in the same town that we’re starting this business,” Zelaya says.

CSin3 co-director Joe Welch says some of the students came to the program from rural parts of the Salinas Valley, where they hadn’t been introduced to computer science in high school.

“Absent the program they wouldn’t know how successful they could be if they just worked and worked and worked,” Welch says.

In the Cal State system, only about 28 percent of students transferring from a community college finish on time. In the CSin3 program it’s 69 percent, and almost all the others will finish within the next year.

Leticia Sanchez is one student who will be graduating in December. When she started the CSin3 program, she was still developing her English language skills; the majority of her schooling had been in Mexico. Now she’s also considering a career in agriculture technology.

“I feel like if I stay in Salinas, I will be able to give back to my community,” she says.

When Sanchez started the program she had a goal of earning enough so her mother could stop working in the fields. Now she sees that happening in the near future.

“We’re seeing the embodiment of grit,” Welch says. And that grit is proving inspirational to others. Some younger family members of this year’s graduates are part of the next cohorts already underway.

Link to article

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Bee theft in California on the rise – from the Guardian

Photograph by Brett Murphy, the Guardian.

Photograph by Brett Murphy, the Guardian.

By Brett Murphy

EXCERPTED

The bees crawled up the thief’s arms while he dragged their hive over a patch of grass and through a slit in the wire fence he had clipped minutes earlier. In the pitch dark, his face, which was not covered with a protective veil, hovered inches from the low hum of some 30,000 bees.

The thief squatted low and heaved the 30kg hive, about the size of a large office printer, up and on to the bed of his white GMC truck. He had been planning his crime for days. He knew bees – how to work them, how to move them, and most importantly, how to turn them into cash.

He ducked back through the fence to drag out a second box, “Johnson Apiaries” branded over the white paint. Then he went back for another. And another.

After the thief loaded the ninth hive, he sat behind the wheel, with the driver’s-side door open. The truck was far from full, and there were almost 100 more boxes behind the fence for him to choose from. That meant a lot of money. The exact value of a hive is not standard – it depends what you do with them – but nine hives can bring in about $5,000 in just one year. And they are worth considerably more in the hands of a capable beekeeper who can maintain them season after season.

Suddenly, a wall of white light hit the thief from behind. He froze.

A security guard stood next to his patrol car’s spotlight, keeping his distance. The guard, whose name was Dre Castano, inched forward, wary of being ambushed. He thought there was no way just one guy had got all of those big boxes into the truck on his own.

The thief climbed out of the car and turned into the light. He stood there alone, his eyes glazed over and sullen. Maybe a drunk driver, Castano thought. He asked for the man’s ID.

Pedro Villafan, 5ft 2in tall, and 46 years old. He lived 20 minutes south, in Newman, another little town at the base of the foothills. He looked flushed, half-asleep. But he kept calm and answered Castano’s questions. Yes, those were bees. No, they were not his. No, he did not work for Orin Johnson. Yes, he was stealing them.

These are strange times for the American beekeeper. In California, the centre of the industry, members of this tight-knit community find themselves enjoying an economic boom while trying to cope with environmental turmoil. And now they’re dealing with a new kind of criminal: the bee rustler. Every year, at the height of pollination season in the spring, dozens of nighttime thieves – nobody knows exactly how many – break into bee yards all over California to steal hives.

Farmers depend on bees, but they do not keep their own – it is too costly, too time-consuming and too painful. So, they lease their pollinators from the commercial beekeeping industry, a fast-growing, national trade that underpins American agriculture.

 


That Villafan was even caught is remarkable. Thieves in the Central Valley rarely end up in handcuffs, let alone face prosecution. Witnesses do not drive by often. At 42,000 square miles, the area is vast and isolated, yet still connected by freeway arteries – helpful to thieves looking to make a fast getaway. With the right equipment, know-how, and a buyer already lined up, stealing hives is easy. A truck full of bees boosted at midnight in Stanislaus can be unloaded in a Kern County orchard, 200 miles away, by the morning.

The state beekeepers association offers a reward for anyone who helps catch a thief. The security guard who accosted Villafan in January 2015 got $1,000, although the sum can be as high as $10,000.

Detective Rowdy Jay Freeman – a backyard beekeeper himself – drives out to meetings, conferences, bars and bee yards to meet the keepers. Hunting down bee thieves is a frustrating job, given the dearth of evidence. Where dozens or even hundreds of humming boxes sit one day, there are “nothing but tyre tracks in mud” the next, said Freeman. “There are no witnesses out there in the country.” In three years investigating rural crime, Freeman had not caught a single bee thief.

But that changed this year when he got a tip two counties south. Jacob Spath, a young beekeeper short on his contracts after a tough winter, had backed a flatbed truck into a bee yard and made off with 60 hives. Two days later, Spath was negotiating prices with a broker, when a friend of the victim spotted the boxes, recognised the name, and called the police. Freeman arrested him that week.

Now the district attorney is looking to make an example of Spath by charging him with grand animal theft, a felony that carries a much higher possible sentence than ordinary grand theft. Spath pleaded guilty in April and could serve three years in prison – possibly more, depending on the judge’s valuation of the bees. The specific penal code only mentions large animals, including horses, goats, cows, mules, sheep, hogs and boars. This will be the first time in the history of California that someone is charged with grand animal theft for stealing bees.

Link to full article

 

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