Water wars in the Central Valley

In my work in the Central Valley, I’ve focused more on problems with drinking water, which comes from groundwater, than I have on water for agriculture, which comes from highly contested surface water.  Nonetheless, in my travels I see many signs of struggle over agricultural water allotments.  “Congress-created dustbowl” signs appear on land next to the freeway and in some rest-stops trucks have been turned into giant political water posters.

So I enjoyed reading Matt Black’s article about recent agricultural water restrictions over my morning tea today.  He  speaks to the way water allotments are a zero sum game in our state: cuts for agriculture take farmland out of production in favor of preserving healthy riverine ecosystems further upstream and vice versa.  Mostly, Black focuses on the impact of the agricultural cuts on the poor who live precariously on the fringes of the agricultural economy.  This paragraph was particularly eloquent:

“As I watch this ersatz abundance turn to dust, I’m left conflicted.  When a group of farmers and politicians pose for news cameras in front of destitute housewives in a bread line, it feels outrageous.  Don’t they know that families here have relied on food handouts for years?  Are they really using their workers’ poverty – a poverty born of decades of exploitative wages – to get more subsidized water?” 


I was also pleased to recognize one of the photos in this essay as the cover photo of the inaugural edition of Boom: A Journal of California, which I also published a piece in.  You can see more of Black’s photos on his personal website.

The week that was

This week was more of a backward slide than a forward march.  I:

- rescheduled my office hours, cancelled a writing group, missed lecture, and cancelled a guest lecture

- went to the doctor’s office three times in two days

- convalesced by watching the Colin Firth version of Pride and Prejudice (1995) – not to be confused with the more recent Keira Knightley version (which I also watched)

- Checked and made varying degrees of comments on 80 pieces of student work and taught two, two hour labs.

- was warmed by offers from friends and neighbors to buy my groceries, drop off movies, and clear a pile of branches from my back yard

- read articles on the dilemmas of increasing open access to scholarly knowledge here and here

- said to my lunch companion, “This is the life!” as we sat down to eat at the college cafeteria – not because the food is so great, but because the view is

- enjoyed this beautiful bunch of ranunculus in my bathroom

Foodies and farmworkers unite!

I was pleased to find this report in my virtual in-box this week:

Inventory of Farmworker Issues and Protections in the United States, by Bon Appetit Management Company Foundation and the United Farm Workers of America, March 2011.

It’s great to see farmworker issues getting some attention, but what really caught my eye was the fact that a foodie group and a farmworker group had co-authored the report together.

After spending years incrementally improving the environmental impacts and profitability of food production through organic agriculture and other labeling systems, foodies have become increasingly interested in improving the social conditions of food production too.  While this conversation has most often centered around how to make improvements in working conditions on organic farms, this new report takes a much broader view.  It analyzes working conditions for farmworkers nation-wide, as well as the scanty legal protections available to them.

One of the current debates in foodie circles centers on the pros and cons of trying to solve our food system’s problems with market-based tools: organic certification, fair-trade certification, buying local, etc.  Should we rely on voluntary improvements by individual farmers who can then charge more for their products to consumers willing and able to spend more?  Or should we focus instead on legislative solutions that require improvements by all farmers?  While foodies have mostly used market-based solutions in their work, farmworkers groups have focused largely on legislative solutions.

My reading of the report suggests that its authors are pursuing a middle path.  They hope that increasing the visibility of farmworker problems in this country will also increase consumer interest in purchasing food that is grown under safe, dignified working conditions.  Then, more farmers will want to participate in labeling programs that require improvements in working conditions. These increasingly popular labeling programs will then help generate more interest in and awareness about the problems facing farmworkers, helping legislative solutions become politically feasible.  I’ll be watching to see where this foodie/farmworker partnership will lead.

Here’s a few other items of interest that passed through my in-box last week: