Monday, December 19, 2005

Down on the farm

The 11th Congressional District has many communities that are struggling with their identity. From Morgan Hill to Livermore to Tracy to Lodi or Escalon, small cities are becoming suburban bedroom communities without the local jobs to support their citizens. At the same time, they try to hold on to their agricultural past. You see it in the nature of the various festivals that they hold each year.

Still, San Joaquin County remains a great agricultural center. According to a report from UC Davis, San Joaquin County's agricultural sales rank it 6th in the state. There are over 4000 farms with an average size of just over 209 acres.

The San Joaquin County Chapter of the California Farm Bureau Federation reports that in 2004 San Joaquin County produced $1.6 billion in sales.

Top five crops, by value, 2004:
Milk $324.6 million
Grapes $188.8 million
Almonds $172 million
Tomatoes $107 million
Cherries $97.9 million

At the same time, San Joaquin County's ~20000 agricultural workers are having a very rough time. UC Davis reports that "The San Joaquin Valley is one of the few US regions in which inflation-adjusted per capita incomes fell from $21,100 in 1979 to $20,100 in 2001 (p19)." They also enumerate the role that immigration and education (or the lack of it) play in determining the economic nature of San Joaquin County.

I mention all of this background because I think that agricultural issues can have a major influence on the coming election and that the Democratic challengers to Pombo have not yet demonstrated any real understanding of what those connections are or how to exploit them. I sometimes wonder if they know where the Farm Bureau offices are or have ever even had lunch with Farm Bureau leaders.

One key issue here is employment, job and the maintenance of an agricultural workforce. It has been a long term policy of the California Farm Bureau Federation to have some sort of official guest worker program so that they would not be hiring illegal immigrants just to get their crops picked. In 2003, the then head of the California Farm Bureau Federation, Bill Pauli, testified in front of a Pombo-led Agricultural Sub-Committee.
This spring, Imperial Valley asparagus growers have abandoned part of their crops in an effort to keep up with the harvest. Last year was a below-normal production year in California. If we experience normal or above normal harvests, the situation will get worse. We can't wait for a crisis to develop before we act. We urge this committee to lead the way in working for an H-2A program that is workable.

Back in February, the Fresno Bee reported on the effort to pass an Ag Job bill, one that would provide for legal guest workers for the agricultural industry.

Half a million illegal aliens now picking America's crops could become legal residents and, eventually, U.S. citizens under sweeping legislation reintroduced Thursday.

Backed by hundreds of farm, labor and church groups, the so-called AgJobs bill still faces serious political hurdles. But though similar legislation withered in the last Congress, supporters insist this year's effort will be less encumbered by election-year politics.

"If the farmworkers and agribusiness can put aside decades of often bitter differences, surely Congress and the White House can do the same," United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said at a Capitol Hill news conference.

As recently as this week, Pombo, supposedly the friend of Agricuolture, the good old down home cowboy, voted FOR an immigration control bill that makes it a felony to be an illegal immigrant in the United States; that increases the penalties on employers for hiring illegal immigrants and that has absolutely NO consideration for a guest worker program. This bill has none of the imigration policy provisions sought by President Bush when he toured the border a week or so ago.

I know that if I were a candidate planning to run against Pombo, I would pick up the phone, call Mike Robinson (San Joaquin Farm Bureau President) and say "let's talk about this." The San Joaquin County Farm Bureau says that it is about

Working With Labor: Farm Bureau actively supports federal legislation to ensure availability of adequate labor supply, to promote worker safety and to provide safe, affordable housing. Bilingual safety training and employer relations programs are also an important part of Farm Bureau's work.

It sounds more like Pombo is angling for American Independent Party votes than acting in the best interests of San Joaquin County farmers.

The California Democratic Party platform talks to their support of Agriculture.

Agriculture. Support agriculture that conserves land and water, provides decent jobs and work environment for farm workers, sustains a healthy food supply for the nation and provides an economically viable way to preserve open space.

Now would be a great time to prove it.


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