Kettleman City is a small, poor farmworking community along the I-5 corridor, somewhere between Stockton and Bakersfield. Population about 1,400, according to the 2010 census. The community lies next to one of the West’s biggest toxic waste dumps. It’s also been plagued by a rash of birth defects that activists contend are caused by a combination of elements, including the dump, air pollution and pesticides that drift off from the fields surrounding the interstate highway. To fight these problems, the community has grown a group of activists, residents who for several generations have been fighting with regulators. In this latest leg of the fight, they filed a lawsuit against the EPA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Read the story here and link to PDF
Hot, Fresno temperatures climb over 100 degrees F (40 C). The air is thick like custard, smothering. Heat squeezes into every hole, every corner. Cold water rushes warm from the sink, because pipes have been sun-burned. Shampoo squeezes hot from the bottle. Clothes gives off human warmth when you put them on in the morning, as if someone had worn them all night. In this heat, the body and mind become lazy, slow, as if to conserve energy. All appetite for food is gone, replaced by constant craving for a cold shower and cool drink…
When I first moved to the Central Valley nearly four months ago, I saw signs pronouncing a terrible drought everywhere I drove. The farmers and ag industry advocates bemoaned the lack of water and the injustices they faced. Yet, everywhere in the state, water was plentiful in the form of an above-average snowpack and heavy rains. New drought signs kept cropping up. So I set out to gather the data from the federal and state water projects, in an effort to understand what the impact on farmers and farmworkers was, currently and in the past. This is one in a series of articles I plan on California’s water wars. Read the drought signs story here: link to PDF
Woodlake is difficult to find, a tiny city (pop. 7,000) in Tulare County, 60-plus miles southeast of Fresno, at the feet of the Sierra foothills. Drive down small highways tightly wrapped by infinite fields, plums and almonds and grapes. Circle on country roads and get lost, as I did. But one thing is certain: since 1949, this town has held a rodeo.
The UFW has not received a lot of positive press lately. The famous farmworker union, started by the late Cesar Chavez, has been struggling with a dwindling membership and lack of relevance among workers in the fields. Currently, its ranks are minuscule and many farmworkers don’t know about its existence. The UFW says there is a reason for those dwindling numbers. The union is launching a new campaign to pass a bill that would help them rid of that problem, increase union ranks _ and, union leaders say, help improve conditions in the fields. Read the story here or link to PDF
I spent this evening in Woodville, CA, population 1,678, the town surrounded by outstretched fields and numerous large dairies. I came to observe a UFW house meeting, for a story on farmworker organizing in California’s Central Valley. This is Tulare, the nation’s top milk producing county, and cows here churn out about 10 billion pounds of bulk milk per year. Most herds are over 1,000, the cows boxed into pens, bobbing their heads out through the feeders, gazing at you as you drive by. The people in this county even choose a dairy princess… Surprisingly, the majority of those who live in Woodville don’t work in the dairies. That’s year-round employment for those who are lucky. Most of the people in Woodville – where more than 80 percent of the residents are Latinos and houses are modest to say the least – work in the fields, often several hours away from the town. The air in Woodville smells of cows and everyone seems to know each other, reminding me of Polish villages. I took this photograph just outside of Woodville, as I was driving back home. On the horizon, you can see the faint lights of a large dairy.
The palm tree outside my window is shivering in the wind. What a striking sight for a transplant from Eastern Europe.
The criminal case over the heat-related death of teen farmworker Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez has come to an end. The result did not amount to much. In an emotionally charged courtroom, the farm supervisors who authorities say did not provide shade or water to the pregnant 17-year old took a plea deal. They didn’t get any jail time. Read about what happened in the courtroom here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/03/09/AR2011030900316.html or link to PDF
The death of 17-year-old pregnant farmworker Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez has become a symbol of a system gone wrong, outraging the farmworker community and leading to the first ever criminal case over a farmworker’s heat-related death in the country. The teen died of heat stroke after working for nine hours in 100-degree heat pruning grapes. Read about the criminal case and about why Maria Isavel made it to California in the first place. Find the story here or link to PDF. Photo courtesy of the family.
This story is about how the agricultural industry is hiring movie stars in Asian countries such as China and India to promote its crops, especially nuts. Read the story here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/03/04/us-farmers-nuts-asia-movie-stars_n_829131.html and link to PDF
Also, here is a link to a gallery of photos I shot for the story: