Coming home to industrial ag: A tour of the Central Valley

There’s an image that’s stuck with me from the cross-country drive that my dad and I took last summer. It was one of many late-night stints at the wheel, perhaps 11 p.m., and we were hurtling along through the Utah desert. A sign at the last gas station had warned us of a nearly 100-mile population drought ahead. It was utterly unexpected, then, when we came over a rise and saw below us a blast of light so bright that I wondered aloud why a baseball stadium had been built in this unpopulated wasteland. Dad chuckled and set me straight in his patient way: not baseball, but mining. Probably coal.

As we descended into a valley, slowed down, and rubber-necked the ragged hillside, we saw that the gas station sign had been wrong: there were people here, a tiny community in the middle of nowhere whose entire existence was based around the mine. Its residents lived in trailer-like structures clustered off to one side of the operation. Most spent their days chipping away deep underground; all spent their nights breathing in the soot that the daily activities generated. This is where domestic energy comes from. And yet everything about this community — including the health effects that the residents and their kids undoubtedly suffered because of the mine — was completely and utterly out of sight of those of us who benefit from the fruits of their labors. 

This feeling hit me again on Friday, the first day of the “Reclaiming our Healthy Future” conference organized by Beyond Pesticides, Californians for Pesticide Reform, and Pesticide Action Network North America. I’d boarded a bus to tour the Central Valley agricultural communities of Grayson and Westley and spent the ride there learning about the great work of these groups and their allies in the valley.

CPR staff member Teresa de Anda told us about her experience as a resident of Earlimart, located in one of the top agricultural counties in the state. In 1999, the community was engulfed in a cloud of metam-sodium pesticide that blew in from a field nearby, causing immediate illness in at least 170 residents. The pesticide is a carcinogen and a reproductive toxin, so the long-term impacts of this event are still unknown. The company responsible for the cloud was fined $150,000, the largest fine ever levied for a single incident of pesticide exposure (and, in my opinion, shockingly inadequate).

Our first stop was Grayson Charter School, an innovative bilingual Spanish-English school with 250 students. 98% of the students are Latino, and 89% receive free or reduced lunch (meaning their families make less than 180% of the poverty line, which is $21,000 for a family of four). The school has done what it can to create a healthy environment for its students, including plans for an organic educational garden.

But there’s only so much they can control. The school is surrounded on three sides by almond orchards that are planted all the way up to the fence surrounding the playground. Two to three times a year, the orchards are sprayed with chlorpyrifos, an organophosphate (OP) pesticide that has been slated for phase-out but is still widely used agriculturally in California. A scientific panel at the conference this morning presented a number of studies on the impacts of OP exposure in children: hyperactivity, neurochemical abnormalities, developmental delays, hormonal disruption, and reduced academic performance.

Every morning, the tomato and melon fields on the other side of the orchards are sprayed with pesticides that the school administrators can't identify. Drift testing conducted at the school has found a "chronic" presence of pesticides at low-to-moderate levels in the school air. Chronic meaning constant. These kids are breathing in pesticides all the time.

Many of the town’s residents live in a revamped trailer community that we drove through after visiting the school. A spokeswoman from the Grayson Neighborhood Council told us that residents had moved into these trailers when their former homes were shuttered by the federal government because of lead contamination. The trailer community also contained migrant worker housing, which is open from May to October. Over a third of the students at Grayson Charter School are children of migrant workers and change schools throughout the year as their families move from harvest to harvest.

We passed a lot full of crop-dusting planes, tanks and tanks of pesticides being stored by the local agribusiness (left), and an elaborate-looking municipal water filtration system (below). GNC staff told us that the system had been installed when nitrate levels in the community’s drinking water were found to far exceed health limits set by the Fed. (Nitrates, which seep from nitrogen fertilizer into water supplies, cause blue-baby syndrome, a condition where babies’ red blood cells lose the ability to carry oxygen. It often leads to death.) The filtration system cost the Modesto Irrigation District $300,000 to install. A short time later, a no-build ordinance was enacted in Westley: no new homes can be built so that no more filtered water needs to be provided.

We headed to the Grayson community center for more presentations and some snacks (and a strong warning not to drink the tap water). The theme: when it rains, it pours. In addition to the agricultural pesticides that drift through their homes each day, residents find their houses and yards aerially sprayed for mosquitoes two times a month during the summer. Westley is also home to the state’s only tire-incineration facility (where, in 1999, 7 million tires caught fire and burned for 34 days straight) and a large trash incineration facility. Only after exhaustive organizing by the community and environmental justice allies, was a proposal for a medical waste storage facility killed. These tiny towns, nestled between huge tracts of agricultural land, nearly two hours’ drive over a mountain pass from the eco-fanatical Bay Area, are their own little coal mines lost in the desert.

It sounds like a really depressing tour, but it wasn’t. In fact, it was one of the more inspiring experiences in my recent memory. The organizing taking place in the Central Valley is no joke. In the San Joaquin Valley, where the air quality is worse than in most major U.S. cities, organizers recently campaigned for and won a mandated no-spray buffer zone of 1/4 mile around agricultural fields where high-toxicity pesticides are being used. They’ve expanded that campaign to eight other counties. Community organizations are linking with faith groups, national groups like Beyond Pesticides, CPR, and PANNA, farmworker justice organizations, and the organic farming community. Education, activism, and new food production systems are on the move.

We headed back to the Bay accompanied by an organizer from the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and his guitar, who led us in a rousing rendition of “No nos moverán” (we will not be moved). Nothing cheers me up quicker than a spontaneous bus hoedown, I have to say.

The realities of industrial agriculture are out of sight for most of us, and yet we consume the fruits of the labor of farmworker communities. They bear the burden of chronic pesticide exposure and the long-term health impacts that stem from it, including asthma, developmental disorders, cancer, Parkinson’s, and autism. What’s promising — and what I expect to learn much more about at this conference — is that as the public health, nutrition, policy, labor, rural, and organic communities find common ground in their work on the food system, they’ll help us understand one thing: Regardless of where we're coming from, Grayson’s reality is also our own.

For more information on farmworker issues, visit Farmworker Justice, United Farm Workers, and the many groups mentioned above.

4 Responsesto “Coming home to industrial ag: A tour of the Central Valley”

  1. As residents of this large agricultural community that is exposed to this toxic problem, we are trying to do our part by educating our community on the many benefits of supporting their local organic farmer.
    You are right about a movement happening here, it might take a while, but with persistence and communication it can become a beautiful healthy Central Valley farm heaven...
    We are working on it!

  2. Incredible post. I'm going to forward it to some researchers I have worked with.

  3. Anna says:

    We've driven through the Central Valley on our way from SD to SF, stopping to visit and tour our dairy source, Organic Pastures (a raw, pasture based dairy, quite atypical for Central Valley dairies).

    Things we noticed along the way included orchards with tree tops sheared off in an oddly flat shape, presumably to allow mechanical access through the trees; piles of yellow sulphur dust on the sides of the roads, for the raisin crop, but blowing in the breeze a bit, too; mounds and mounds of almonds at the edge of orchards (couldn't help but wonder if that contributes to the bacterial contamination that has lately been a problem, supposedly requiring pasteurization); lots of cows in odorous confinement pens, standing in thick manure; and perhaps most alarmingly, signs in gas station restrooms warning that the water at sinks was for washing only and not potable, because of groundwater contamination with agricultural chemicals. At that point I almost didn't even want to wash, ick.

    For miles and miles we drove through massive mono-cropped fields. Mono-cropping wreaks havoc on the environment, with habitat loss; no hedgerows in between fields for birds; soil blowing away in the breeze; greater vulnerability to insect infestation, etc. By the way, this is all true of certified organic mono-cropping, too.

    In fact, if one buys the "big brands" of organic, the kind in Walmart, the big box warehouses, the supermarkets, and many of the "organic chains", one is usually buying mono-cropped, industrial scale produce that is shipped long distances from the huge fields of the Central Valley and other West Coast locations, instead of buying locally grown produce from smaller, perhaps more bio-dynamically managed farms with multi-cropping techniques that mimic a more harmonious ecosystem.

    I live in SD, county in CA and sure, I can easily buy the same industrial-scale organic produce that is now available nearly everywhere in the country. But I don't. I asked about the delivery schedule at my local market and I shop the day that the local multi-crop organic farm produce is on the shelves. I also belong to that farm's CSA (Community Supported Agriculture farm share box program). That way, my dollars stay in my community strengthening the local economy, a family farm is able to stay in business, and we get great produce to eat. It's a win-win situation all around. Who needs carrots that are eligible to earn frequent traveler miles?

    I have a post up on my blog about who really owns those national brands of organic produce, too. Who *really* owns your favorite organic brands?

    Something to think about.

  4. Diane Vigil says:

    California Central Valley. Yikes: I haven't driven through it in years, but from the main freeway, even in the 1990's, you could smell the pesticides for miles on end. For far longer than you could hold your breath.