Three days after Governor Schwarzenegger called a state of emergency in Ventura County in the wake of extreme frost, State Assemblyman Pedro Nava launched an agricultural tour in order to witness the damage the recent cold snap has brought upon area farms, viewing damaged avocado, celery, berry and citrus crops. (Nava’s District 35 covers part of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.) He made time for a roundtable discussion at the AG RX business in Oxnard, where representatives from the Ventura County Agricultural Commissioner’s office, as well as local farmers and growers, gathered to express their concerns to Nava. The uniting theme was a concern not only for the revenue lost and the businesses threatened, but also for the livelihood of the laborers put out of work, at least temporarily.
While one-stop resource centers have been opened in order to offer assistance to out-of-work farm employees – with aid mostly in the form of food stamps and public assistance – Nava recognized that relief from the sudden financial hardship was needed for all people involved in the local agricultural industry.
Comparisons to Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath flew, and Jeffrey Ponting of California Rural Legal Assistance used the Central coast freeze of 1998 to illustrate a general feeling of unease.
“The FEMA response was completely inadequate,” he proclaimed, adding that the practice of having emergency response representatives fly in from out of town was counterproductive. He said, “The learning curve took too much time. What we need to do is put money in the hands of local agencies and let the ones on the ground decide [how to disperse funds.]”
Drawing on his experience nine years ago, Ponting added that workers would indeed leave the area unless the state found a way to get money to the workers.
Everyone agreed with the importance of retaining the workforce.
Noting that strawberry harvesting would begin anew within the next month and a half, Agricultural Commissioner W. Earl McPhail expressed a fear that there would not be enough workers to pick the berries.
Though in terms of temperature drop the recent freeze was comparable to that of 1990, the losses have been much more sharp.
“We have more strawberries, raspberries, blueberries,” explained McPhail, “we have 7,000 more acres of strawberries, 1,400 acres of raspberries that we didn’t have. We have two-thirds more nursery stock. [The lost crops account for] 280 million dollars total.”
Of the 22,000-25,000 farm workers in the area, McPhail estimates that “at least half of those are out of work right now.”
An associate from Reiter Affiliated in Oxnard – whose growers produce five percent of the strawberries in the valley – estimated that 80% of their 2,100 laborers were temporarily out of work.
“It’s interesting, the unanimity with all the growers,” Nava reflected the following Monday. “Their first concern was for the welfare of their workers.”
Tom Deardorff, president of Deardorff Family Farms, impressed the need for tax credits and low interest loans to help keep these businesses afloat. He explained that his employees were working reduced hours on a piece rate basis, meaning that earnings were calculated by how much product was moved.
“[Their pay] went from sixteen dollars an hour down to ten dollars,” Deardorff worried. “It’s more than minimum wage, but it’s not what their budgets are based on.”
“How profound the relationship between grower and worker,” Nava acknowledged. “You’re just saying, ‘Give me the tools I need.’ You are interdependent in a way that is not expressed enough.”
The representatives agreed that they were battling misconception that the workers were unskilled, and that undocumented workers weren’t part of the equation of the suffering.
At an official level, the discussion of undocumented workers was framed by concern.
Says McPhail, “We know probably at least 60% of our workforce is illegal. They’re not normally inclined to come in and get aid.”
In addition to assuring such workers that they will not be penalized for seeking help, he said that “nothing’s going to happen to them as long as they have whatever it is they showed the grower to get the job, plus check stubs.” McPhail also said that the commission is trying to funnel resources to churches and nonprofits where migrating laborers might feel more comfortable seeking aid.
While asking for the growers’ input, Nava assured the gathering that he had raised his concern in a special session of the assembly, and that he was optimistic about the governor’s quick response in issuing the state of emergency.
“I think agriculture is the victim of its own success,” Nava said, “and what I mean by that is that as consumers, we have come to expect that any time of the year we are going to go into the grocery store and find the fruits and vegetables we expect, and that they will be plentiful…Most people really don’t have a firm understanding of how vulnerable agriculture is – to change in market, and change in weather, and how, in some instances, it’s very fragile.”