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July 2001, Volume 7, Number 3

California: San Joaquin, Imperial, Coast

California Governor Gray Davis announced a "Buy California" program on June 1 2001. The goal of the $5 million program is to persuade consumers to buy commodities grown in the state as part of an effort to speed up economic and job growth in the Central Valley. Buy California was announced in Bakersfield in June 2001 at the second Central Valley Economic Summit, which brought together local, state and federal officials to discuss the chronic double-digit unemployment rate in the Central Valley.

The commodities with the lowest prices include grapes, processing tomatoes, and apricots. Many farmers, including the 400-acre Be Wise Ranch near San Diego that was featured as the wave of the future in 1997, are looking at the third straight year of low prices and losses.

California's unemployment rate in May 2001 was 4.9 percent; the national rate was 4.4 percent. However, unemployment rates in the San Joaquin Valley remained high, in the 14 to 18 percent range, for example, 13 percent in Fresno county. UpRight Inc, a maker of aerial platforms with 800 employees and the largest private employer in Selma, which has a 22 percent unemployment rate, closed its doors and declared bankruptcy in June 2001. In February 2001, Pirelli Armstrong Tire Co. laid off 800 employees after closing its Hanford plant.

Education- getting more children to graduate from high school and go to college- is widely considered to be the key to raising earnings and reducing unemployment and poverty in the San Joaquin Valley. California had a $50-billion budget for education in 2000-01, including $30 billion from state general funds; $11 billion from local property taxes; $5 billion from federal funds; and $3 billion from other local taxes.

The American Lung Association said the four metro areas with the most unhealthy air in 2000 were, in order, Los Angeles-Riverside-Orange County; Bakersfield; Fresno and Visalia-Tulare-Porterville.

Tulare County. Tulare county, with 368,000 residents and a labor force of 150,000, has traditionally had the highest unemployment rate in the San Joaquin Valley, 13 to 20 percent; the rate was 14.1 percent in June 2001. Tulare county's largest city, Visalia, had 91,565 residents, according to the 2000 census.

This citrus and dairy county between Fresno and Bakersfield has been paying welfare recipients to move to the Midwest to accept jobs under the More Opportunity for Viable Employment, or MOVE program--some 750 recipients have been paid an average $1,600 to leave the area. For example, in May 2001, a Missouri poultry processing company that paid its 625 workers $8.20 to $9.70 an hour came to Visalia to recruit workers. More than a third of Tulare county's residents receive some kind of public assistance.

Current welfare recipients can receive moving assistance even if they move to places where they do not have job offers, provided the unemployment rate in their destination is under five percent. About 85 percent of those who left Tulare county with assistance found jobs. Those who take relocation assistance and decide to move back to Tulare county must repay the moving assistance if they re-apply for welfare benefits. The departure bonus program was expanded to Kings County in October 2000 and to Fresno County in March 2001.

The city of Lindsay exemplifies Tulare county's economic woes. A 36-acre food processing plant owned by Lindsay Olive Growers was closed and was to be reopened by Console Foods, a frozen-food processor, but Console Foods defaulted on a federally guaranteed $7.9 million loan, which made it hard for Console to secure financing to reopen the plant. Lindsay Mayor Valeriano Saucedo was appointed to the Tulare County Superior Court in May 2001. From 1985 to 1993, Saucedo was the statewide director for California Rural Legal Assistance.

LoBue Brothers Inc, the largest independent commercial citrus packer in California, reopened a closed 200,000 square foot Dole citrus packing shed in Exeter in May 2001, creating about 20 jobs.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has labeled the San Joaquin Valley a "source nation" for methamphetamine (meth or crack), a highly addictive stimulant that has been labeled "the worst drug that has ever hit America." About 60 percent of US meth is believed to be produced in the San Joaquin Valley, much of it in "superlabs" that produce at least 10 pounds of meth a day.

Fresno. An economic summit on the future of Fresno concluded that the county has "one of the worst combinations: high joblessness, shallow income growth and a big wave of population growth." Fresno County residents received $139 million in unemployment benefits in 2000; however, Fresno does not always have the qualified labor to staff jobs that require education and skills, discouraging some new investment. The city of Fresno wants to be designated a federal "empowerment zone," which would mean tax breaks for investors who create jobs in the city.

A grand jury recommended that the city of Parlier, population 11,000, disband its police force and contract with the Fresno County Sheriff for police services. Parlier used the sheriff between 1982 and 1991, and has had eight police chiefs in the last four years. The grand jury said that there was widespread nepotism among city employees-30 percent of city employees were related to one family by blood or marriage.

Mayor Luis Patlan rejected the grand jury's recommendations: "It's no secret that Parlier is 98 percent Hispanic, and the culture of the Hispanic community is to have a large, extended family. I'm not going to apologize for that."

John Harris dominates the economies of Coalinga, Huron and Avenal with entities that include the 18,000-acre Harris Farms Inc; Harris Feeding Co; Harris Ranch Beef Co.; Harris Farms Horse Division; and Harris Ranch Inn & Restaurant. Harris employs 1,500 people, making him the second-largest employer in western Fresno county, after a state prison. There are about 100,000 cattle in the Harris feed lots along Interstate 5, and their sale generates revenues of about $150 million a year. The Harris meatpacking plant is in Selma, and it processes 700 cattle a day. Harris lives on a 6,000-acre ranch in the Sierra foothills east of Fresno.

State aid for economic development in agricultural areas is often prisons, which create relatively large numbers of well-paid jobs because they operated 24/7 and most state employees in prisons belong to a strong union. The city of Coalinga won a $365 million, 1,500-bed facility for violent sexual predators- a 1995 state law requires that persons with a history of violent sexual crimes and who have been diagnosed with a mental disorder be committed involuntarily to a secure state mental-health center after the fulfillment of their prison sentences.

Imperial. The Los Angeles Times on June 17, 2001 profiled Imperial county, after it lost its bid for the state mental hospital for violent sexual predators. The article reviewed the county's problems, which tend to put it at the bottom of most rankings of California's 58 counties: low levels of education (47 percent of adult residents are not high school graduates), low wages, and a hot desert climate. Unemployment in 2000 averaged 26 percent, and median individual income was $18,126, below the California median of $29,376 and less than half of Marin County's state-leading $42,879.

About 31 percent of Imperial county jobs are in government, followed by 23 percent in agriculture. Some 10,000 to 15,000 Mexicali residents cross the border between 2 and 5 am every day between January and March, the peak harvest season, and seek jobs in one of the largest day labor markets in North America. They are guaranteed the minimum wage of $6.25 an hour, but they may have one to three-hour unpaid trips each way to the fields.

The article concluded that "unemployment checks, welfare and food stamps are linchpins of the local economy." Federal food stamps are available to households with incomes up to 130 percent of the poverty line, which is an annual income of $17,050 for a family of four in 2001. Benefit levels vary with income and family size, but the average Food Stamp recipient receives about $80 of food coupons each month, or $960 a year. However, households with a car worth more than $4,650 are usually ineligible for Food Stamps, which makes it hard for the working poor to receive them. In FY00, USDA issued $15 billion worth of Food Stamps, including $1.6 billion to California, $1.4 billion to New York, and $1.2 billion to Texas.

One hope for Imperial county is the booming Mexican city of Mexicali, capital of Baja California. Managers and engineers employed in Mexicali maquiladoras are buying homes in Calexico, on the US side of the border, fueling a home-building boom.

Watsonville. Watsonville, a city of 44,000 located 100 miles south of San Francisco, is the strawberry capital of California. The largest marketer is Driscoll, which has 5,200 acres of strawberries in California and another 1,300 acres in Florida and Mexico.

About 75 percent of residents of Watsonville are Latino, and the city's rapid growth has sparked the need for additional schools. The Pajaro Valley Unified School District wants to build the New Millennium high school in an area near current strawberry fields. Strawberry fields are fumigated, and some parents have protested the location, citing environmental dangers to students; 70 to 90 percent of the students will be Latino.

In Greenfield, a city of 12,600 south of Salinas that is 85 percent Latino, parents complained about day laborers "harassing" female students leaving the local high school. In response to the complaints, the INS on April 9, 2001 raided the retail business's parking lot where farm workers waited for jobs, and apprehended 39 unauthorized Mexicans. Some activists decried the INS raid and urged the city council to pass a resolution saying the INS is not welcome in the city.

Santa Clara Valley. The Santa Clara Valley--stretching 30 miles along the Santa Clara River from Ventura to Magic Mountain, passing Saticoy, Santa Paula, Fillmore and Piru-is the largest slice of coastal agriculture in southern California. Its 33,000-irrigated acres produced citrus and avocados worth about $350 million in 2000.

Newhall Land & Farming Co is the largest landowner in the Santa Clara Valley, and it proposed a 70,000-resident city just across the Ventura county line in Los Angeles county. The farming anchor of the Santa Clara Valley is Limoneira, which has 4,100 acres in Ventura County and 2,000 in the San Joaquin Valley.

Devin Nunes, a 27-year old from the Central Valley, was appointed California director of USDA's Rural Development program, which distributes about $300 million a year through three agencies: Rural Housing Service, Rural Business-Cooperative Service and Rural Utilities Service.

Evelyn Nieves, "A Fertile Farm Region Pays Its Jobless to Quit California," New York Times, June 18, 2001. Stuart Silverstein, "Down at Bottom of California," Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2001. Brian Melley, "Gov. Davis announces 'Buy California' agriculture program," AP, June 1, 2001. Evelyn Nieves, "Drug Labs in Valley Hideouts Feed Nation's Habit," New York Times, May 13, 2001. Melinda Fulmer, "An Air of Unease Over Cattle Empire," Los Angeles Times, April 22, 2001. Maria Alicia Gau, "INS deports 39 after schoolgirls and parents complained of harassment, sparking debate on racism and sexism in Salinas Valley," San Francisco Chronicle, April 16, 2001.