October 1995, Volume 1, Number 4
Mendota: Wave of the Future?
The west side of the San Joaquin Valley became productive farm
land in the 1960s after federal and state water projects made
irrigation water readily available. Most of the farms that evolved
are very large, and most grow cotton, melons and increasingly
vegetables with the help of thousands of seasonal farm workers.
The Central Valley Project Improvement Act of 1992 changed federal
water policy, and reduced the federal water available for west side
agriculture by 50 percent. As on result, land values have dropped
about 30 percent.
The largely farm worker towns in the area are suffering. Mendota
is typical. It is a town of 7000, 90 percent Hispanic, that lies 35
miles west of Fresno. It has a deficit of several hundred thousand
dollars, a nearly bankrupt school district, 40 percent unemployment
in some months, bad water, and decaying housing.
A 1993 study found that nearly half of Mendota's children lived in
families with below poverty-level incomes. About 62 percent of city
residents qualified as working poor, earning less that $16,610 a year
for a family of four. Per capita income plummeted more than 20
percent between 1979 and 1989.
Mendota was the melon capital of the world, and melon picking was
one of the highest-paid jobs in agriculture--many young men aimed to
earn $100 per day.
Mendota landowners usually settle in nearby Firebaugh, and
sometimes San Joaquin and Tranquility. Even though Firebaugh is over
80 percent Hispanic, it is much richer--sales tax revenues and total
sales in Firebaugh, only eight miles to the north of Mendota, are
about 30 percent higher. Most of Mendota's school teachers, the city
manager, engineer and other city employees live out of town.
Between 1980 and 1990, the percentage of Hispanic residents in
Mendota rose from 85 percent to 94 percent. During the same period,
several thousand refugees of El Salvador's civil war began working in
the fields around Mendota.
In visits to four rural communities in California's Central
Valley, Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman vowed to provide funds to
strengthen rural economies. Orange Cove received a $2.2 million
federal grant for improvements for its water system. Many of the farm
worker towns of the San Joaquin Valley have unemployment rates of 20
to 45 percent.
In addition to a visit to Orange Cove, Glickman visited a carrot
producer in Kern County, a nut farm in Hanford and a dairy in Fresno.
Mark Grossi and Louis Galvan, "Big dreams, broken promises,"
Fresno Bee, August 20, 1995. Barbara De Lollis, "Viewing Valley's
bounty: Ag chief draws standing ovation for vowing to protect rural
economies," Fresno Bee, August 29, 1995.