Ag Today Monday, February 8, 2016

Ag Today

Monday, February 8, 2016


Marysville Appeal-Democrat

Rural water providers lose out over fee claim

By Harold Kruger

A Sacramento judge this week turned aside the protests of rural water providers who claimed the state won’t reimburse them for water conservation activities that could cost millions of dollars.

The entities, including the Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, sued last year, alleging the Commission on State Mandates had denied their test claims.

Under changes to the Water Code, agricultural water suppliers that serve more than 25,000 irrigated acres have to measure the volume of water delivered to each farm gate and adopt a pricing structure based on the quantity of water delivered, according to the case filed in Sacramento County Superior Court.

The ag water suppliers are also supposed to implement other efficient management practices, if they are cost effective and technically feasible. They also have to adopt agricultural water management plans.

Mid-sized ag water suppliers — serving 10,000 to 25,000 irrigated acres — have to comply with the new rules only if state money is available. Small water suppliers — less than 10,000 acres — are exempt.

The commission, in rejecting the test claims, said the ag water agencies have “fee authority sufficient to cover the costs of the newly mandated activities,” the legal action said.

But the water agencies asserted propositions 13 and 218 made it difficult to impose new fees to pay for the state-mandated water conservation efforts.

Their customers, under Proposition 218, can reject new fees or assessments in an election.

Sacramento County Superior Court Judge Timothy Frawley, in a 21-page tentative decision, said the “mere threat of a majority protest provision is not a legal barrier to an agency’s fee authority. A majority protest requirement is not a legal barrier until it is exercised.”

He agreed with the water agencies that Proposition 218 “impacted” their ability to raise new funds, but “while it is possible that a majority of the owners will protest a proposed fee, it is also possible that they will not.”

Frawley wrote he was “unwilling to conclude that (the districts) lack ‘sufficient’ fee authority based on the speculative and uncertain threat of a majority protest. Thus, in the absence of a showing (they) have “tried and failed” to impose or increase the necessary fees, the commission properly concluded that (they) have sufficient fee authority to cover the costs of any mandated programs.”

In addition to Glenn-Colusa Irrigation District, the other petitioners were Paradise Irrigation District, South Feather Water & Power Agency, Richvale Irrigation District, Biggs-West Gridley Water District and Oakdale Irrigation District.

CONTACT Harold Kruger at 749-4774.


New York Times

Cover Crops, a Farming Revolution With Deep Roots in the Past

By Stephanie Strom

When Mark Anson came home with his hair on fire after a seminar on the seemingly soporific topic of soil health, his younger brother, Doug, was skeptical.

What had Mark lit up was cover crops: fields of noncash crops like hairy vetch and cereal rye that act on soil like a nourishing facial after the harvest.

Mark, 60, and his two brothers, together with assorted sons and sons-in-law, run Anson Farms, a big commercial soybean and corn operation in Indiana and Illinois. Concern about the soil quality of the family’s fields had nagged at him for some time. “Our corn was wilting when temperatures hit 103 degrees,” he said, and such heat isn’t so unusual in the summer. “I felt like I had a gorilla on my shoulder.” What he learned about the benefits of cover crops gave him hope.

But to Doug, planting some noncommercial crops seemed an antiquated practice, like using a horse-drawn plow. Cover crops had long been replaced by fertilizers. Still, he shared his brother’s concern about their soil. Its texture was different, not as loamy as it had once been, and a lot of it was running off into ditches and other waterways when it rained.

So in 2010 the family decided to humor Mark by sowing some 1,200 acres, which Mark describes as highly eroded farmland, with wheat cleanings and cereal rye. Additionally, they spread some cover crops to eroded areas in a few fields.

The next spring, Doug had to admit that the soil texture on that strip was better. And the water that ran off it during a rainstorm was clear, a sign that the roots of the cover crops were anchoring valuable topsoil in place.

But Doug didn’t become a believer until 2013, when the family was grappling with a terrible drought. “In the part of a field where we had planted cover crops, we were getting 20 to 25 bushels of corn more per acre than in places where no cover crops had been planted,” he said. “That showed me it made financial sense to do this.”

Now some 13,000 of the 20,000 acres that the family farms across nine counties are planted with cover crops after harvesting, and farmers around them are beginning to embrace the practice.

Cover crops are coming back in other areas of the country, too. The practice of seeding fields between harvests not only keeps topsoil in place, it also adds carbon to the soil and helps the beneficial microbes, fungus, bacteria and worms in it thrive.

These properties have led philanthropies like the Howard G. Buffett Foundation and the Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation to underwrite research on cover crops, while Monsanto, together with the Walton Family Foundation, recently put up the money to support the Soil Health Partnership, a five-year project of the National Corn Growers Association to identify, test and measure the impact of cover cropping and other practices to improve soil health.

Cover cropping is still used only by a small minority of farmers. When the Agriculture Department asked for the first time about cover cropping for its 2012 Census of Agriculture report, just 10.3 million acres — out of about 390 million total acres of farmland sown in crops — on 133,124 farms were planted with cover crops. The next census won’t be done until 2017, but experts say that the practice has spread. In an annual survey of about 1,200 farmers, the mean acreage reported as being sown in cover crops was 259 in 2014. That was double the mean reported by respondents in 2010, though results are not directly comparable because different farmers may have been involved in the surveys, said a spokesman for the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education, a federal government program, which conducted the survey.

“We’ve never seen anything taken up as rapidly as using cover crops,” said Barry Fisher, a soil health specialist at the Natural Resources Conservation Service, an agency within the Agriculture Department.

Interest in cover crops is coming from buyers, too. Dan Barber, a prominent chef who uses locally grown foods, has championed incorporating cover crops like clover and millet into cuisine as a way of encouraging farmers to grow them.

The Blue Ox Malthouse in Maine was established to coax farmers there to grow barley as a cover crop, which the company then turns into malt that is sold to the state’s craft beer industry. Half a dozen farmers are producing good-quality barley as a cover crop, and others “are interested in turning the grains they’ve been growing as cover crops into something there’s a value-added market for,” said Joel Alex, Blue Ox’s founder and maltster.

One measure of how rapidly the practice is growing is the booming demand for cover crop seeds. Keith Berns, a fourth-generation family farmer in central Nebraska, started making cover-crop seed mixtures in 2010, and the business “just kind of took off,” Mr. Berns said.

He and his brother, Brian, turned what started as a hobby into a thriving enterprise. This year, Green Cover Seed, their company, will sell enough seed to cover 500,000 acres in cover crops.

Last fall, the Berns brothers were recognized as White House Champions of Change for Sustainable and Climate-Smart Agriculture. “We have been kind of surprised at how fast our business has grown,” Keith said. “The reason is that because it’s working agronomically and doing what it’s advertised to do.”

Modern farming practices like applying fertilizer and herbicides and not tilling their fields, or “no till,” have helped farmers increase yields and reduced labor, but they have also unintentionally interfered with root systems, increased erosion and disrupted underground microbial activity and insect life that are vital to plant and soil health. (Many farmers deploying cover crops continue to use herbicides, although often less than they did in the past, but they often can do without fertilizers.)

“We’ve concentrated on the physical and chemical aspects of farming but not the biological,” said Dan DeSutter, who farms 5,000 acres near Attica, Ind.

Mr. DeSutter began fooling around with cover crops about 17 years ago, after Purdue University used one of his fields for research trials. One spring he was repairing a drainage tile in the test field and came across the deep, webbed root system that some Oregon ryegrass had put into the soil.

Mark Anson, center, has planted cover crops between harvests on 13,000 of the 20,000 acres his family farms in Indiana and Illinois. Credit Andrew Spear for The New York Times

“I thought to myself, I have been pulling the guts out of my tractor to remove compaction 14 inches deep with a ripper,” Mr. DeSutter said, “and this plant has just bored a system of micropores four feet deep between cash crops all on its own.”

The roots he stumbled across had created a natural aeration system that helped conserve water and trap nutrients in the soil, which would otherwise be prone to leaching. “That was the aha moment,” he said.

Today, all 5,000 acres he farms are sown after the harvest of corn and soy with a mixture of as many as 12 different crops, including sunflower, sorghum, buckwheat, turnips and hairy vetch, each of which delivers a different benefit. Most die off in the winter and decompose, leaving behind a rich layer of organic matter that gradually sinks into the earth. Farmers use a planter or seed drill to punch the seeds for their cash crops into the decaying cover crop.

Before cultivation, Indiana was blanketed in prairie grasses and forest, and the carbon content of the soil was as high as 10 percent in places. Today, after decades of tillage, which moves carbon from the soil into the atmosphere, and monocropping, the level on many farms is below 2 percent, Mr. Fisher said. Cover crops restore organic matter back into the soil, at a rate of about 1 percent every five years.

“As we put carbon back into the soil, it gives us a bigger tank to store water naturally,” Mr. DeSutter said. “This is one way we build resilience into the system.”

The adoption of cover cropping has been especially rapid in Indiana — about one million of the 12.5 million acres of farmland there are planted with cover crops between harvests. A strong collaboration between Purdue University and state and federal farm services gave birth to the Indiana Conservation Cropping Systems Initiative, a program that offers education and research to farmers in the state.

Rob Myers, director of extension programs for the north central region of SARE, and a professor at the University of Missouri, said Maryland also ranked high in the use of cover crops. The state reimburses farmers for the cost of cover crop seed and has been informing them about the impact that fertilizer runoff has on Chesapeake Bay.

Despite the support for cover cropping in Indiana, there is still resistance to change. Farmers are notoriously reluctant to offer their neighbors advice about farming, and cover cropping carries with it an implicit criticism of practices — reliance on fertilizers and pesticides, and so forth — that farmers for the last generation have used to increase productivity and reduce work.

“All those old guys sitting around shooting the breeze at the feed store get real quiet when I pull up,” Mr. DeSutter said, only half in jest.

Neighbors have made pointed comments about his “messy” fields. The fields sown with a cover crop cocktail are often blanketed in dying, decaying and thriving plants at the same time. In December, spindly black stalks, the remnants of sunflowers, shot up here and there from one of Mr. DeSutter’s fields, which were covered in a yellowing broadleaf and bright green hairy vetch.

But the biggest obstacle to more farmers adopting cover crops is the lack of data and research on their benefits. “Fewer of our neighbors think we’re crazy than when we started planting cover crops, but there’s still a lot of skepticism out there,” said Rodney Rulon, whose family farms 6,200 acres in northeastern Indiana and plants about four-fifths of them with cover crops.

Rulon Enterprises, the family business, has begun collecting data on some of its fields. He has found, for instance, an increase in organic matter and higher corn yields — an average of 12.8 bushels an acre more in one of his cover-cropped fields, said Mr. Rulon, who shared some of this data in December at the 70th Corn & Sorghum Seed Research Conference.

“You really start seeing a difference in your soil within two or three years,” Mr. Rulon said.

The Rulons spend about $100,000 a year on cover crop seed, or about $26 an acre. But they also saved about $57,000 on fertilizer they no longer needed, and bigger yields mean about $107,000 in extra income.

Including the value of improved soil quality, less erosion and other improvements, Mr. Rulon estimates that Rulon Enterprises gets about $244,000 of net economic benefit from cover crops annually, or a little more than $69 an acre.

The federal government is mulling ways to persuade farmers to adopt cover cropping. There is a small subsidy system; Rulon Enterprises, for instance, gets $40,000 to help offset the cost of cover crops and support other conservation practices.

But Mr. Rulon and Mr. DeSutter believe that landowners are the real key to taking cover crops mainstream. Most farmers work some fields leased from absentee owners, and thus have less incentive to maintain and invest in improving soil quality on that land.

“Why should landowners see the value of their land diminished because the soil on it has become unhealthy?” said Mr. DeSutter. “I’d like to see landowners give preferential treatment to farmers who are working to improve the value of the land they lease by using cover crops.”



The Economist

The great wet hope

Will this winter’s Niño end California’s prolonged drought?

WHILE the Atlantic coast of America was preparing for last month’s massive snowstorm, California was enjoying a welcome, albeit temporary, reprieve from its four-year drought. The prolonged downpour—a harbinger of the imminent El Niño storms—raised pool levels in Los Angeles by almost three inches, providing your correspondent with an extra 500 gallons of water free of the city’s Tier 1 tariff. Lawns, parks and hillsides that had been left to go brown during the drought (state-wide emergency measures have required cities to cut water usage by 25%) have turned green again. The one dismay has been seeing millions of gallons of precious rainwater pour down hillside gutters and storm drains, as it flowed unhindered into Santa Monica Bay.

Vacations spent as a youngster in coastal towns around the Mediterranean (California’s climatic cousin) conjure memories of concrete-covered catchment areas with networks of gullies for feeding rain from the occasional cloud burst to underground cisterns. Every town, even the smallest, seemed to have at least one such water-storage system. By all accounts, little runoff escaped to the sea.

California, despite the ever-present threat of drought, is way more profligate. The main concern is to channel the torrents off the hillsides as swiftly as possible, fearing they may unsettle the slopes and trigger mudslides and avalanches of boulders, uprooted trees and other debris—as has happened on numerous occasions before. Yet there is no fundamental engineering reason why capturing the coastal runoff from thunderstorms, on the one hand, and curtailing mudslides and flooding, on the other, should be mutually exclusive.

There is, though, the fact that those in charge of such matters reside in separate bunkers, rarely speaking to one another. And there is also the sheer cost, not to mention the disruption and nimbyism, of excavating and laying underground pipelines through residential neighbourhoods, to channel the downpour to municipal water-treatment plants. After years of debate, public hearings and environmental impact statements, one small scheme is getting underway along a stretch of Santa Monica Bay.

But, while underground cisterns may be impractical, a number of towns in California are experimenting with permeable pavements and rain gardens for capturing storm water. Other places are resurrecting flood meadows, moving earthen levees back from river banks where space permits. In an experiment in the Central Valley, researchers from the University of California, Davis, have flooded an almond grove to see how the trees cope with knee-high water while it leaches through the permeable soil. All such schemes have one aim in common: to capture runoff that would otherwise escape to the sea, and storing it in underground aquifers for later use.

For once, officials are viewing the storms unleashed by this year’s monster El Niño/Southern Oscillation as much a blessing as a menace. Cliffs and seawalls have been reinforced, beaches bulldozed into defensive berms, drainage gullies cleared of rocks and fallen trees, and concrete “K-rails” installed to channel flash floods on hillsides laid bare by recent wildfires. Faced with the possibility of the drought continuing for several more years, water authorities across the state have also been making an extra effort to capture as much of the coming Niño’s precipitation as possible. For thirsty California, it is too good an opportunity to miss.

The gift comes courtesy of the changes in surface temperature that ripple periodically across the Pacific Ocean. Once in a while, a huge band of warmer-than-usual water stacks up off the Pacific coast of South America around Christmas time—hence the name El Niño (The Christ Child). This huge body of warm water disrupts the equatorial jet stream, affecting weather patterns around the globe, allowing in the process storms to travel as far north as California. Coming on the heels of an exceptionally warm summer, this year’s Niño is expected to wind up being one of the most severe on record, greater perhaps than even the “Godzilla” event of 1997-98.

Even so, it is unlikely to slake California’s drought entirely. Probably, the extreme conditions of the past few years represent nothing so much as a dry run for what climate change has in store for the American southwest. As such, it has offered a useful stress-test of how California’s water infrastructure—the most complex and extensive in the world—will cope when droughts become more of a recurring feature than an occasional event.

There is a growing awareness that the depth and water content of the snowpack on the Sierra Nevada mountains, as important as such measurements are, do not alone define the severity of a drought, nor the likelihood of recovery. Normally, the snowpack—which feeds rivers and reservoirs as it gradually melts during spring and early summer—provides a third of the water consumed by California’s farms and cities. Thanks to El Niño, the snowpack is the deepest it has been in five years, with an average water content of 114% of normal. That is good news, though officials caution that the water content would have to be at least 150% for mandatory water restrictions to be lifted.

How low the lakes and reservoirs have become is another measure of the drought’s severity. When full, California’s 1,400 surface reservoirs can store up to 42m acre-feet (52 billion cubic metres) of water—equivalent to a year’s supply for farms and cities. Overall, California’s farmers use four times more water than all urban consumers combined. By the end of 2015, California’s lakes and reservoirs were around two-thirds empty.

Even more worrisome is the amount of water remaining in California’s 515 groundwater basins. These vast underground aquifers—many lying beneath the agricultural heartland of the Central Valley—can hold at least three times as much usable water as all the surface storage areas combined. Normally, aquifers supply about 40% of the state’s water consumption, the bulk of it being used to irrigate crops. However, with a drought as severe as the present one, groundwater has been providing as much as 60% of farmers’ needs, as ever deeper wells, and more of them, have been sunk to make up for cutbacks in their allocations of surface water.

In the past, farmers could let fields stand fallow when irrigation water was in short supply. That has become less of an option. The trend to permanent, rather than seasonal, crops—orchards and vineyards of fruit and nut trees instead of fields of lettuces, tomatoes and alfalfa—has made fallowing impossible in many parts of the state. Almond trees, one of California’s most profitable crops these days, can take a generation to come to fruition. To survive, they need a year-round supply of water.

Agricultural “overdrafting” (excessive pumping) is a direct consequence. Unlike surface water—the allocation of which is strictly regulated in California—groundwater has been managed in a more casual manner. Until recently, farmers have been essentially free to pump as much as they wanted. That has caused problems, lots of them.

Sucking aquifers dry, for instance, has prompted the land above to subside, damaging roads, bridges and irrigation canals. Also, lowering groundwater levels in aquifers has sucked water from nearby rivers and streams, reducing their flow and harming their aquatic life. In basins close to the coast, aquifers are being replenished by seawater as much as freshwater. The salinity of the water pumped up for irrigation can then wreak havoc on crops.

Meanwhile, the deeper the wells go, the greater their contamination from chemical fertilisers and manure as well as industrial waste. The majority of rural settlements rely almost exclusively on groundwater for drinking purposes. Treating it to remove such contaminants is a costly business—more than many small townships can afford. Trucking in daily supplies of bottled water could soon become a necessity.

Concerned about the rapid deterioration of this, the state’s most crucial source of water, lawmakers in Sacramento passed the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act in 2014. The law requires groundwater users to devise ways of managing the aquifers they tap, so extraction does not exceed replenishment. Local agencies will have the authority to monitor the amount of groundwater withdrawn, and to charge users pumping fees.

A year go, voters in California approved a $2.7 billion bond issue to help finance water-storage projects, on the assumption that additional reservoirs were needed to capture yet more of the runoff from winter storms. The five surface reservoirs proposed, costing around $9 billion between them, would provide an additional 4m acre-feet of storage capacity—just 1% of the annual farm and city use.

The fact is, California has all the storage capacity it needs—in its vast underground basins. What it is short of is water to fill them. A more realistic policy might be to use the surface reservoirs, not simply for supplying water to farms and cities during the dry summer months, but also for recharging aquifers during the wet winter months. This practice of “conjunctive use” would let additional runoff be captured and stored underground for use during dry periods, while at the same time freeing up room in reservoirs to capture yet more of the stormwater and snowmelt.

At this point, it is customary to ask why so little attention is paid in California to desalination or recycled wastewater? Actually, the state has tinkered with both. A desalination plant is currently being completed near San Diego, to serve 3.1m locals, at a cost of close on $1 billion. The potable water produced there will cost as much as $7 per 1,000 gallons—over twice the typical cost of treated runoff.

Recycling wastewater is a better bet. Some 670,000 acre-feet of municipal wastewater is used each year in California for agricultural and landscape irrigation, and increasingly for recharging groundwater aquifers. Even so, Californians discharge over six times more treated wastewater than this into the ocean or inland waterways. That could be recycled for residential and commercial use. A study done in 2014 by the WateReuse Research Foundation estimated that purified wastewater could yield more than a billion gallons a day of potable water—enough, says foundation chairman Doug Owen, to meet the needs of over 8m Californians. The cost: between $2.50 and $6 per 1,000 gallons.

California’s water managers have the unenviable task of trying to balance numerous conflicting issues—from water rights inherited from a century ago to overdrafting and recharging of aquifers, recycling wastewater, diverting river flows, dismantling dams, conflicts between agricultural and residential needs, a rapidly expanding urban population, and pressure to conserve the natural environment.

Coping with the extreme conditions caused by a prolonged drought like the present one has not been helped by inflexible, compartmentalised management. According to Jay Lund of UC Davis, the state uses six different accounting frameworks, in two separate state agencies, simply to track how much water is available for farmers and urban rate-payers. As Dr Lund likes to explain, “A man with one watch knows what time it is, but someone with two watches is never sure.” The trouble in California is that it has the equivalent of six watches for managing its collection and use of water. Dealing with the fickleness of nature is difficult enough. Bureaucratic intransigence is the last thing California needs.



Los Angeles Times

Salinas hopes to turn farm workers’ children into computer scientists

By Geoffrey Mohan

Dario Molina’s alternative life scrolls by on both sides of Highway 101 north: acre upon acre of lettuce, spinach, heartbreak.

Not me, he thinks. Not anymore.

“Sometimes I reminisce,” Molina says. “Damn, I remember working in that field. I remember that heat … that song. Now I’m just thinking, I just want to get over this.”

He tucks a water bottle between his back and the driver’s seat of his 1996 Civic to keep his lumbar muscles from stiffening as towns drift by: Greenfield, Soledad, Gonzalez, Chualar. Each as poor as the next. He turns east on an old farm road, then north, until the fields wash up against the east side of Salinas.

There, at Hartnell College’s Alisal campus, Molina settles behind his laptop, deft fingers furiously typing code like they were still plucking chiles, feeding bucket after bucket onto a packing machine that advances steadily on his heels.

He’s there by 8:30 a.m., 15 minutes early for his first class. He’ll stay until 10 p.m., later if they didn’t kick him out. Weekends when he can. Holidays.

Dario Molina, 22, is in a hurry to outrun his past.

So, too, is Salinas.

With one foot in its fields and another edged toward Silicon Valley, Salinas is trying to reboot itself as the agricultural technology center of California. It hopes to turn the sons and daughters of farmworkers, like Molina, into coders for the next generation of data-driven, automated farming in a valley known as the salad bowl of the world.

“We’re not trying to reinvent ourselves,” said Andrew Myrick, the city’s economic development manger. “There’s cities all across the country that are trying to attract Google to come and build their headquarters. That’s not who we are. We’re agriculture.”

No public high school in the Salinas valley taught computer science and only a sliver of Salinas’ workforce worked in computer science for a living when the ag-tech idea took hold here about four years ago. Capital One had just bought out the city’s largest private employer, HSBC, putting about 900 people out of work.

“That’s when we said, “Well, what else do we really need to do to strengthen our economy so this doesn’t happen again?'” City Manger Ray Corpuz said. “That’s when we said we need to build around agriculture, ag-technology.”

Andy Matsui, a Japanese immigrant who turned 50 acres into a fortune in orchids, kicked in $2.9 million to start a three-year computer science program at Hartnell College and Cal State Monterey Bay. That program has since coalesced with others in what now is known as the Steinbeck Innovation Cluster, named for Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck, who grew up here.

Matsui is not the only major grower stepping up to help. Native son Bruce Taylor, chief executive of Taylor Farms and a scion of the Church lettuce family, placed a $40-million bet on downtown last year when he opened a new corporate headquarters a quarter of a mile from skid row.

“In the 59 years that I’ve lived here, downtown has continued to go downhill,” Taylor said. “We had an opportunity through the success of our business to maybe change the trajectory and to make a positive impact on the future of Salinas.”

On the bottom floor of the five-story French Colonial building is the centerpiece of Salinas’ ambitions: the Western Growers Association Center for Innovation and Technology, which hopes to create the first wave of ag-tech start-ups. Ten have taken up residence so far — offering drone and satellite-based imaging, soil sensors, solar energy controls, app-based data management and other tools for a burgeoning “precision agriculture” movement.

High hopes have been dashed here before. The National Steinbeck Center, across the street from Taylor’s headquarters, was founded amid similar optimism in 1998, but now is a dollar-a-year tenant in its own building, which the city sold for $3 million to Cal State Monterey Bay. (The university does not plan to hold any regular college courses there.)

Banners across the front of the center tout Salinas’ ambitions to be a “City of Letters,” though it is the government center of a county where 28% of residents lack basic literacy skills, according to the Panetta Institute for Public Policy.

Steinbeck himself was not charitable about his childhood home. “The mountains on both sides of the valley were beautiful and Salinas was not, and we knew it,” he wrote in 1955. For the native son who set several novels here, the town founded on a high spot amid salt flats had “a blackness that seemed to rise out of the swamps.”

The unflattering portrait stung then and haunts the city now. Salinas just ended its most deadly year for murders — 39 of them, clustered in the east side area where Molina attends computer class. Most were Latino, male and young — the median age in the city is under 29, far younger than the state average. One in five of Salinas’ 157,000 residents lives below the poverty level, and the average per capita income was $17,810 in 2014 — 40% lower than the state’s median, according to U.S. Census data.

“I understand what’s going on — I don’t have to like it,” said Mayor Joe Gunter, an ex-cop who, like many here, wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his city. “Sure, we’ve had some issues; we’ve had some tough times. But what makes our community strong is the people. It has nothing to do with who’s got the money.”

Those who have the money have largely eschewed Salinas’ downtown and east side. They choose north Salinas or the gated communities springing up on the highway leading toward the wealthy Monterey Peninsula. Just 1.8% of Salinas’ population earns more than $200,000 a year, and they’re clustered in the north and northeast side of town, according to the U.S. Census. The median household income in East Salinas and downtown, meanwhile, is under $40,000, about 35% below that of the state.

The disparities raise thorny questions for a quintessential agricultural town whose wealth and poverty spring from the same root of cheap labor.

“Is that just a separate segment, a rented part of the community that comes in to pick our fields, and gets replaced or is expendable? Or is it our community?” said Tim McManus, lead organizer of Communities Organized for Relational Power in Action, an umbrella group that is addressing Salinas’ endemic poverty, crime and other socioeconomic troubles.

Although agriculture is the town’s economic engine, almost 20% of Salinas’ workers are employed in the service industry, with more than half of those jobs in food preparation or grounds maintenance, according to U.S. Census figures. About 25% of Salinas’ workforce toils in the 369,187 acres of crops such as lettuce, strawberries, vegetables, grapes and flowers that generated about $4.5 billion in revenue in Monterey County in 2014.

Those workers are finding Salinas too expensive. Nearly half of renters dedicate 35% or more of their paychecks to pay rents that are only about $57 to $116 less than rents in Los Angeles, according to U.S. Census and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data. A three-bedroom home actually is slightly more expensive in Salinas, according to HUD. Growers throughout the valley complain of a shortage of workers that has worsened over the last several years.

Dario Molina can’t afford Salinas. He pays $200 a month to share a home with two friends in King City, Calif.

From the second grade until high school, the El Centro, Calif., native moved around with his family as they followed crops from Yuma, Ariz., to California’s Imperial Valley, to the Salinas Valley.

Two days after graduating from King City High School, he faced a deadline set by his stepfather — contribute to the rent or go fend for yourself. Molina left. He spent a few nights sleeping under a highway bridge and many months on the spare beds and couches of friends. He worked fields, where he injured his back, fast-food restaurants and a supermarket before enrolling at Hartnell College, where his math skills attracted the notice of the computer science program.

“Now, I appreciate having food and being able to eat,” he said. “There were times I would just drink a lot a lot of water. A lot of water. To calm my hunger.”

Last year, Molina was one of 36 students awarded a Matsui Foundation scholarship to the new computer science program, which crams a four-year computer science curriculum into three years.

Late last semester, he sat in the final coding class taught by Joe Welch, a 58-year-old retired Navy engineer who believes that Alisal, the original name for Salinas’ east side, has “magic and grit.”

On this day, Welch focused on the grit. Employers won’t care where you’re from or that you got your degree in three years, Welch warned. They’ll care whether you can code.

“We won’t coddle you,” he warned. “We won’t give you a participation certificate.”

Hartnell College’s program has an 84% transfer rate to Cal State Monterey Bay, compared with just one computer science student transfer in 2009, a year before the college began assembling the program, according to the school.

Whether this year’s first graduating class will find jobs in Salinas is anyone’s guess. Just 2% of the current workforce is engaged in computer science and engineering, and most of that is on the hardware and IT support side, not software engineering.

The best hope so far may be HeavyConnect, one of the first start-ups to emerge from Salinas’ innovation cluster. Co-founder Patrick Zelaya, a former John Deere sales executive, said he hopes to hire a handful of the program’s first graduates in May for his company, which will help farmers use big data to improve their yields.

“We want to create jobs in Salinas that are different than the traditional jobs that we’ve had here,” Zelaya said. But so far, the Hartnell students’ talents are “above the level of jobs that exist here today.”

Molina is certain that his future lies in the valley that has nurtured and toughened him.

He listens to Welch’s words, hears the sound of the packing machine behind him. Then he puts his fingers to the keyboard and hunches his stiff back into the task ahead.



Santa Maria Times

Forum supports, tackles issues for county agriculture community

By Abby Hamblin

Growers, shippers and representatives of all other aspects of local farming gathered at the Santa Maria Fairpark on Friday for a forum that celebrated innovation and success but also tackled challenges.

“It’s the inclusion culture that is really hallmark and the strength of this valley,” said George Adam, president of Innovative Produce and co-chair of EconAlliance’s Ag Initiative. “We’re all competitors on one level, but we’re all family members on the other.”

The forum, titled “Growing Possibilities,” was organized by the EconAlliance and included panels and presentations from farmers and local and state organizations including the State Water Resources Control Board. It also awarded achievements in the agriculture sector and for families who have been producing crops in the area for 75 years or more.

In the keynote address, Jenny Lester Moffitt, California Department of Food and Agriculture deputy secretary, discussed what part agriculture plays in the state economy from Sacramento’s perspective. She also highlighted challenges, such as climate change and what regional farmers can do to sustain their operations.

“We have so much here in California to protect as far as the food-producing industry,” Moffitt said. “There’s also a tremendous need to grow, to help feed the world — an increasingly growing and hungry world — and we are in an enviable position to help with that. I know our farmers and ranchers can do that because we have a culture of innovation.”

The day’s first panel was put together to discuss 21st-century innovation. The four panelists gave examples of mechanical advances, like switching from diesel motors to electric, but also technological and biological advances.

With those advances also come resistance and regulation, however, which was another issue the panel discussed. One example is genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

“Genetics are going at a lighting speed,” said Jonas White, president of White Seed Company. “We’re almost kind of in the second green revolution. The first one was to produce food for the masses, and the second, I think, is to do as much as we can with limited resources whether it be water or land or oil or nitrates. It’s trying to find out how to do more with less.”

That became a theme of the event, too: How the agriculture community can be proactive in explaining its work to the very people it provides food for.

“It’s our duty and growers’ duties and people in this business to educate the public on what we’re trying to do,” White said.

In a panel about agriculture sector vitality, the same issue came up.

“It’s easy to play the martyr and say we’re being attacked and regulations are being thrown at us, which they are,” said Andrew Rice, manager of OSR Enterprises Inc. “But we also need to be more proactive and communicate with people as to why we want to build greenhouses, why we want to build cooling facilities and what it’s going to do for us, how it’s going to make us more efficient and use less natural resources.”

Another area of needed communication emphasized was with political leaders and those who do control the regulations on agriculture and ranching. The forum was a chance for those involved with farming and ranching to communicate their ideas to community leaders, too.

“Many of the families and businesses that have been here, whether they have ‘Inc.’ at the back of their name as a corporation, they’re still the same family-owned business that has been farming and ranching here for generations,” said Kari Campbell-Bohard, CFO of Campbell Ranches.

Santa Maria Mayor Alice Patino said she recognized the agriculture community’s desire to be heard and supported.

“I think what’s really important is listening to farmers talking about innovation, talk about the problems they have and some of the political challenges, that a lot of the people who were elected are not in tune and don’t realize,” Patino said. “These are the people that feed our country, and I would think it should be easier for them to be able to do what they’re doing. And these are families that have been in the business for a long time.”

She also said, for local cities, working together with the agriculture community is important, and planning and zoning plays a role in navigating whether development does or doesn’t work in agricultural areas.

“They need to be able to talk about it and communicate their concerns,” Patino said. “The farmers and growers aren’t going to do anything to destroy our water and our air. People in cities need to know that. They’re not going to be pouring all these pesticides into the groundwater and polluting the air. They live here. They want a good, clean environment. That’s why we have a nice environment in the Santa Maria Valley; it’s because of the farmers living here all these years.”

Abby Hamblin covers city government in Santa Maria and Guadalupe for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow her on Twitter: @AbbyHamblin.



Sacramento Bee

Brown’s projects face tests

By Dan Walters

The two immense public works projects that would be Jerry Brown legacies will soon face pivotal moments.

The years-long debates over a north-south bullet train and twin water tunnels beneath the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have focused on whether they are needed, as Brown contends, to enhance the state’s future.

Ultimately, however, whether they fly or die depends on securing tens of billions of dollars in financing.

The bullet train’s projected cost has varied widely since voters passed a $9.95 billion bond in 2008 and is currently pegged at $68 billion. Polls also indicate that support for the project has declined sharply since then, and the bonds are tied up in lawsuits.

Nevertheless, the California High-Speed Rail Authority will soon release a revised business plan, promising it will lay out a complete financing and construction scheme.

There have been hints that the new plan will shift from building the southern section of the system – from the San Joaquin Valley to Burbank – first to concentrating on the less expensive northern section that begins in the Bay Area.

Regardless, the project is tens of billions of dollars short of having the financing it needs.

There’s little likelihood of the massive federal aid previously assumed, but the project gets a big chunk of “cap-and-trade” fees on carbon emissions, and officials have talked about leveraging it for loans, perhaps from the federal government, to keep the project alive.

Meanwhile, the tunnel project’s tests begin with seeking permission from the State Water Resources Control Board to divert water from the Sacramento River south of Sacramento, even though environmental studies are unfinished.

By carrying water beneath the Delta to the head of the California Aqueduct near Tracy, the project – officially renamed California Water Fix – would reduce the need to draw water out of the Delta.

Brown calls it “essential to completing the California Water Project and protecting fish and water quality,” adding that without it, “San Joaquin farms, Silicon Valley and other vital centers of the California economy will suffer devastating losses in their water supply.”

However, most environmental groups oppose it, along with Delta farmers, saying it will rob the Delta of water and damage its environment.

While contentious water board hearings loom, the project also faces a November election ballot measure, sponsored by wealthy Delta farmer Dean Cortopassi, that would subject any project costing $2 billion or more and financed by revenue bonds to a public vote.

As planned, the tunnels would require such bonds, to be repaid by fees on water users south of the Delta, primarily the Westlands Water District and the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California.

There’s already some evidence of declining enthusiasm within those two entities as they weigh spending at least $15 billion for receiving little, if any, additional water.

The tunnels would, backers say, allow more water to be stored south of the Delta, thereby improving reliability.

However, Southern California has become less dependent on Northern California water due to drought-induced conservation, additional reservoir capacity, the recapture and treatment of wastewater and, most recently, large-scale desalination projects, thereby weakening the reliability argument.

All in all, the chances that both projects will come to pass may be less than 50-50.

Dan Walters: 916-321-1195,, @WaltersBee,