Thursday, January 28, 2016
Ventura County Star
Groups urge officials to strengthen labor protections for farmworkers
By Claudia Boyd-Barrett
Farmworker advocates are calling on the Ventura County and Santa Barbara County Boards of Supervisors to enact a “Farmworker Bill of Rights” to protect laborers against alleged abuses.
At a launch event at the Ventura County Government Center on Wednesday, groups who work with farmworkers denounced what they say are widespread labor-rights violations in agricultural fields along the Central Coast.
A Farmworker Bill of Rights would help prevent such violations, organizers said. Their proposal calls for a series of policies designed to strengthen protections against extreme overwork, wage theft, pesticide exposure and sexual harassment.
“We’re here to stand up for basic human rights and a sustainable food system that treats workers with dignity and respect, that sustains our planet and is healthy for our communities,” said Maricela Morales, executive director of Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, or CAUSE, one of the organizations leading the campaign.
“No system, including the food system, is sustainable without protecting all of its workers,” she said.
Other groups leading the campaign are Oxnard-based Mixteco/Indigena Community Organizing Project, female farmworker advocacy group Lideres Campesinas, and United Farm Workers of America. According to organizers, a total of 85 civic groups, political leaders and businesses have endorsed the campaign.
Last summer, CAUSE surveyed almost 300 farmworkers in Santa Paula and Oxnard. According to those who responded, almost 60 percent have experienced wage theft, nearly one in five said they are not given adequate breaks, and close to a third said they had been injured on the job but generally received no compensation or benefits. Half reported negative health effects from pesticides.
“It’s not fair that they don’t take into account what farmworkers like us suffer from the pesticides,” laborer Barbara Flores said in Spanish, who complained she developed skin rashes and eye and respiratory problems as a result of pesticide exposure.
One farmworker spoke of losing her job after becoming pregnant, and another said his employer underpaid him by $2,000.
The proposed bill of rights would increase penalties for employers caught stealing wages, step up investigation of wage theft and labor law violations by hiring new county investigators, and provide an anonymous hotline for workers to report abuses.
It also would require growers to offer unpaid pregnancy leave to women that protects their job status, and make sure workers have 10 minutes to rest, drink water and use bathrooms once they reach rest areas.
Organizers also want the county to fund health and safety education for farmworkers, inspect farms for access to clean bathrooms, help growers reduce the use of harmful pesticides, and employ a crime victim advocate at the District Attorney’s Office who would focus on farmworker sexual assault.
“Female farmworkers are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault, and they frequently need help to navigate the court system and access services,” said Arcelia Aguilera, Ventura County committee secretary for Lideres Campesinas, who also spoke in Spanish.
But John Krist, CEO of the Farm Bureau of Ventura County, said in a separate interview afterward that he doesn’t believe extra regulations are needed. Growers already comply with more than 70 state and federal laws that address most of the issues identified by the farmworker advocates, he said.
“I’m not sure how adding a layer of county regulations to an already comprehensive regulatory framework really would measurably improve working conditions for the farm labor force,” Krist said.
Labor conditions in the fields are not as bad as the CAUSE report indicates, he said. He said the organizers should work with the agricultural industry to address the perceived problems instead of making what he called “unsubstantiated allegations.”
“No doubt there are some abuses. Every industry, not just agriculture, has some bad actors,” he said. “For the most part the growers really do care about the health and welfare of their workers and it pains them to see when there’s evidence of mistreatment, so I would encourage CAUSE to sit down with leaders in the agricultural community to work out a way to enlist the industry’s help.”
No county supervisors attended the launch event. However, Bill Gallaher, chief of staff for Ventura County Supervisor John Zaragoza, said Zaragoza is supportive of the farmworker groups, although he has yet to read their full proposal.
Morales said campaign organizers plan to work with county supervisors to bring the Bill of Rights to a vote and would like to see policies passed by Cesar Chavez Day on March 31.
Farmworker wants ALRB member disqualified from Gerawan-UFW dispute
By Tim Sheehan
The farmworker at the center of a long-running, three-headed legal battle involving Reedley fruit-growing giant Gerawan Farming, the United Farm Workers and the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board wants one of the labor board members disqualified from the subject, accusing her of “a blatant predisposition” toward the union and “disregard for the ethical rules.”
Silvia Lopez is among the Gerawan employees who in 2012 petitioned for an election to decertify the UFW from its representation of the company’s workers. In a petition filed with the ALRB this month, Lopez and her attorneys are demanding that the board disqualify member Genevieve Shiroma from taking part in any decisions on more than 20 allegations of unfair labor practices against the farming company. Fresno attorney Anthony Raimondo, representing Lopez, said Lopez “has been denied due process and a fair hearing” by ALRB misconduct in efforts to have workers’ ballots counted from a November 2013 election to decertify the union.
The ALRB not only oversees farmworkers’ elections for labor representation, but also investigates and prosecutes employees’ and unions’ allegations of unfair labor practices against farm employers. The agency’s administrative law judges hear the cases and render a recommendation to the three-member board, which renders a final decision. The board’s decisions can then be appealed to state’s courts of appeal.
Shiroma was initially appointed to the ALRB as its chairperson in 1999 by Gov. Gray Davis; she was reappointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, and by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 and again earlier this month. She was also named the board’s chairperson from mid-2011 to early 2014.
Through her attorneys, Lopez asserts that she “is unable to achieve a fair and impartial hearing” with Shiroma on the board because “Shiroma’s career is so inexorably linked to the political goals of the union that she cannot possibly render a fair and objective decision.” Lopez’s petition alleges that during a political campaign for a seat on the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District board, Shiroma hired a campaign consultant who also is a registered lobbyist for the UFW, creating a “political entanglement (that) is more than coincidental.”
The Bee was unable to reach Shiroma on Wednesday to respond to the allegations by Lopez and her attorney. ALRB acting executive secretary Paul Starkey said the board does not comment on pending matters such as the Lopez petition.
Accusations of bias are nothing new in the dispute. Gerawan and its supporters last year leveled accusations that the ALRB general counsel’s office was tainted with a pro-union agenda because they said attorneys involved in investigating and prosecuting complaints against the company had close ties or allegiance to the UFW.
The UFW won a representation election at Gerawan Farming in 1992, but the union and the company never reached a contract agreement. In 2012, the UFW reasserted its right to represent the workers. Some workers, including Lopez, petitioned the labor board to hold a decertification election. The first petition was rejected by the ALRB’s Visalia regional director on the basis that signatures were invalid. A second petition was also rejected, but the board overruled the regional director, ordering the election to be held but impounding the results while allegations of unfair labor practices were sorted out. The election was held in November 2013, but the results were never counted.
Last fall, an administrative law judge for the ALRB recommended that the election be set aside, citing unlawful interference by the farming company in the election process. That decision ultimately will be heard by the labor board.
Also in 2013, the UFW invoked provisions in California farm labor law that allows the labor board to impose mandatory mediation when unions and farm employers cannot reach agreement on a contract. In November 2013, the labor board finalized the terms of a mandatory mediated contract. Gerawan took the labor board to court, and the 5th District Court of Appeal last spring threw out the contract, ruling that mandatory mediation law was unconstitutional. The ALRB and UFW have appealed that decision to the California Supreme Court.
Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319, @TimSheehanNews, firstname.lastname@example.org
Drop in nut prices may weigh on farmland boom
By John Cox
An almond orchard in bloom along 7th Standard Road, near the Target Distribution Center.
Concern is rising that the recent decline in commodity prices may threaten Kern County’s farmland boom, a decade-old phenomenon that has attracted investors and bolstered growers’ assets even as it has raised the costs of farmers who rent.
Two Central Valley market observers say a variety of factors weighing against nut prices lately, including higher interest rates, international trade headwinds and a larger than usual 2015 almond crop, have begun to affect agricultural real estate values.
Bakersfield farmland broker Michael Ming said in his 2016 market forecast, released this week, that ag real estate buyers “have begun to pull back” and are now valuing properties based on expectations commodity prices will remain lower “for the foreseeable future.”
Rabobank’s senior analyst, Senior Vice President Vernon Crowder, said some property sales already under way have been renegotiated because of the recent drop in nut prices.
“We expected to see some price adjustment” in ag real estate values, he said. But, he continued, “it was probably a bit bigger than we expected.”
Crowder said the local market for farmland is in no way vulnerable to the kind of bust seen in the 1980s, mainly because farmers have done most of the buying in recent years, not speculators.
“We don’t expect a crash,” he said.
Predictions of generally small valuation declines after several years of accelerating price increases have until recently been based almost entirely on water availability. Demand has been weakest for farmland without ample groundwater access or adequate surface water deliveries.
Ming’s forecast said this view is now coupled with concerns about commodities.
“We expect the 2016 ag market will track lower commodity prices and escalated water fears,” he said.
Not everyone thinks commodity prices will drive the ag real estate market.
Broker Kevin Palla, who delivered a farmland forecast at a well-attended real estate conference last week, said he remains bullish. Market fluctuations don’t change the fact that property is being operated by experienced farmers.
“These corrections will be handled and dealt with, but you still have extremely strong demand for their production, and they’re continuing to increase it and create a better product,” he said.
Crowder said some types of cropland have stronger prospects than others because of varying demand for locally grown commodities.
Almond prices have recently slipped 20 percent to 30 percent to about $3 per pound for farmers, he said, and walnut prices are down about a third.
California table grapes continue to experience strong demand overseas, Crowder said, as do mandarins.
Reasons for the changes in nut prices are the strong dollar, which makes U.S. products less affordable for importers. In the case of almonds at least, more acreage dedicated to orchards, combined with improved weather conditions, have increased supply, Crowder said. Foreign competitors are also increasing production, which also cuts into prices.
While walnuts are still profitable, prices are likely to fall below their average during the last 10 years, which Crowder said will expand their domestic consumption. But he predicted almond prices are expected to stay above their 10-year average of about $2.50 per pound.
Fresno Business Journal
MCFB continuing legal battle over Gunner Ranch West project
The Madera County Farm Bureau has filed additional litigation challenging the Madera County Board of Supervisors’ approval of the Gunner Ranch West Specific Plan Project.
Last week, the Madera County Farm Bureau (MCFB) filed a Reply Brief in its lawsuit opposing the controversial project
According to Christina Beckstead, MCFB executive director, the nonprofit organization brought the lawsuit because of “grave concerns regarding a development project that threatens scarce groundwater.”
Madera County supervisors approved the Gunner Ranch West project in July 2014.
The project’s backer, area landowner and developer Richard Gunner, plans to build as many as 3,000 residential units, more than 2 million square feet of commercial property, 1.1 million square feet of hospital-related services, a medical offices building, government facilities, a community center and wastewater treatment plant.
The project site is located south of Avenue 10 near Children’s Hospital on 1,000 acres of orchards and open space
Officials estimate Gunner Ranch West could result in more than 8,200 new jobs at build-out.
MCFB officials had urged supervisors not to approve the Gunner Ranch West Specific Plan until county officials could identify alternative water supplies, saying the project poses significant threats to the region’s water supply — and to Madera County farmers.
In its most recent legal challenge, MCFB argues that the County “did not address the uncertainties in the proposed groundwater supply, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and California’s Water Supply Assessment Law (SB 610).”
MCFB’s brief also states: “The question of water supply for the Project is of paramount concern to the Farm Bureau because groundwater, the sole source of water proposed for the Project, is in increasingly scarce supply in the region. Groundwater has been especially important during this prolonged drought because it has been the lifeblood for some of Petitioner’s members and other farmers to irrigate their lands and is relied upon by thousands of County residents for their domestic water supply.”
Beckstead said her organization believes the project’s Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and Water Supply Assessment (WSA) are “legally defective” under California law.
MCFB also believes the proposed water supply for the Gunner Ranch project is inadequate to assure a long-term source of water as the law requires for residential and commercial development.
“The EIR and WSA did not identify any alternative water supplies,” MCFB stated in a press release issued Tuesday.
Last week, the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) identified 21 critically overdrafted groundwater basins, which included Madera County and Chowchilla Sub-basins. DWR said the overdrafted conditions were due, at least in part, to excessive groundwater pumping.
In the lawsuit, MCFB also notes that the aquifer upon which the project will depend is “known to be contaminated” with several pollutants, including arsenic, manganese and nitrates.
“The Project’s EIR,” the suit claims, “provides scant information of the design, construction, operation, and maintenance of the Project’s water treatment and delivery systems. Both CEQA and SB 610 require the infrastructure planning to be completed prior to approving the tentative subdivision map. Waiting to design these elements until the final map defeats CEQA and Water Code planning policies.”
Williamson Act tax incentives help state farmers, but hinder potential marketing efforts
By Joe Benapfl
As Lodi is making a name for itself in wine business and tourism, requirements for the Williamson Act are creating a hurdle for those who wish to hold events — marketing or otherwise — on farmland.
The California Land Conservation Act, also known as the Williamson Act, was passed in 1965 to incentivize landowners to voluntarily restrict land to agricultural uses, according to the California Department of Conservation website.
Statewide, property tax savings from the act range from 20 percent to 75 percent, depending on the county, the website said. A University of California, Davis research study showed 71 percent of ranches would lose money annually if not for the Williamson Act tax savings.
A minimum term for a Williamson Act contract is 10 years, according to the website. To remove land from the act’s provisions, one must enter a nonrenewal process.
“It’s just a matter of working out an arrangement with the county,” said Bruce Blodgett, executive director of the San Joaquin Farm Bureau.
The nonrenewal process takes nine years to complete, in which the land tax will gradually increase until it matches current property tax rates, according to the website.
A contract can be canceled, but only under certain conditions, and the owner would need to pay a cancellation fee equal to 12.5 percent of the property market value, said Pat Patrick, President of the Lodi Chamber of Commerce. According to Patrick, the farm bureau is concerned about having too many people in the countryside.
“When you start getting into having events, that is way outside the realm of the direct (agricultural) property,” Blodgett said.
Such concern has played a part in the long-running dispute Coldani Family Vineyards has had in its plan to build a winery and olive mill, which included a proposed 15 marketing events a year, as of last March. The county board of supervisors allowed the family to proceed — as long as the land be removed from the Williamson Act.
“Is that agricultural use or an event?” Patrick asked, saying that some may view the marketing events as unnecessary, while others claim they are vital to the farmers’ agricultural product distribution.
Patrick also warned that frequent Williamson Act breaches could result in the California Department of Conservation repealing the county’s tax benefits. That outcome would be devastating to the landowners of “hundreds of thousands of acres who have no intentions” of violating the act, according to Blodgett. This includes pasture owners on the eastern side of the county who, much like the ranches in the UC Davis study, depend on Williamson Act savings.
“The number of parcels for wineries is very, very, very small compared to the total amount of land in the Williamson Act,” Patrick said. “But that tiny percentage brings in lots of people.”
This potential revenue source creates a potential conundrum for agribusiness models in the future.
“Do you penalize a growing industry that is creating more wealth and more profit for more people because you want to ensure a tax break for other types of farming?” Patrick posed, while noting that many move to the countryside for “a more peaceful existence,” instead of contending with noise and parking issues.
It’s in this type of quandary that Lorraine Paskett finds herself. Paskett wishes to build a wine tasting room on her Acampo property, which has 5 acres of vineyards. Because neighbors worried about noise levels and parking, Paskett had to remove planned wine tasting events from her proposal to the county planning commission.
“My intention is not to build an event center,” Paskett said, reiterating that her main goal is to create a “wine tasting hub” for her winery.
Instead, some neighbors claim that her proposal is in violation of the San Joaquin County Wine Ordinance. The ordinance’s main purpose in regard to events is “to guarantee that both winery and wine cellar marketing events are accessory and are subordinate to the primary agricultural use,” a similar objective to the Williamson Act.
Like Paskett, Patrick sees the benefit of activities such as wine tasting on agricultural land.
“The fastest growing agricultural business model in the county is the sale of wine grapes. And there are approximately 95 bottled wineries,” Patrick said. “It’s profitable and it’s growing.”
Contact reporter Joe Benapfl at email@example.com.
Santa Rosa Press Democrat
U.S. wine sales up 2% in 2015
By Bill Swindell
SACRAMENTO – U.S. wine shipments rose last year to an estimated record high of 383 million cases, an increase of 2 percent, despite fierce competition from importers buoyed by a strong dollar that makes foreign wines a bargain purchase, an industry analyst reported Wednesday.
The increase continued a 20-year growth trend for domestic wine shipments, said Jon Fredrikson, president of Gomberg, Fredrikson & Associates, a Woodside wine consulting firm. The growth, however, masks conflicting trends in the market, where wines priced at $9 a bottle and above are doing well yet cheaper budget wines are losing market share.
Fredrikson described U.S. wine sales as a “tale of two markets, and a widening gap in performance between the two” in his remarks Wednesday to attendees at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium.
The trend toward more premium wines will benefit the North Coast, where grapes from Napa and Sonoma counties are the most expensive in the state and major wine companies are trying to corner a bigger share of the premium market. In particular, E&J Gallo Winery from Modesto has been especially active in buying up properties in the North Coast, such as J Winery and Vineyards in Healdsburg.
However, Central Valley farmers have suffered as sales of budget wines decline. For example, 20,000 acres of vineyards in California’s interior have been pulled since the 2015 harvest, following 21,000 acres that were removed the previous year, said Nat DiBuduo, president of Allied Grape Growers, a Fresno wine marketing cooperative representing nearly 600 growers across the state.
The presentations came a day after Fred Franzia, chief executive officer at Bronco Wine Co., known for its ubiquitous Two Buck Chuck sold at Trader Joe’s, said during a speech that vintners should instead concentrate on budget wines.
The Unified Wine and Grape Symposium is the largest wine industry trade show in the United States. The three-day convention, which ends Thursday, is expected to draw 14,000 attendees and more than 650 suppliers.
Sales of California wines, which represent 60 percent of the U.S. retail market, increased 2 percent last year. Sales of imported wines, which account for 31 percent of the U.S. retail market, rose 6 percent. Wines from states outside California, which have 9 percent of the domestic market, climbed 5 percent, according to Fredrikson.
The strength of the dollar made imports much more attractive to consumers as bottled imports grew to more than 100 million cases.
“Given the strength of the dollar, I don’t think they are going away,” Fredrikson said. Bulk wine imports, however, dropped as domestic wineries had more wine surplus on hand given the major Golden State harvests from 2012 to 2014.
Italy was the largest importer, especially as Prosecco shipments reached about 5 million cases in 2015, an increase of more than 1 million cases over the last two years. France, New Zealand, Spain and Portugal rounded out the top five importers.
Sparkling wines did well in 2015, reaching a record of 22 million case shipments, up 10 percent over 2014, Fredrikson said.
You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BillSwindell.