Festa celebrates Portuguese traditions

A holiday amid the dairy industry's struggles

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 12, 2012 

— There are bright processions.

There's plenty of traditional food and music.

There are even bloodless bullfights. And amid those cultural and religious festivities at the annual Gustine festa, there's talk about the struggling state of dairy farming -- the economic backbone of the celebration.

"People are not going to realize until it really hits the bottom, which it's almost there," said Antonio Martins, who, despite his cup of beer and jocular disposition, for a moment looked very serious.

"People don't realize," added Steve Lawrence, waving a handful of fliers, and talking, periodically in English, over the playful bounce of traditional Portuguese music.

The two middle-aged men stood in a lively crowd at the Bella Vista Park outside of Gustine, where celebrants gathered for Monday night's bloodless bullfight -- the final event for the 2012 Our Lady of Miracles Festa.

For the moment, the two longtime members of the Valley dairy farming community talked only of the high cost of feed and an upcoming rally in Sacramento asking state officials to deliver relief for suffering farmers.

After the moment of solidarity, the two men shook hands and walked away, fading into the crowd.

There wasn't an open seat in the 5,000-person stadium when they released the bull into the ring with the matadors and lancers on horseback. Attendees cheered as the fighters displayed control over the bulls.

The traditional Portuguese event, which is celebrated in communities all over California, drew more than 20,000 people in Gustine over three days.

However, the festa, which donates all proceeds to the local Catholic school and church, saw this year's donations drop "dramatically," said Filomena Nunes, event president.

"The last couple of years, there's been a huge difference in donations," she said. "Dairymen, pretty much, carry the load of sponsorship."

When volunteers did their annual Valleywide fund drive for the event, they found about 30 dairy farmers had gone out of business and many others short on funds, Nunes said.

The festa won't go away any time soon, but some of the smaller celebrations are hurting, said Lawrence, who traveled down from his home in Elk Grove for the Gustine event.

"I can't ever see Gustine going down," said the former dairy farmer who now sells feed. "But I can see (it happening) up in our area, and a couple places around here too, as the dairies go out of business. Without them, it's hard to stay in existence."

In Elk Grove, attendance dropped to about 3,000 from about 5,500 just a few years ago, Lawrence said.

Near Hanford, the event was able to get by this year, but organizers are concerned for the future, said Joaquin Contente, dairy farmer and treasurer for Our Lady of Fatima Festa.

"Next year it's going to be quite a bit different than this year. There's an unbelievable amount of people that are getting out," he said of those leaving the dairy business. "People that don't have to do it yet, but they're seeing their equity evaporate, and they want to get out before it's too late."

Dairy farmers have been concerned about the consolidation of farming operations in California for years, arguing that larger operations are replacing the traditional family farms that have supported communities for decades.

Over the last few years, increasingly high feed costs have created a growing panic. To try to ease those fears, dairy farmers petitioned the California Department of Food and Agriculture to raise the minimum price processors must pay for milk.

Regulators responded with a modest increase, but voiced concerns that a significant hike could hurt the entire industry by forcing processors out of business and out of state.

Now family dairy farmers struggling to maintain their way of life are doing something they haven't done in some time: taking their concerns to the Legislature.

On Thursday at 11 a.m., advocates and farmers are holding a rally on the west steps of the state Capitol to ask lawmakers to provide some kind of assistance.

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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