Over a mirror in a beer bar in my hometown, Oildale, hung a sign: “We don’t care how they do it in L.A.” It revealed a truth in that little San Joaquin Valley hamlet, because folks really didn’t care. Just north in Fresno, President Barack Obama will be entering a part of California today that plays by its own rules and expectations – Los Angeles and San Francisco (and maybe Sacramento) be damned.
The view in the state’s midsection is that the coastal communities are mere ornaments. Local folks are tough, contrary and certainly self-serving, but also kind, generous and innovative in equal turns. They are not easily impressed.
Agribusiness in the Central Valley plays by its own rules, too. In this drought year, it remains credited with having demonstrated the efficiency of industrial farming. To do that, nature itself had to be rehabilitated. In 1863, William Henry Brewer said of the dry San Joaquin Valley, “no water, no food.” Variations of that same sentiment will greet Obama if he ventures onto Interstate 5 west of Fresno.
Gazing at the foot of the brown western Fresno County foothills, the president can glimpse how the Valley’s abundant west side might look without a sophisticated water supply system that has favored agribusiness over residential users and environmental concerns. When maimed rivers such as the San Joaquin just north of Fresno are granted some water rights, clichés like “Don’t put fish over farm families!” are broken out, often by corporate growers, as though fishing and tourism support no families.
Water storage and transfer have historically led to ever-larger, ever-more-complex containment and distribution systems such as the Central Valley Project and the California Water Project that, in turn, have fueled agribusiness. As a result, growers expect their water, while consumers expect abundant, cheap produce. Those lead to a repeated threat: “Give us our water or you’ll pay much more for food.”
Irrigation has in a cluster of four adjacent counties – Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern – helped create the richest agricultural realm in the nation. They, in turn, are the sites of seven or eight (it varies from year to year) of the 10 poorest communities in the state, all populated largely by Latino farm laborers.
Three of the five worst metropolitan areas in terms of population below the poverty line are also found in the Valley – Fresno, Modesto and Delano-Bakersfield. Gated communities sprout and economic segregation increases.
Poverty and poor public health remain intimately linked in the San Joaquin, but Obama’s handlers will likely make certain the president doesn’t see the bloated bellies and hopeless eyes there.
Obama is a city guy, but when he drives by the “New Dust Bowl – Created by Congress” signs, one hopes he’ll realize that most of the expanse of greenery he sees in the Valley has also been created by Congress (or other governmental bodies) providing water and various subsidies.
Finally, the president might ask how more water will help abate the endemic culture of poverty and lack of opportunity that is the San Joaquin Valley’s least-discussed crop. The region is both a best and a worst component of California, and certainly not an unimportant one.
Gerald Haslam is an author who has been called the “quintessential California writer.”