The Strawberries of Wrath: Abel Maldonado Plants A New People—At Taxpayer Expense
June 18, 2009, 05:00 AM
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During the Great Depression, John Steinbeck penned his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Grapes of Wrath about the Joad family from Oklahoma and their travails in the farm fields of California.

Today, California farm laborers come mostly from Mexico. They toil in many of the same California fields as did the fictional Joads. But the primary crop in Monterey County, the home of John Steinbeck, is no longer head lettuce, but strawberries.

Strawberries also top the list of lucrative crops in Santa Barbara County. That's the home of state Senator Abel Maldonado, the nominal Republican whom Joe Guzzardi predicts will be the next but one Governor of California, possibly completing the Mexican takeover of the state.

Maldonado and his extended family own and operate Agro Jal which farms hundreds of acres of strawberries. Maldonado is the son of one of those allegedly temporary Mexican Braceros, who has somehow contrived to live in the United States for forty years. He only recently became a U.S. citizen—so that he could vote for his son.

It is fitting, therefore, that Maldonado represents a district which stretches from Santa Maria in the south to Watsonville in Santa Cruz County in the north. This is the heart of strawberry land which Eric Schlosser exposed in his celebrated 1995 Atlantic article In the Strawberry Fields.  

Throughout that article, Schlosser referred to the farm workers as "migrants". But they are not migrants at all. And although Schlosser emphasized the dismal conditions of the farm workers, he failed to describe the negative impacts of labor-intensive agriculture on the communities where the farm workers live.

Schlosser began his story in Guadalupe in northern Santa Barbara County. Strawberry fields now reign supreme there, but that was not always the case.

Each year, county agricultural commissioners are required by law to publish crop reports, so that one can view crop yields for decades past. In 1938 and 1939, lemons and walnuts topped the list of high revenue crops in Santa Barbara County. But then the lemon fields were paved over for houses. By 1980, avocados were producing the highest revenue. That year, strawberries were merely the seventh highest revenue earner with 836 acres harvested.

But by 1985, strawberry production rose to first place with 1,606 acres harvested. By 2007, 6,414 acres were harvested.

The table below shows Santa Barbara County's four top revenue-producing crops by acres and revenue.

2007 Crops

Acres Harvested

Crop Revenue

Value per acre

Strawberries

6,414

$312,754,997

$48,761

Broccoli

28,376

$131,070,223

$4,619

Wine Grapes

21,263

$99,918,573

$4,699

Head lettuce

12,835

$87,845,590

$6,844

So 6,414 acres of strawberries produced $312 million in revenue and 28,376 acres of broccoli produced $131 million in revenue. Strawberries generated more than ten times the revenue per acre.

No wonder strawberry acreage rose nearly eight times 1980-2007!

What happened? Strawberries are very labor-intensive. Monterey County produces 40 percent of the U.S. strawberries. The 2007 Monterey crop report [PDF] describes the work involved in growing this fruit.

". . . strawberries are replanted annually on raised beds. The beds are covered with plastic. . . Drip irrigation is standard in the industry. Soil preparation typically begins in the late summer and extends into fall with the nursery plants going into the ground in November and December. . . .Depending on the weather, the plants begin flowering in March or April and continue to bloom and produce fruit into October."

To make the conversion to strawberry acreage possible using current technology, growers needed huge numbers of farm workers. These were not available until the 1980s, when a surge of illegal aliens hit California. After the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in 1986, illegal aliens continued pouring in.

In effect, the Maldonados and their fellow-farmers were subsidized by federal failure to enforce U.S. immigration law.

And the immigrants brought their families. The resultant increase in Hispanics is visible from school enrollment. For example, Maldonado grew up in Santa Maria, and he and his family still live there. The elementary school district is Santa Maria-Bonita.  In 1981, 5,344 students attended schools there. By 1986-87, the enrollment increased by 484 to 5,828 students. By 2007, enrollment increased to 13,142 students.

The racial and ethnic composition of the change in students:

Year

Native Am

Asian/PI

Hispanic

African Am

White

Total

1986-87

96

423

3,710

175

1,424

5,828

2007-08

65

450

11,554

189

884

13,142

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Change

-31

27

7,844

14

-540

7,314

In other words, in twenty years, the Santa Maria Bonita School District Hispanic students increased by 7,844, to about 88% of the total. White students declined by 540, to about 7% of the total.

Thirty percent of the Santa Maria Bonita School District students are "English Learners". Their primary language is Spanish. That probably means that most of these Hispanic elementary children are U.S. citizens because they were born here. During the 1990s, an incredible 45 percent of the births in Santa Barbara County were to foreign-born women.

California's school finances have an odd structure, the result of 1978's Proposition 13, a tax revolt which had the unexpected consequence of causing the state government to supply monies that in most states are raised locally, through property taxes. In 2007-8, the state of California paid almost two-thirds of total educational costs of each Santa Maria Bonita student, which total some $8,334.

Additionally, the state and federal governments provide revenue to schools with low-achieving students from low income families. This is called Compensatory Education. (Federal Title I /State Economic Impact aid). All of the 19 schools in the district receive this aid. And 81% of the students participate in the federal lunch program.

But if 81% of the students are poor enough to qualify, this must mean that their parents pay no income taxes. And state income taxes are the primary source of school funding in the state of California.

Conclusion: California taxpayers are funding this ethnic displacement.

And what are California taxpayers getting for this money? Mediocrity. Of the 19 schools in the district, 14 scored in the lowest 30% for schools of their size. The other five schools scored in the middle 50% for schools of their size.

Is Santa Maria-Bonita School District a mere aberration? No. Other examples of agriculture's ethnic impact can be tracked through the agricultural belt along Highway 101—Senator Maldonado's district.

Southern Monterey County abounds with fields visible from the highway. A few of the local school districts are listed below.

2007-08 school year

Greenfield Union

Chualar Union

Gonzales Unified

Total Students

2,506

325

2,251

Hispanic students

2,397

316

2,101

Compensatory Education

100%

100%

100%

English learners

40%

82%

57%

Lunch program

87%

92%

69%

(Numbers are from the 2007-2008 school year and are available on the California Department of Education website.)

To trace longitudinal data for any district or school, one has only to go to the named county's education office data pages. For Santa Barbara County that is here. One can also find other schools and districts with equally appalling statistics on the state education website—for example, Guadalupe Union Elementary School District in Santa Barbara County.

So the Maldonados are being subsidized, not merely by the federal failure to enforce immigration laws, but by state subsidies to the families of their workers. The Maldonados have planted not merely strawberries, but a whole new people—and a political base. And they have done so at taxpayer expense.

What do the leaders of California agriculture say about their impact on the lives and futures of their fellow Californians?

William Gillette, the Santa Barbara County Agricultural Commissioner, stated in his April 14, 2008, report on crops,

"The 2007 gross production was valued at $1,103,322,033. . . .Santa Barbara County's diversified agriculture continues to provide a strong base for our local economy. Through the multiplier effect, it has a local impact in excess of 2.2 billion dollars."

But this income statement only reports the private revenues. It omits the public costs.

 And schools and services are not the only cost, of course. In a June 4, 2009, Santa Maria Times article on the City's drunken-driving checkpoints, the final paragraph reads,

"For a city its size, Santa Maria ranks first in the state in hit-and-run accidents, alcohol-related deaths and injuries, and traffic accidents involving drunken drivers between the ages of 21 to 34, according to the state Office of Traffic Safety." ."[City rejects PUEBLO requests, By Julian J. Ramos]

Might this have something to do with illegal aliens? Local Hispanics apparently think so. The story reports that a group called People United for Economic Justice Building Leadership through Organizing, (PUEBLO), [Email them] "contend that the crackdown targets illegal immigrants."

So what price strawberries? In early June, at my rural grocery store on an island in Washington State's Puget Sound, strawberries were $1.49 for a one-pound plastic shell full of berries grown in Santa Maria.

Thank you, taxpayers of California.

Linda Thom [email her] is a retiree and refugee from California. She formerly worked as an officer for a major bank and as a budget analyst for the County Administrator of Santa Barbara.