Coachella Rising: Aging Farmworkers, Unions, Organic Mangos & the Salton Sea

Coachella Rising: Aging Farmworkers, Unions, Organic Mangos & the Salton Sea

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Photo: Carlos Chavez, a palmero, sits with his daughter Michelle, in a trailer park near Thermal. Michelle is in high school, trying for a scholarship to go to college. Carlos took her to work with him one summer, but she didn’t like it. She says it motivated her to study harder. (All photos by David Bacon) Article co-published by American Prospect.

Part 1. Read Part 2 here.

Forty one years ago I was a young organizer for the United Farm Workers in the Coachella Valley, helping agricultural laborers win union elections and negotiate contracts. Suspicion of growers was a survival attitude. I was

Environmental Crisis
In Fields and Streams

The Coachella and Imperial Valleys face an environmental crisis created over decades. Both valleys lie in an ancient geologic depression that reaches a depth of 278 feet below sea level.

In 1905, as Imperial Valley growers were building a system to bring nearby Colorado River water to irrigate their ranches, the levees built to contain the diversion failed. For two years the river poured into the depression, creating the Salton Sea, whose surface rose to over 80 feet above the desert floor.

Both valleys are dependent on Colorado River water. Without it agriculture here would hardly exist. Until 1949 Coachella ranches depleted the aquifer during dry years, and their wells would run out. Then the Coachella Canal began bringing 300,000 acre-feet of water from the Colorado to the valley each year. The All-American Canal, built even earlier, drained the Colorado into Imperial Valley fields. After the 1960s, the State Water Project also gave Coachella farmers an even bigger allotment of water brought down from the north.

Evaporation would eventually have dried out the sea, but in 1928 Congress designated land below -220 feet as a repository for agricultural runoff. Until recently, the lake’s surface has been about -227 feet, giving it an area of 378 square miles — the largest lake in California. The Salton Sea became an important stopping point for birds migrating on the Pacific Flyway, and was stocked with fish species including corvina, sargo and bairdella. Tilapia introduced to control algae in irrigation canals also wound up in the lake.

Over the years the Salton Sea’s salinity increased, however, from 3,500 parts per million to 52,000 ppm — about 50 percent saltier than the ocean. Fish, except the tilapia, died off. Dissolved selenium salts now pose the same danger seen in the Kesterson Reservoir in the San Joaquin Valley, where birds ingesting selenium became sick and died, and laid eggs with shells so fragile they collapsed.

Even more seriously, starting next January, water flowing into the Salton Sea in the Imperial Valley will be diverted to San Diego. In 2003 the Imperial Irrigation District agreed to transfer 200,000 acre-feet per year, if California took responsibility for the lake.

In one year alone, according to a 2005 assessment made by Victor Ponce of San Diego State University, the diversion could reduce the lake area by 30 percent. That would expose square miles of dried lakebed. Wind-blown sediment could easily reach the streets and golf courses of Palm Springs, travel south to Mexicali, a city of over a million in Mexico, and even blow into the cities of Riverside and San Bernardino to the north.

Whatever is in the sediment will wind up in people’s lungs.

--David Bacon

beaten by the son of one rancher in a vineyard, while trying to talk to people sitting in the vines on their lunch hour. When I met with workers in another field, my old Plymouth Valiant convertible was filled with fertilizer and its tires slashed.

By those standards, I could see that HMS Ranch Management, which manages day-to-day operations for ranch owners, was different. I’m sure Ole Fogh-Andersen, who ran the company, would have preferred that the laborers he employed voted against the union. But when they did vote for it in 1976, he sat down and negotiated. It took quite a while — he was no pushover. But Ruth Shy, a former nun who taught the virtues of patience and persistence, got most of our union committee’s demands into the agreement. I did the field job of keeping everyone on board.

Under the 105-Degree Sun

HMS workers irrigate fields, drive tractors and otherwise care for ranches in this harsh, beautiful desert valley. In the summer’s 105-plus degree heat, the bright green leaves of grape vines shimmer below dark mountains, lunar in their sere, sharp edges. Coachella’s winter air is thick with the fragrance of flowering grapefruit and tangerine trees. In the groves of the valley’s unique crop — the date palms — dusty green and tan fronds create an arched ceiling over marching rows of bare trunks, rising 20 and 30 feet from the sand.

“That was the year people joined Cesar Chavez’s union,” he recalled. “From then until today we’ve been working under the union contract. It is very rare that someone can work in the fields, and keep working for one company for 40 years. Here we have been protected. It has a lot to do with the contract because it is not that easy to fire someone, unless you are drinking or you get in a fight. But if you don’t have those problems you work here very comfortably.”

The contract provides a medical plan, still a rarity for farmworkers. Pushed by the union, California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal-OSHA) now enforces standards that provide shade from the fierce sun and heat, drinking water and some control over pesticides.

The mango ranch, however, is organic, so non-organic pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals can’t be used. That means at work Navarro doesn’t run the risk of chemical exposure, one of the greatest health dangers for farmworkers. It also provides him work.

“My job is catching moles,” he told me, “because they eat the roots of the mango trees. It is an organic orchard, so they can’t use chemicals to kill the animals. We put traps with strong wires in their holes. When a moles arrives it gets trapped and you grab it.”

Navarro is 72, well beyond the age when other workers can retire and get Social Security, but he continues working although he has problems with one of his legs. Bending his stiff joints, he took a shovel and, in the weeds, dug out the entrance to a mole burrow to show me how he places the trap. The sun on the brim of his sombrero cast dark shadows across his face, highlighting his big bigote (mustache).

“They gave me the chance to do this job,” he explained, “but before, I worked fumigating the date palms on other ranches with sulfur, or spraying with different medicines. Then they decided some chemicals were too dangerous and took that work away.”

Organic: Better Investment, Despite Cost

The Coachella Valley produces about $500 million in farm produce every year, and dates, grapes, citrus and tree fruit account for about half. Organic agriculture produces a growing part of it. According to Linden Anderson, who manages HMS’s field operations, mango growing is only a decade old. About 10 percent of mangoes and the much larger citrus crop are grown organically.

“It takes more work, its costs are higher and it’s less efficient, but what drives it is return on investment,” he explained to me in a phone interview. “Some growers like it for itself, but there is a growing market for organic produce, and while the premium isn’t as big as it used to be, there’s still a differential.”

The growth of organic agriculture, and the elimination of the use of some pesticides, has another impact on the valley’s ecology and on the health of its communities. The runoff from irrigation in both the Coachella Valley, and the Imperial Valley to the south, flows into the Salton Sea, carrying whatever

chemicals growers are using. Irrigation also dissolves naturally-occurring salts from the desert soil, increasing the salinity of the water table. Tile lines placed five to six feet below the surface to drain excess water can carry those leached-out salts, contributing them to the runoff as well.

In past decades, Coachella Valley growers would irrigate by simply flooding the rows between vines, trees or plants with water, and then collecting the runoff. Today, Anderson says, most use drip irrigation, which uses less water and targets it more closely to the plants. Reduced water use creates less runoff as well.

In spite of such ecologically sounder practices today, a century of damaging policies and approaches mean Coachella and Imperial Valleys still face an environmental crisis. (See sidebar.) One result is that toxic grit constantly swirls around farmworkers, down to the lungs.

In the farmworker towns of the eastern Coachella Valley — Thermal, Oasis, Mecca and North Shore — dust from the fields and the Salton Sea, which is evaporating more rapidly than normal due to state policy decisions, gives everything a gritty coating when the wind blows. Dust creeps


Photo: Rafael Navarro, 72, is shown working on organic Keitt mango trees owned by Ava’s Mangos, California’s largest mango grower. Among other jobs, he sets traps for moles, which eat the roots. .


through the doors of the beaten up mobile homes in the tiny trailer parks wedged into the corners of fields and date groves.

In one such settlement Elisa Guevara leads protests over rent hikes or high rates for undrinkable water. As we sat talking in her living room, her trailer vibrated from the wind. The swamp cooler on the roof cut the temperature inside by only a few degrees from the sun’s furnace outside.

“We’re a forgotten community. We’re invisible,” she declared angrily. “We’re called ‘ranchos polancos’ — trailers without city permits that don’t meet local codes. There’s hardly any housing for farmworkers, so park operators can rent or sell us these dilapidated trailers. There are more than 100 parks like this in the Coachella Valley. None have permits. Workers often go without electricity and a sewer system, or live with contaminated water. If you complain the owners threaten to call the county or the migra,” immigration officers.

David Bacon wrote/produced this story for Capital & Main (co-published by American Prospect) with the support of a journalism fellowship from New America Media, the Gerontological Society of America and the Silver Century Foundation. Tomorrow, Part 2 will examine the dangerous, non-unionized lives of palmeros in the palm trees.

Bacon is the author-photographer of the new English/Spanish-language book, In the Fields of the North / En los campos del norte (University of California Press, 2017).