The Militant will not publish the last week of December as part of its normal end-of-year schedule. The next issue will be published January 4.|
California farmers facing crisis seek federal relief
Raisin growers demand fair prices for their crop
Farmers attend October 4 meeting of Raisin Administrative Committee. Raisin farmers are demanding adequate prices to meet production costs and a decent living.
BY ROLLANDE GIRARD
AND NED WEBSTER
EASTON, California--Hundreds of raisin farmers have turned out for a series of meetings across the San Joaquin Valley in California to demand a fair price for their crop. Taking advantage of a record harvest, raisin-packing companies are trying to push the price they pay to farmers to almost half of what was paid for last year's crop.
Faced with looming economic disaster, farmers held five meetings recently and formed the California Raisin Growers for Reform of the Raisin Administrative Committee. There are about 5,000 raisin farmers in California, the majority of them small farmers.
The Raisin Administrative Committee (RAC) is a panel that oversees the inventory and flow of raisins under a Federal Raisin Marketing Order, which is used to regulate how many tons of raisins are placed on the market or held in reserve. The packing companies control the reserve.
There are 16 companies involved in the negotiations, including American Raisin Packers Inc., Biola Raisin Co., Central California Packing Co., Sun Maid Growers, and others.
This year's crop is a record 427,396 tons, a 43 percent increase over last year. The raisin harvest has been enlarged by a surplus of Thompson seedless grapes that farmers could not sell to companies for wine or concentrate. The RAC claims that there is only a market for 233,344 tons, or almost half the crop.
The Raisin Bargaining Association (RBA), which negotiates the price with the packers on behalf of 2,000 growers, made a final offer of $1,025 a ton--$400 less than for the 1999 crop. The packers claim that a decline in worldwide consumption and increased foreign competition are the reasons why they can't offer a better price.
At the last meeting of the new organization on December 7, farmers began circulating a petition addressed to the U.S. secretary of agriculture. Demands included reform of the RAC and the Federal Raisin Marketing Order. Among the demands made are for a drastic reduction in the size of the RAC's board of directors, term limitation for board members, and a requirement that board membership be limited to raisin growers. The farmers asked that the government purchase the reserve pool of raisins for use in the military and school programs.
The petition says the farmers "have come together for the purpose of insuring fiscal integrity, grower equity and fairness in the operation of the raisin marketing order" by the RAC because of the "ongoing turmoil within the raisin industry, the dissension and debate occasioned by disagreements with positions taken by the RAC regarding pricing, free tonnage, and the recommended percentage of reserve raisins, coupled with the conflict of interest existing between the producers and the packers."
Because the packers have rejected the price proposed by the farmers, the matter goes into mediation. Until the negotiations are resolved, which can take months, the farmers are unable to receive money for their crop.
Mike Jerkovich, a grower from Kerman who is a leader of the newly organized group and a third generation raisin farmer, told the Militant, "For the first time since 1920 my family will have to borrow money. Otherwise, we can't start the pruning right now."
Pointing to another aspect of how farmers are treated, Jerkovich said that since 1998 "the packers have sold raisins from the reserve and we received no money from them." The RAC has decided that 46 percent of this year's crop will be held in reserve. This means that the farmers get paid for only 54 percent of the crop they deliver to the packers. Farmers say it costs $750 to produce a ton of raisins.
To reverse this problem, one of the demands on the petition is to establish a central storage facility, which would be owned by the growers.
The pricing dispute has an impact not only on the growers, but on farm workers as well. It is now the pruning season and farmers are hiring fewer workers. Other farm workers haven't been paid for their work during the harvest. Some currently working are hoping to be paid when the farmers get their money.
Several raisin farmers attended a December 14 meeting of two dozen people in Fresno to discuss joining a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for discrimination. The suit, with three farm families as plaintiffs, is seeking compensation of $20 billion in damages on behalf of 20,000 Latino farmers around the country over the last 20 years. The suit was filed in Washington October 13.
Several of the farmers at the meeting described how they were denied loan and disaster relief when they qualified for it.
Latino farmers in California are mostly Chicano and Mexican. The raisin farmers were joined at the meeting by peach farmers, cattle farmers, and produce farmers.
The Latino farmers are following the example of farmers who are Black and Native American, who filed similar lawsuits against the USDA in 1997 and 1999, respectively.
Rollande Girard is a meat packer and a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1288 in Selma, California. Ned Webster is also a meat packer.
Government relief for farmers