Almonds and Dust

 Stanislaus County didn't make much of a fuss about the thousands of new acres of almond plantings going in on the east as well as the west side. But then some hedgefund whippersnapper bought a few thousand acres east of Oakdale, started planting and sinking those huge wells farmers use these days, and Pulbic Opinion was heard opposing it. But for years, almonds have been encroaching on pasture land throughout both sides of the San Joaquin Valley, causing a huge increase of dust particularly at harvest time. This great boon to export-led growth of almond cultivation here is also reportedly responsible for the complex of factors causing the unprecedented increase in the deaths of Honey bees. 
But, Gee, it's always GREAT to be Number One, even if Water and Wealth is not bringing either Contentment or Health (except maybe for the bloated healthcare system), to Stanislaus County. -- blj
Modesto Bee
Online environmental tool places Stanislaus and Merced counties among the worst areas in California...Garth Stapley...5-3-14
Sometimes it’s good to be bad.
The latest rankings of neighborhood exposure to pollution continue to place much of Stanislaus and Merced counties at the bad end of the spectrum in California. That’s good if you’re looking for state money to help address longstanding problems such as unemployment, dirty water, asthma and lack of bus stops.
“This offers a good picture of where we are and where we could go to target the most vulnerable communities,” said Phoebe Seaton, co-director of Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability.
She spoke of CalEnviroScreen, the state’s groundbreaking tool that crunches tons of data to produce rankings of the neediest places in California. Championed by Stanislaus native Arsenio Mataka, CalEnviroScreen is expected to help drive state dollars to the most disadvantaged communities based on science, not tradition or political favors.
The screening tool is not restricted to environmental activists, academics and corporations fearful of bad-guy labels. With a few computer keystrokes, regular people can learn scads about their own neighborhoods and compare them to others across town, in other counties or anywhere in California.
For example, CalEnviroScreen suggests that young couples near Vintage Faire Mall have a record of producing tiny babies; Modesto’s Highway Village could not be more exposed to pesticides; and many Riverbank families might consider investing in water filters.
Anyone with online access can pinpoint on colorful maps neighborhoods that should worry about ozone, traffic or exposure to hazardous waste or dirty air. Also available is information on social characteristics including race, language isolation, unemployment, education and poverty.
California’s Environmental Protection Agency hopes people will say what they like and don’t like about the rankings. Seeking feedback is “a basic pillar of environmental justice,” said Mataka, raised in an activist Grayson family before ascending to his post as Cal-EPA’s assistant secretary for environmental justice.
From a broader view, these communities made it into the state’s worst 10 percent in terms of pollution exposure, cross-referenced with social problems:
• West and south Modesto, and some Modesto neighborhoods just east of Highway 99.
• About half of Ceres, Turlock, Riverbank, Winton and Atwater.
• Almost every place in Stanislaus County that’s west of Highway 99, south of the Tuolumne River and east of the San Joaquin River.
• Central Merced.
Those among California’s neediest 20 percent:
• Every place in Stanislaus County west of the San Joaquin River and north of the Tuolumne, except for some of Patterson.
• West Salida and the north portion of Wood Colony.
• Hughson, Empire, Keyes, Delhi and Livingston.
“It’s not surprising to see Valley areas among those with the highest burdens,” said J.P. Cativiela, program coordinator of Dairy Cares, a farm advocacy group.
Areas not in the bottom 20 percent probably won’t be in the running for state grants.
From another perspective, areas ranking among the least vulnerable include Ripon and some Modesto neighborhoods northeast of Dale Road and Standiford Avenue, and others bounded by Sylvan and Briggsmore avenues and Oakdale and Claus roads.
Some observers praise California for being the nation’s first to quantify community risks, even if it took decades of political pressure.
“It’s very apparent if you live somewhere that may be impacted by air pollution, water pollution or traffic,” said Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. But the powers that be haven’t always responded with help, and “it’s great to see California putting some science on the table to address these issues,” she said.
Politicians are notorious for turning a deaf ear to complaints of underserved neighborhoods, sometimes responding with, “ ‘No, that’s not really happening,’ ” said Chione Flegal, associate director of PolicyLink. “This is the first time the state has said, ‘It’s happening; here’s the data.’ Hopefully, this is setting the state up to rethink how we invest in and protect communities.”
Earlier versions of CalEnviroScreen, unveiled last year, have factored in to some social justice grants addressing transportation issues and progressive planning. At least a quarter of the money raised in cap-and-trade auctions, where businesses pay to comply with air quality rules, must be spent in areas deemed most in need, and pending legislation would rely on the screening tool to further promote disadvantaged communities.
“This helps focus state resources on places that need it the most,” said Jonathan London, director of the Center for Regional Change at the University of California, Davis.
The San Joaquin Valley “lit up as having probably the most vulnerable places in the whole state” in CalEnviroScreen’s previous life, London said. That did not change with the new version unveiled a few days ago, called CalEnviroScreen 2.0. Instead of judging ZIP code areas, the updated tool dials into census tracts, or much smaller areas sometimes limited to a small grouping of neighborhoods.
But even census tracts still can be too large for meaningful comparisons, said Amy Vanderwarker, co-coordinator of California Environmental Justice Alliance. She would like more comparison of communities to others within a region, as opposed to the entire state.
The new version also added important data on clean water and unemployment, bringing to 19 the number of indicators, or categories folded into the analyses.
Although users can easily pull up race information on any neighborhood, several environmental justice advocates were not pleased that the update erased connections between health risks and race. It’s clear that Latinos, they say, are much more exposed to pollution burdens than other whites.
Also, CalEnviroScreen lacks information about housing needs, a key concern of many advocates, said Flegal and Seaton, especially because some grant money is supposed to help address affordable housing.
Seaton hopes that future versions of the screening tool will contemplate seasonal jobs – important to the Valley’s agriculture backbone – as well as lack of access to transportation. Also, some areas appear to score low on asthma risk because numbers rely on hospital visits and may not reflect actual conditions in a given neighborhood, she said.
Critics of the initial version worried that CalEnviroScreen could result in businesses turning away from high-risk communities.
“The most important message for locals,” said Dairy Cares’ Cativiela, “is to make sure that being on the map isn’t seen as a badge of dishonor but as an opportunity. It’s the job of the state to reassure people that the tool is for improving communities, not branding them as bad places to do business or live.”
Crops in the Northern San Joaquin Valley shifted dramatically in 2012, to nuts...J.N. Sbranti
Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties rank near the top in agricultural sales for the United States, but the just-released 2012 Census of Agriculture shows this region’s crops have shifted dramatically.
It’s nuts. Literally.
Less Northern San Joaquin Valley land is being used to plant tomatoes, grow peaches or raise cows, while almonds and walnut orchards have multiplied, the census shows.
The crop shift apparently reduced the number of agricultural workers needed, as the census recorded an 8 percent decrease in Stanislaus farm laborers hired in 2012 compared with 2007.
The value of Stanislaus’ agricultural products, however, increased more than 22 percent during those five years. The county’s farmers sold nearly $2.23 billion worth of agricultural goods in 2012, averaging $537,807 per farm.
That ranked Stanislaus seventh in the nation for agricultural sales, just behind San Joaquin County’s $2.25 billion and Merced County’s $2.97 billion. Fresno, Tulare, Kern and Monterey counties were tops in the nation.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture does its massive census every five years, and farmers are required to reveal extensive details about their operations. The census provides a wide range of demographic, economic, land, crop and livestock production information. It was made public Friday.
The data shows how dominant agriculture is here in the Northern San Joaquin Valley.
Example: No. 1 producer Fresno County farms 45 percent of its 1.7 million acres, while Stanislaus farms 80 percent of its land. Merced farms 79 percent and San Joaquin farms 88 percent.
Statewide, less than 26 percent of land is farmed.
Stanislaus farmed 768,046 of its 956,493 acres in 2012, which was about 20,900 less than in 2007.
Almond and walnut orchards, however, expanded steadily during those five years. Almond trees multiplied by nearly 12 percent to 138,162 acres, while walnut orchards increased nearly 16 percent to 28,051 acres.
Orchard acreage in general increased 27 percent in San Joaquin County, 11 percent in Merced and 8 percent in Stanislaus.
Livestock didn’t fare as well.
Stanislaus’ cattle and calf inventory declined 5.6 percent, falling below 400,000 head in 2012. The number of milk cows decreased 6.3 percent, dipping below 192,000. Meat-type chickens declined by nearly 1 million, which was a 9.9 percent drop during those five years.
Meat goats, by contrast, flourished in Stanislaus, which more than tripled its production of that ethnic specialty between 2007 and 2012. The county became California’s top meat goat supplier, with more than $1 million in annual sales. About 13,222 predominately Boer goats were found grazing on 188 mostly small farms.
Stanislaus also was California’s top producer of lima beans in 2012, but they were grown by fewer farmers and on less acreage than in 2007.
The decline in peaches and tomatoes was even more dramatic. Peach trees in the county declined by more than 40 percent in five years, shrinking to 3,898 acres. Stanislaus’ tomato fields contracted nearly 24 percent, dwindling to 9,812 acres. Vegetable acreage in general deteriorated by 8.3 percent.
Losing the most ground in Stanislaus was pastureland, which declined by more than 41,000 acres from 2007 to 2012. That was a 9.3 percent loss.
Many of those pastures now are planted with almond trees, but that’s a fact not included in the ag census.
The entire 2012 Census of Agriculture is available on the website.