Author :
Ángel S. Fernández-Bou
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The Future of Resilient Agricultural Communities in California Is Alive in Allensworth

   

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This blog post was cowritten with Dezaraye Bagalayos, Laurie Galvagna, Kayode Kadara, Kinah Hutson, and Jose Armando Munguia, and revised by other members of the Allensworth Progressive Association team and community leaders.

Over the next 15 years, California will have to repurpose about 1 million acres of cropland, most of it out of the 5.5 million irrigated acres in the San Joaquin Valley. If we do this wrong, it will exacerbate the Valley’s century-long inequities and environmental destruction. But if we do it right, it will have a positive ripple effect that will benefit everyone in California and will make the San Joaquin Valley a positive example around the world for agriculture, energy, and socioenvironmental justice.

But how can we do things right?

Sometimes telling a story is the best way to explain an idea. This is the story of Allensworth, California, and its wonderful community leaders.

Allensworth was the first Black community founded by formerly enslaved Black Americans in California in the early 1900s. Its cofounder Colonel Allensworth fled the Jim Crow South looking for a new life in California. At the time, he was the highest Black officer in the US Armed Forces, and California’s San Joaquin Valley was portrayed as an Eden for agriculture. Colonel Allensworth envisioned having a Black community where people would be free and independent. We must not forget that at that time the economic options for Black Americans were scarcely more than sharecropping on former plantations or brutal industrial labor in northern cities; political and social freedoms were systematically denied.

And for a few brief promising decades, Allensworth thrived in the way its founders envisioned.

It wasn’t long before the institutional systems of racialized power that gripped the U.S. a century ago found their way to Allensworth. Railways and natural resources were diverted away from Allensworth to white-owned interests and farm holdings. The sabotage continued over time, from Colonel Allensworth’s murder more than one hundred years ago to the more recent attempt to destroy the town’s historic cemetery and Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.

But maybe the most famous sabotage occurred in March of 2023, after heavy rains flooded Dear Creek and someone artificially diverted the water flow toward Allensworth to protect industrial farmland operations elsewhere. That illegal change in the creek also affected local farmers. The community, helped by a local farmer, worked hard for two days to undo the diversion. Still, they had to be evacuated, and the situation became really awful between huge landowners and the surrounding small communities. The incident brought plenty of attention to Allensworth, and even Governor Newsom visited the community.

In April 2023, California Governor Gavin Newsom (middle left) visited Allensworth and listened to the experiences of community leaders Denise Kadara (middle), her husband Kayode Kadara (left), her son Tekoah Kadara (back right), and brother Dennis Hutson (front right). Source: Kinah Hutson.

Newsom talked to community leaders Denise Kadara, her husband Kayode Kadara, her son Tekoah Kadara, her brother Dennis Hutson, and other residents. Denise is a retired city planner who has worked for large cities in Southern and Northern California. She currently serves on the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, as well as the Tulare Basin Wildlife Partners. Denise also serves as the President of the Allensworth Progressive Association. The family moved back to Allensworth to support their mother Nettie Morrison. Nettie, known as the unofficial mayor of the township, worked for decades to revitalize the community; she is an icon in Tulare County.

Allensworth has long been known as “the town that refuses to die.” It’s more than that. Allensworth is a beacon of hope for many communities in the United States.

Pollution above and below ground is a huge challenge in Allensworth. Air quality in the region is the worst in the United States, and related health impacts, like asthma, have long been at epidemic levels.

The township also has very high levels of arsenic—a known carcinogen—in their groundwater. The levels are so high their source of domestic water comes from wells three miles away.

Allensworth is located close to the historic Tulare Lake. Tulare Lake was the largest lake west of the Mississippi River and once supported one of the largest populations of Native Americans in the United States. The lake was dried up artificially more than a century ago to create a cotton empire. (Check out the book, The King of California by Mark Arax and Rick Wartzman that tells part of this history.) As a result, Allensworth’s soil became very salty. The soil is so salty in Allensworth that you can see the salt in satellite images as if it were snow. But there is no snow in Allensworth; instead, there are scorching summers of extreme heat day after day.

Satellite image of Allensworth where it is possible to identify the salt on the soil.

Today, the community is made up of mostly Latinx families, but there are several Black families among the community’s leaders. They preserve the legacy of its founders.

Allensworth is surrounded by extractive monoculture from institutional investors. That type of agriculture normally leads to practices that are very harmful to the soil, the land, the air, the ecosystem, and the community around it. Extractive monoculture is driven by profit. It is the opposite of sustainable agriculture.

To be clear, when I talk about extractive agriculture I am not talking about local farmers. I truly respect farmers who live in the community surrounding their land, and I understand the harm that outsider corporations are causing them with disloyal competition practices. Local farmers are connected to their communities in ways large, extractive corporations aren’t. And sometimes, trying to do the right thing increases local farmers’ costs.

Extractive agriculture is water intensive, degrades the soil, uses exploitative labor practices, minimizes the skill required to work the land in order to depress labor wages and worker rights, is not locally owned, removes the wealth created in the community, contributes little to nothing to the local economy, is a monoculture, and has a high input of fertilizers and pesticides. Farms that use extractive agriculture usually are outside the official community line, and therefore they pay no taxes to the communities they pollute.

In the case of Allensworth, the town is surrounded by hundreds of acres of pistachios that belong to a trillion-dollar insurance company.

Community leaders are now in conversation with the corporation that owns the pistachio farm. They are discussing the impacts that large-scale monocultural agriculture has on neighboring communities, how that style of agriculture depreciates their soil, air, and water, and how to minimize those negative impacts. So far, the company has been very receptive and is making efforts to build and nurture relationships with Allensworth’s leaders.

Still, there are many other agricultural disadvantaged communities in the San Joaquin Valley that do not have the media representation Allensworth has had lately. Legislation is now being proposed by state senators spotlighting what people are starting to learn about how many of these large investors behave. For example, if Senate Bill 1153 passes this year, it may forbid hedge funds from purchasing agricultural land in California and protect small and medium farmers by helping preserve California’s environmental health.

The book In the Struggle by Dr. Daniel O’Connell explains the structural problems created by large extractive corporations in the San Joaquin Valley for almost a century. Those corporations spray pesticides that often drifts over people and sensitive environmental areas. They create little employment in the local area because they grow cash crops that don’t need many farmworkers. What they do need are huge amounts of water, huge amounts of pesticides to artificially correct the unnatural monoculture, and huge amounts of fertilizers because industrial agriculture practices deplete nutrients from the soil.

If those large extractive corporations make a profit with their cash crops, it is because they do not pay the real cost of their operations. Instead, residents of agricultural disadvantaged communities, like Allensworth, pay with their health, while all Californians pay with our taxpayer money.

It sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? But for Allensworth, all that injustice for more than a century has just reinforced their will to transform their community.

A few months ago, I was in a large meeting about cropland repurposing with two of Allensworth’s leaders, Sherry Hunter and Kayode Kadara. Mostly small farmers, farmworkers, and disadvantaged community residents attended the meeting in Pixley in Tulare County to learn about land repurposing programs and to share their perspectives.

Sherry and Kayode are part of the legacy carried out by Nettie Morrison’s family since the early 1980s. Nettie’s work created the basis for the current leaders to advocate for the township. You can check out a flyer about Nettie here.

Nettie helped to establish the Friends of Allensworth for Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park. She established food distributions and mobile health clinic visits. She led the fight against mega-dairies being established alarmingly close to town and the park. She brought her family into the community to carry on her work, including her daughters Denise Kadara and Sherry, her son Dennis Hutson, and her son-in-law Kayode (Denise’s husband) who I mentioned earlier.

Sherry Hunter runs the Allensworth Community Services District and has been leading the efforts, along with Denise and Kayode, to establish new water storage and a community well. She also leads the historic cemetery project.

Denise, Sherry, Kayode, and their families have been building relationships and partnerships for Allensworth for more than 20 years. Denise revived the Allensworth Progressive Association in 1997. As Dezaraye Bagalayos, the executive director of the Association says, “Without Denise and Sherry, there would be nothing. I mean, NOTHING.”

Kayode cares deeply about his community and when he decided to speak at the meeting he said, “Allensworth is a farmworker community and many of our residents depend on agriculture. We are very concerned about cropland repurposing taking their jobs.”

This is not an uncommon concern about cropland repurposing in the communities directly affected. But Allensworth is doing something about it.

Allensworth has long been known as “the town that refuses to die.” It’s more than that. Allensworth is a beacon of hope for many communities in the United States.

Kayode and the Allensworth leaders are not afraid of the change to come. He continued talking and shared information about a community-wide project to convert Allensworth into a regenerative agriculture hub. Denise and Kayode participated in the ALBA program, a land-based training for future agroecology small farmers. They have a vision for Allensworth, and that vision is the result of decades of hard work by Nettie Morrison and her daughters Denise and Sherry, the Allensworth Progressive Association and its devoted staff, and other community leaders like Kayode, Dennis Hutson (Denise’s twin brother), and their families. That vision is blossoming into a collective plan for a new model of community self-sovereignty and resilience. The Allensworth Progressive Association is developing various land access relationships including land trusts and lease agreements to help new small farmers have access to land.

Allensworth is in the process of purchasing land to create an educational farm based on agroecology. The farm will have a market center to sell locally grown produce and artisan goods made by residents. There will be housing for visitors who travel to Allensworth to learn from local tradespeople.

They are creating a childcare cooperative for small farmers and farmworkers to lower the barriers to entry and be successful in farming. They want to assist women who hold the burden of childcare, so they do not have to leave the workforce to care for their children.

Jose Armando Munguía, the General Manager of the Allensworth Farm Enterprise, has told me a few times, “Allensworth is a matriarchy.” And as such, it promotes equality, inclusivity, sustainability, emotional intelligence, and family empowerment.

The Allensworth Progressive Association and community leaders like Kayode are focused on minimizing farmworker job loss in Allensworth, ensuring that community members have better jobs that are physically safe and better paid. They want to create a more healthy environment for everyone in Allensworth.

“Allensworth is a matriarchy.”

Jose Armando Munguía, General Manager of the Allensworth Farm Enterprise

The surface area of this community farm project will be one to two orders of magnitude less than the surrounding area dedicated to those pistachios I mentioned earlier. Yet, this project will be able to generate deeper and more profound wealth in the community, by the community, for the community. And they will use one or two orders of magnitude less water, with no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers.

The key for the success of Allensworth is that this community has a plan, a thoughtful plan that is going to set an example for many other agricultural disadvantaged communities in California.

To put it bluntly, Allensworth has had so much socioenvironmental injustice that, if they can prosper and thrive, virtually any community in California can, too.

I have worked on cropland repurposing for years and I know many stories from many communities. The case of Allensworth is one of the most inspiring I have seen. Any economic analysis like the one my colleagues and I did for the whole Central Valley of California will tell you the Allensworth plan will bring millions of dollars to the community, to the county, and to the state.  

Allensworth will set a precedent for all other rural disadvantaged communities to replicate their success in becoming resilient, independent, and good rural communities to live in. Allensworth is no longer “the town that refuses to die.” Allensworth is the beacon of hope for many communities in the United States.

Members of the Tachi Yokut tribe and guests from the community of Allensworth pause for a photo at an event recognizing the return of Tulare Lake. Source: Kinah Hutson.

The key to succeeding in socioenvironmental justice is having good leaders and enough funding. The best asset Allensworth has is its leaders. They are smart, diligent, and above all, committed to the success of their plan.

After decades of volunteer work, after generations of advocates fighting for Allensworth rights, they finally have the funding needed to start solving the inequities and injustices preventing a better quality of life.

And as you can see with Denise, Kayode, Sherry, Jose Armando, and many others, there are already outstanding leaders in the communities that need their leadership the most. It is imperative that we listen to the wisdom, experience, and direction of these leaders in all our communities, and that they receive the tools necessary to succeed.

The San Joaquin Valley is my current home and I personally know many communities and many community leaders.

For example, another leader you should know about is Felipe Perez, a council member and former mayor of Firebaugh, a farming community two hours north of Allensworth. He is project coordinator at SEEN, a grassroots nonprofit based in the San Joaquin Valley that some friends and I founded when we were graduate students at the University of California Merced. We wanted to help nearby vulnerable communities become resilient and independent by supporting them with science to empower the current leaders and with education to empower children so they can become future leaders. Felipe and the current SEEN Team are starting to achieve the dream that many of us share.

Felipe Perez representing socioenvironmental justice perspectives of underserved communities of the San Joaquin Valley at an event organized by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory at the University of California Merced in March 2024. Source: SEEN.

Felipe and his wife know when the monoculture fields that surround their small city are sprayed with pesticides because they have nosebleeds. Imagine air quality so bad that it makes your nose bleed! Sadly, that is a story often heard in many communities of the San Joaquin Valley.

Felipe regularly sends me and other friends funding opportunities that would help his city. He shares them in case we can help them apply for those opportunities because they do not have enough capacity to apply for grants.

It is a vicious cycle; they cannot apply for money to gain capacity because they don’t have capacity to apply for the money. Firebaugh hires a grant writer occasionally, but they have never received enough funding to solve the city’s structural problems.

Still, Felipe is always smiling, is always talking nicely to people, is always bringing good energy and good ideas everywhere he goes. He is an outstanding leader, like those in Allensworth.

People like Felipe and many other elected officials and community leaders are giving their all for their communities. And most, like Felipe, don’t receive a salary as elected officials. Like the leaders in Allensworth, they are volunteers for their communities because they want their communities and their region to be better for their families and for their neighbors.

It is a vicious cycle; they cannot apply for money to gain capacity because they don’t have capacity to apply for the money.

What Felipe and our friends in Allensworth are fighting for ultimately benefits all Californians because if we improve the conditions of the most vulnerable places in California, everyone benefits. Wanting things to change in California, however, isn’t enough. Places like Allensworth and Firebaugh need funding.

Socioenvironmental justice is underfunded. Many communities have plans that will work, but only when and if their funding needs are addressed.

With leadership like that in Allensworth and Firebaugh, funding, and planning, California can change the current inequity and shame around the extreme socioenvironmental injustice experienced by our most vulnerable communities and become a global example of sustainable agriculture, clean energy, and climate justice.

Residents of Allensworth join State Senator Melissa Hurtado on a tour of a local farm. Source: Kinah Hutson.

Luckily, we’re at a critical moment in California because the United States has a once-in-a-generation funding opportunity to correct injustices and improve climate resilience in the country via funds from the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

This is the moment to pursue policy ideas codeveloped with frontline communities like Allensworth and Firebaugh, and truly improve the quality of life for some of the most vulnerable Californians while benefiting everyone. With the right support the state could create

Socioenvironmental revitalization zones around disadvantaged communities and transition them to regenerative agriculture and other clean opportunities.
Access to land for small local farmers and disincentives for large farm consolidation by careless corporations.
Pesticide-free belts of one mile around disadvantaged communities, and forbid the application of pesticides by planes anywhere (as it is forbidden in other countries) to dramatically increase health and environmental benefits and decrease health costs and ecosystem destruction.
Incentives for climate-smart transitions that create economic robustness for small and medium farmers, such as agrivoltaics and other soil dual uses.
Training for committed community members to become leaders, and provide them with all the skills and tools needed to succeed.
Limits on the influence of bad actors by making extractive business pay for the negative side effects of their economic activities.

California has the leaders, the knowledge, and the opportunity. Now, we need the federal and state funding to flow directly to those who are actively working on making their communities better. We need more grassroots organizations to be incorporated as nonprofits, and they must be part of all the conversations about what to do inside and near their communities.

The transition to sustainable agriculture in California is underway and we have to get it right. Funding for local community-focused groups and community leaders in this state must catch up with our socioenvironmental and climate ambitions.

If California is going to continue to lead in agriculture, then our elected leaders must incentivize the agricultural sector to become sustainable as fast as possible. Small and medium farmers can be paid to transition to sustainable practices and their sustainable products can be subsidized to keep healthy food affordable, while land from large corporations can be repurposed into multi-benefit projects that benefit everyone. And communities must be given a seat at the decision table—or as some leaders say, “if we don’t get a seat at the table, we will bring our own chair.”

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