Senator Anna Caballero, D-Salinas Valley, represents the nation’s “salad bowl,” along with a portion of the agriculturally productive Central Valley. Her district stretches from portions of Modesto in the north to south of Coalinga and from the western edges of Fresno to Salinas.
While this is her first year in the Senate, Caballero has also served six years in the Assembly. Prior to serving in the state legislature, she served as mayor and councilmember of Salinas, California.
Two of the rural issues she is focusing on are improving water quality and incorporating hydroelectric power into the state’s renewable energy portfolio in order to finance infrastructure maintenance and to balance costs for Central Valley rate payers.
Caballero spoke with Agri-Pulse on representing agriculture along with farmworkers, the urban-rural divide among lawmakers, and her frustrations with important ag issues being heard in other committees. The conversation has been edited for brevity.
- Can you describe your district?
I'm not from rural California, but I moved to Salinas to represent farmworkers. I'm an attorney by trade and I got hired by California Rural Legal Assistance. My district—whether it's been an assembly district or now the 12th Senate district—has always been primarily an agricultural region. That's the biggest part of the economy.
A lot of people are living in small little communities. Many of the issues are transportation and related to access. How do I get to the doctor? How do I get medical services? How do I get my kids to school?
- Can you describe that transition to working with farmworkers and growers?
A big part of the commitment to stay in Salinas was to get involved in community activities. I loved living in rural California. It was different than what I had been exposed to. I also saw people in rural California really care about each other in a way that you don't see in some of the big urban centers. I really appreciated that and realized that if I was going to stay, I needed to understand a little bit how the economy works.
I started doing tours of different agricultural facilities. I saw the changes that occurred with the introduction of technology: the breathable bag, for example. I was fascinated by all of that.
I've come to believe that we need as a country to make sure that we're feeding ourselves so that we're not dependent on foreign imports for our food source. It's a national security issue. The minute some country decides they don't like this, if they are the sole source of certain food products, we could see higher tariffs. We could see contamination come into our food system in a way that we can't control. We need to be in charge of that. I've learned as much as I can so that I can be informed when I'm making decisions.
- What are the challenges in working with lawmakers not connected to ag?
Well, the majority of the legislators are from big cities, in Sacramento, the Bay Area, LA, San Diego. Their connection to food is very distant. They go into a store, they buy it, and get pretty high-quality produce year-round. They have no idea when the season is and when they're buying imported produce, as opposed to California grown produce. There's this disconnect, in terms of where our food comes from and having to worry about maintaining the environment that makes it possible to grow that food. It's frustrating to me.
Because of the labor struggles of the ‘60s and the ‘70s, many of the individuals voting on really important things have a frame of reference from the ‘60s and the ‘70s. They don't know what's happening currently in agriculture. That disconnect means that they're not really concerned about putting restrictions on businesses that then make it difficult for small businesses to be able to continue.
My concern is that many of the policies drive the small farmer out of business because they're so onerous. It encourages the corporatization of farming in our state, which then loses a rich heritage. Many of these farmers are third and fourth generation farming families. They have a real commitment to the community.
- Can you describe some of the challenges for farmworkers?
A big, big part of the challenge is that many of our communities have sprung up in unincorporated areas. As a general rule, they're less expensive to live in. But they also don't get any services. They're on well water that over time may have reduced quality, either because of nitrate contamination or naturally occurring contaminants, like arsenic, chromium six. The infrastructure is not as good as it needs to be, in terms of curbs, sidewalks, street lights. Over time, the community deteriorates.
They are a distance from any services they would need, whether it be medical services or pharmacy services or just simple grocery needs. If they don't have good vehicles, then they've got to ask for a ride from someone else. That becomes a challenge in terms of trying to take care of basic needs and necessities and family.
As a general rule, farmworkers make the lowest wages in the community. Some of that has changed with the new immigration policies, which has forced farmers to pay more money per hourly wage. And the minimum wage going up has forced that as well. But still, the poverty is very high and access to services is very low.
- You currently serve on both the Senate Ag and the Natural Resources committees. Can you describe the differences?
I chaired the ag committee in the assembly when I was there last year. So, I speak with some experience when I say that I requested that the bills dealing with pesticides and the bills dealing with water, particularly as they impacted rural California, and the environmental rules that impact rural California—that they go through the ag committee. The ag committees, in my mind, have been sanitized so that you really don't have democrats from rural California making decisions about what should happen in California. They all happen in other committees. And it's frustrating. They should at least come through so we can put our fingerprint on what would make them better.
I encourage legislators to do tours. When we take our breaks, come down and spend some time in the valley and visit the multitude of businesses we have. There's a lot to agriculture. I'm hoping we can get them in so that they can take a look at what goes on and have a better understanding and ask questions.