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The Elkhorn Slough

by Daniel Mountjoy, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Imagine yourself as a farmer on a 35 acre strawberry ranch in the sandy coastal hills of Monterey County. You came to California as a migrant farm worker over 20 years ago and gradually learned the detailed management of berry production from your employers and other farm workers. A berry broker agreed to finance your production costs 10 years ago and you found some hillside land to lease. Being an independent producer has not been easy. Your primary language is Spanish, but virtually all production assistance is in English. You have all the regular pest and disease problems, and the winter rains cause severe erosion problems. Some years you don't break even due to low berry prices but at least it's your own farm.

This is the typical profile of about 85 strawberry farmers who account for production of over $40 million worth of berries on 2,800 acres in the watershed area surrounding Elkhorn Slough. These farmers of Mexican origin and their Japanese-American and Anglo neighbors were the subject of a farming survey that I conducted in 1993 as part of a water quality study sponsored by the Association of Monterey Bay Area Governments (AMBAG). The findings have led to the formation of the Elkhorn Slough Watershed Project, a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS formerly SCS) effort to address the unique needs of these small-scale, limited-resource farmers.

One of the most striking findings of the survey was that the Mexican farmers have less contact with advisors from Cooperative Extension and NRCS than their neighbors. Despite the potential importance of the technical information available through these public assistance agencies only 10 percent of the Mexican farmers reported attending any Extension event compared to 75 percent and 45 percent of Anglo and Japanese growers respectively. Similarly, 30 percent of the Mexican farmers had received assistance from NRCS compared to 60 percent of the Anglo and Japanese growers. Despite the fact that the Mexican farmers produce on the steepest, most erodible soils, they had implemented less erosion control than the most profitable, larger acreage farms of the other ethnic groups.

What accounts for the low level of contact between the Mexican farming sector and available public programs? Local stereotypes suggest that Mexican farmers are less innovative and tend to stick with familiar production techniques. However, their steady rise as producers in the strawberry industry tends to contradict this view and suggests instead that technical assistance programs may not be as universally "available" as we assumed. Most of the Mexican farmers interviewed simply didn't know that public sources of farming information existed or tended to think that all "government" programs are regulatory. In addition, field days and assistance programs are under-utilized due to the excessively technical format of the presentation, scheduling conflicts with basic farm management tasks, the amount of paper work required, and the lack of Spanish translations. As a result, the Mexican community has learned to rely on its own members for farming information and tends to learn of production innovations later than the rest of the strawberry industry.