Valley Voices

Letters from Lewis Creek: The struggle for a trickle-up economy

A packinghouse burns. Smoke and ashes fill Lindsay’s streets for five days. All the water some of us have been conserving carefully for two years fills the basement of the old structure, then runs down the tracks in excess.

Compared to the fires in Lower Lake, Cajon Pass and Kernville that filled the news this summer, it was nothing. But the local implications are large, another broken spoke in our failing rural economy.

It was a weekend fire, and not our first. The section of the building that burned down was old, designed with a sawtooth roof to provide natural light and ventilation in the days before cheap electricity. For the owners, it may have been a blessing in disguise. For those who would have started work there in a month, as the oranges from our groves began rolling in, it is an irreplaceable loss.

There are, of course, fewer oranges rolling in. Groves of navels and valencias have been replaced with mounded Cuties and Haloes that get trucked elsewhere to be packed. City officials see no connection between this fire and the burning two years ago of a two-story brick building downtown that once held the Ford dealership, followed by a thrift store, an auto body repair and an upholstery shop until even the thrift store was forced to downsize.

But there is a connection, one I have been struggling to show for more than two decades. I just didn’t know I’d be writing this story in cinders.

It matters what kind of agriculture surrounds a small town. It matters to the town’s economy, its development and infrastructure, its political and social life, the stability of its residents and their ability to participate in its future. What matters most is the size of the farms and where the landowners live, whether they are residents or absentee.

Most people who farm in these communities know this fact, and most people who live and work in them know it, too, in their guts if not their heads. But I’m here to tell you that most city fathers and mothers, and the businessmen and women who attend Chamber of Commerce meetings are mostly ignorant of it, and unwilling to hear. They think their hands have made these towns. Therein lies the struggle.

At root, the struggle is directional: whether you think wealth trickles up or trickles down. Early in our history, this country was much more committed to the proposition that it trickles up, and we dedicated significant portions of our national wealth to acquire land in the West for our countrymen (old and new immigrants alike) to settle.

After John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River and the understanding he gleaned of the West’s severe water limitations, we then spent additional national resources developing water storage and delivery systems to support those settlements, all in the belief that it would contribute to the economic wealth of the nation as well as preserve democracy by maintaining some evenness in the distribution of the country’s resources.

When this economic philosophy arrived in California, it shattered against a wall of large landowners who basically informed the government that the buck, literally, stops here.

“Trickle-down economics is what we’ll have in the Central Valley and nothing else,” they said, “and by the way, you small farmers who would benefit from these programs better go along if you want your water.” The rest is history. It is also our present and future, unless we do something – like struggle.

This fall, the Reedley Peace Center is hosting a speakers series about this history and current efforts to keep the struggle alive. Called “In the Struggle,” it features the train of academics who worked to document the trickle-up facts of agricultural life as well as the detriments of trickle-down.

People like Paul Taylor at University of California, Berkeley, Walter Goldschmidt of UCLA, Dean MacCannell and Isao Fujimoto from UC Davis and Don Villarejo, who founded the California Institute for Rural Studies when the UC system wouldn’t touch these subjects.

It also features people who have worked first hand in this struggle: Tom Willey, organic small farmer; Sarah Ramirez, a food advocate for farmworkers; Janaki Jagannath, regional agroecology coordinator; Daniel O’Connell, organizer of this series based on his doctoral studies; and me, resident writer and rural advocate.

The speakers will bring stories of many more, like George Ballis, who founded National Land for People in Fresno and Ben Yellen in Brawley, who took the struggle for trickle-up economics all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

People like Jessie de la Cruz, who, among other things, proved you could support a family and send the kids to college on five acres of cherry tomatoes if you all worked hard enough. Journalists like George Baker, who kept stories of the struggle in The Bee, and Lloyd G. Carter, whose stories on selenium poisoning from Westlands’ irrigation tailwaters eventually saved wildlife from the farmers’ willfulness and our ignorance.

As the stories spill out, I think what we’ll see is that the struggle is alive and well, manned by many hearts, souls, minds and bodies over the years, and that it always will be as long as the flame of justice burns. Join us.

Trudy Wischemann is a writer/researcher who lives and works in Lindsay. Visit to read other pieces on small town life.

Reedley Peace Center's Fall Speaker Series

Who: Don Villarejo, founder of California Institute for Rural Studies.

Topic: Can we achieve ecologically sound, economically viable and socially just agriculture?

When: 6:30-8:30 p.m. Friday

Where: Fellowship Hal, First Mennonite Church, 1208 L St., Reedley

Series speaker schedule: