Janaki Jagannath: Championing Farmworker Justice in the Central Valley

The powerful advocate leads a coalition of groups making strategic progress for farmworker rights in labor, health, and environmental justice.


In the late spring of 2014, Janaki Jagannath and her colleagues had left a community meeting and were standing in the dusty basketball court inside Cantua Elementary School in Cantua Creek, California. Nestled deep in the west side of the San Joaquin Valley, Cantua Creek is one of the poorest communities in the state—located in one of its most lucrative agricultural regions.

The residents of Cantua Creek had just been hit with three-fold water rate hikes, which would mean paying close to $300 a month for water the local health department had found to be contaminated with high levels of disinfection byproducts, leaving it undrinkable. And residents had just been told that their water would be shut off if they couldn’t pay the new rates. Jagannath, who was then working for California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), was outraged.

“In California, water is the epitome of privilege,” Jagannath explained by  e-mail. “At no point in this state’s history have rural residents—the people who do the work of growing, picking, and packing our agricultural commodities—had a say in where clean water should be directed. The odds have been stacked against small, local vegetable producers—and moreover against the health and safety of farmworkers—for the majority of California history.”

Standing around the local basketball court with colleagues from other farmworker advocacy organizations and environmental justice nonprofits, Jagannath realized an urgent need for these groups to come together strategically if they were to succeed in fighting the myriad injustices facing low-income farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley.

She got her wish. A year later, at just 26, Jagannath was hired to be the first coordinator of the San Joaquin Valley Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which she soon renamed the Community Alliance for Agroecology (CAFA). Now 28, Jagannath is known as a powerful advocate for farmworker rights, environmental justice, and political organizing in California’s San Joaquin Valley.

CAFA is a coalition of six environmental justice nonprofits—the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment; Californians for Pesticide Reform; Community Water Center; Cultiva la Salud; El Quinto Sol de America; and the Leadership Council for Justice & Accountability—all working to advance agricultural and natural resource policies in the San Joaquin Valley that heal the ecological system and build political power in rural communities.

“Jagannath took the Alliance to a different level,” said Caroline Farrell, executive director at the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment, and one of the Alliance’s founders. “Her focus became ‘How do we work with small farmers of color in the valley? How do we build a good agricultural system from the ground up?’”

For two years at California Rural Legal Assistance (CRLA), Jagannath had worked one-on-one with farmworkers who had experienced pesticide exposure, harassment in the fields, and wage theft. She also worked on some larger environmental justice cases—like the episode in Cantua Creek—that were focused on communities’ access to fresh water.

In Cantua Creek, Jagannath worked alongside residents to secure subsidy funding from the state to defray their water bills, and arranged for state-funded bottled water to be delivered to each home (which is still happening to this day). Situations like the ones at Cantua Creek are symptoms of a larger illness, of course. Members of CAFA get farmworkers involved in building environmental justice solutions. For example, CAFA is currently advocating for legislation known as the Farmer Equity Act (AB 1348), which would give socially disadvantaged farmers and ranchers increased access to environmental stewardship funds.

Formative Experiences in Farming

Jagannath’s parents emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s from South India, settling in Mobile, Alabama, where Jagannath was born. Her dad worked at paper mills in the South, and Jagannath’s childhood was punctuated by moves from one rural mill town to another. Her parents divorced when she was five, and eventually her mom moved to Southern California, where she raised Jagannath and her brother.

jagannath and a calf“I fell in love with agriculture there,” Jagannath said. “I grew up wanting to farm.”

Jagannath may have been destined for a career in farming—after all, Janaki is the Hindu goddess of agriculture. “Overall, she is a central character in Hindu faith representing the ecological cycles of the planet upon which agriculture, and all of life on earth, depend,” said Jagannath. But during college at the University of California, Davis, Jagannath spent her summers working at Chino Nojo, a diversified fruit and vegetable farm in Rancho Santa Fe, California. She harvested crops—from carrots to strawberries—alongside the field crew and also worked at the farm’s vegetable shop.

She remembers picking the season’s finest heirloom tomatoes and then slicing them for Alice Waters at the back of the shed so she could taste them before loading up crates for Chez Panisse. She also recalls picking golden raspberries in late summer for Wolfgang Puck, who would drive all the way to the farm from Spago in Los Angeles.

Working at Chino Nojo opened her eyes to the need for more farms like it—those that provide long-term, stable work for farmworkers, and employers who see farming as a dignified occupation.

“I learned a lot of what I know about farming from one farmworker there, Rene Herrera, who has worked there for most of his life, and his father before him,” Jagannath said. “Those kinds of jobs are rare as a farmworker—because farms like the Chino family’s are equally rare and precious places.”

At UC Davis, Jagannath “got politicized,” she said. She discovered the vocabulary with which to explain the environmental downside of her dad’s jobs working at paper mills throughout the South—and learned about the concept of environmental justice.

By the time she graduated in 2011—with a B.S. in International Agricultural Development—Jagannath had worked with faculty to build the University’s Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems degree, which is considered a paradigm-shifting step for agricultural education in California. She went on to get a certificate in ecological horticulture from UC Santa Cruz’s Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.

Fighting for Policy and System Change

At the Community Alliance for Agroecology, there are three main areas of work: policy advocacy (as with the Farmer Equity Act, or trying to establish a drinking water fund for rural residents paid for by Big Ag polluters), local agroecology organizing (such as holding farmer-to-farmer exchanges on agroecology and market enhancement), and building political power for systems change (they host trainings in the areas of food systems history, campaign planning, communications, policy advocacy and organizing). Right now, the organization’s biggest policy push is on the Farmer Equity Act, though the group has also been actively trying to get the state to channel some of the subsidies it grants to large dairies with methane digesters to “alternative manure-management strategies” like pasture-based dairies.

Promoting soil health is another major area of the Alliance’s focus. “Janaki knows all this information about soil health,” said Genoveva Islas, Program Director at Cultiva La Salud. “It really does help to highlight our connection back to the earth, and why it’s so important to preserve it.”

In addition to composting and manure management, CAFA is championing a practice known as orchard recycling. “Rather than growing an almond tree for 25 years and pulling it out and burning it in field, you take that material and blend it back into the soil,” explained Janaki. “We’re essentially trying to close the loop.”

But probably the most exciting part of CAFA’s work right now—especially in the Trump era—lies in developing a so-called “organizer academy” led by two United Farm Workers-trained organizers that will teach community members and farmworkers about food-systems history, campaign planning, communications, policy advocacy, and organizing. “The curriculum is taught in a way that’s evocative of the 1960s and 70s organizing strategies that were successful in winning some of the major battles for equity for farmworkers,” said Jagannath. So far, the pilot project has been for CAFA staff only, but Janaki envisions trainings for farmworkers in the near future.

“We can’t just advocate for reform and regulation,” Jagannath said. “Instead, we’re working on how to build political power amongst farmworker communities, to ensure our local and state elections have representation for communities of color who have been paying taxes but not receiving any of the benefits.”

Update: Jagannath will be attending UC Davis law school in the fall to study Environmental Law with a focus on agriculture and land use. CAFA is currently seeking a new coordinator.

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