Population Up, Resources Lost in America’s Vegetable Bowl: Rural California

When we think of “the rural,” California may not come to mind, though it’s estimated that 80 percent of the land area in California is rural.

Now the lines between urban and rural there are blurring. California faces an unusual challenge: productive agricultural regions are growing cities in addition to fruits, vegetables and grains. This is causing a change in federal classification which makes it harder for truly rural areas to get needed government funding. 

California’s counties are vast–San Bernardino County, for example, stretches over 20,000 square miles–that’s larger than nine states. But if you spread the population of San Bernardino County over the area equally, the population density would be sparse at about 100 people per square mile. However, because there are cities in the county with more than 50,000 inhabitants, the county as a whole is designated metropolitan.

The change to metropolitan status has on-the-ground repercussions. For California health agencies and non-profits, for example, this redefining of rural areas has resulted in the inability to apply for funding that is channeled to rural regions. This, in turn, results in the decline of public health services, rural development and food access for rural residents. Much of rural California is now more populous, more Hispanic, but less healthy, poorer and less well educated than urban areas. The conclusion is inescapable: the divide between California’s rich and poor is becoming ever wider.

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A shifting definition

There is no universally accepted definition of “rural.” In fact, there are over 15 definitions in use in federal agencies. In most instances, the term “rural” is a catch-all applied to any region that is “not urban.”  With changes in the definition of rural by the Census Bureau and the development of Rural-Urban Continuum Codes, just four California counties are officially classified as rural (Alpine, Mariposa, Sierra, Trinity).

More than 98 percent of the state’s rural residents live in counties described as “metro” or as “non-metro”. Huron, Mendota, Mecca, Orange Cove, Parlier and Arbuckle, among many others, have populations that exceed the 2,500 cutoff to be classified as rural. But nearly every resident of these communities will say they live in a rural community. Reviewing the census data, we discovered that less than two percent of California’s rural population resides in the four counties specifically identified as rural.

California: a special case

While the Golden State’s overall population increased by about 10 percent between 2000 and 2010, counties with rural populations grew by a larger percentage. Riverside County grew by 42 percent, Kern by 27 percent, San Joaquin by 22 percent and Tulare by 20 percent. In contrast, during the same decade, Los Angeles County’s population increased by a mere three percent and Orange County’s, six percent.

There are two basic explanations for this demographic shift. One is spillover from urban regions by people seeking less expensive housing, lower crime rates, a higher quality of life, more space and the rural lifestyle. The second shift is the emergence of Hispanic majorities in large portions of the San Joaquin Valley. Residents have migrated into these agricultural regions from Mexico and Central America drawn by the prospects of employment, higher wages and a better life for themselves and their children.

Rural California differs from rural areas in the midwest because almost half of all the country’s fruits, vegetables and nuts are produced there. Nine of the top ten agricultural producing counties are in California. California produces more milk for the U.S. than any other state including Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland. And this production occurs on small family farms–the average farm size in California is 100 acres less than the U.S. average farm size and 75 percent of California farms are smaller than 100 acres. Seventy-nine percent of all California farms are owner operated and are family owned.

Like other rural areas, rural California faces the specter of climate change and the impacts that may have on our farms and the people who work them. High unemployment and foreclosure rates have disproportionately impacted rural cities and towns. Farmers and their employees can’t afford health care and yet, they have one of the most dangerous jobs in America. Food insecurity in farming regions is among the highest in the country and this level is even higher for farm laborers. The people who work to grow food for the world don’t have enough to eat and what they can afford is unhealthy. In Fresno County, the most productive agricultural county in the nation, about 40 percent of the residents experience poverty and hunger.

For example, California’s 20th Congressional District, in the heart of the agricultural region on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley, ranked as the very worst among all of the nation’s 436 Congressional Districts in the “American Human Development Index” (Burd-Sharps et al, 2008)

The measures used to rank congressional districts were: life expectancy at birth, educational attainment, school enrollment (as percent of eligible children) and median earnings. In this district, a plurality of all private sector male workers is employed in agriculture. And yet the 20th Congressional District, in a county now categorized as metropolitan, is a major success story of agricultural production. According to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, the district ranked 14th in the nation in total farm cash receipts with $4.4 billion, and 2nd overall in vegetable sales.

A county-based definition of “rural” does not work in California. Financial stresses on rural systems are largely a manifestation of federal policy–rural regions are not homogeneous and policies to address rural challenges need to be flexible. It’s time for the federal government to change the way it invests in rural America.

Photo: Doreen Forlow

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