Students on campus consume millions of strawberries each quarter. In Santa Cruz County, one of the state’s top strawberry producers, the fruit’s harvest earns hundreds of millions of dollars for local farmers each season.

However, on May 17, when the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems (CASFS) held its sixth annual Strawberry and Justice Festival, community members also focused on the impact of agricultural production on farm laborers and their communities.

CASFS organizers invited participants into the Hay Barn for an agricultural activist panel about the event’s theme of “Serving Justice: Persistence, Resistance and Change.” The speakers, all of whom were involved in local agricultural activism, were there to get people involved with food justice movements.

Singer Diana Gameros performs at the Strawberry and Justice Festival at the CASFS (top).
Singer Diana Gameros performs at the Strawberry and Justice Festival at the CASFS (top).

The panel included Lucia Calderón, a UCSC alumna who works with Safe Ag, Safe Schools, Celeste Covarrubias-Macias, a third-year student volunteer with the Beach Flats Community Garden and Michael Glassden, an activist with the Driscoll’s boycott.

Lucia Calderón, Safe Ag, Safe Schools

Calderón, a member of the local organization Safe Ag, Safe Schools, became aware of the impact pesticides have on the lives of farmworkers and their families through her work in agricultural communities like Watsonville and Salinas. The common pesticide chlorpyrifos currently poses one of the most serious health concerns to those families.

“We are concerned about chlorpyrifos drifting from the sight of the application into schools, local residential neighborhoods [and] other fields where farmworkers are working and having acute poisoning systems,” Calderón said. “[…] Chlorpyrifos has a chemical resistance of up to 120 days so that is one-third of the year that it persists in the environment.”

Calderón said the chemical is so dangerous that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finally recommended a federal ban of chlorpyrifos in 2015, but the Obama administration left office before the ban was implemented. The Trump administration’s new EPA director Scott Pruitt decided to reverse the EPA’s position. Calderón attributes this to business ties between chlorpyrifos producers and the Trump administration.

Acknowledging a federal ban would be inconceivable under the current presidency, Calderón said. She and other activists have instead turned to banning chlorpyrifos on a state level.

“California actually uses one-fifth of chlorpyrifos produced,” Calderón said. “[…] So if California banned it that would take a lot of it off the market and out of the air and it would serve as an example for the rest of the country to follow.”

Celeste Covarrubias-Macias, Beach Flats Community Garden

When third-year Celeste Covarrubias-Macias, who is a second generation Mexican American, came to UC Santa Cruz, she was excited by the community’s emphasis on environmental activism, but felt many organizations and opportunities didn’t reflect her own culture.

She ultimately chose to pursue activism by volunteering with the Beach Flats Community Garden, a hub for small-scale organic farming and a place that felt familiar to her. The garden is predominantly cultivated by Mexican Americans and immigrants near the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk and the crops are shared among the community. The planting methods and cultural practices reminded her of her own family upbringing.

“Both my grandfathers are gardeners,” Covarrubias-Macias said. “They are from small ranchos in Mexico where gardening and farming is the backbone of these communities. My father and grandfather have definitely instilled in me the importance of being able to grow your own food.”

When the Seaside Company, which owns the Boardwalk as well as the land the garden sat on, decided to remove the garden for a parking lot, Covarrubias-Macias joined the movement to pressure Santa Cruz City Council members to reverse the decision.

The campaign was unsuccessful and most of the over 20-year-old garden was torn down or replanted to a much smaller parcel. Currently, the City Council is drawing up a new parks and recreation plan to begin a new community garden. She and other activists are hopeful the city may draft a permanent, protected Beach Flats garden in its plan.

Michael Glassden,Driscoll’s boycott

Michael Glassden, a community activist, was involved with the local boycott of Driscoll’s, an international agricultural producer last spring. The boycott came because of allegations that Driscoll’s supervisors were exploiting farmworkers in California and Washington. He has since gotten involved with labor organizing movements with Driscoll’s farmworkers in San Quintin, Mexico.

“The boycott is only a small part of this,” Glassden said. “The farmworkers in San Quintin realized they are not going to win fighting in their little valley for their rights. They are taking this across Mexico.”

Many of the workers have been forced to migrate around Mexico away from their hometowns as competition from companies like Driscoll’s has eliminated small town agriculture. This is something the union hopes to bring attention to.

Glassden attributed this to policies that have promoted globalized companies like Driscoll’s and pushed workers on both sides of the border into migrant-based, exploitative farm labor.

“This is inherently part of capitalist neoliberalism brought on by Reagan and enhanced by Clinton,” Glassden said. “Things like the NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] made it better for countries like Mexico and the U.S. to make Mexican and U.S. companies rich while it drove small-scale farmers off the map in Mexico.”

To combat globalization of the food market, he believes people should move toward practicing diversified agriculture, or practices focused on smaller-scale, locally produced agriculture with varying crops, not unlike the local Beach Flats Community Garden.

“This is a systemic problem,” Glassden said. “What is happening in the Beach Flats Garden and what is happening in San Quintin is in some sense part of the same system with the same set of the problems.”