The Gold Is Gone : Suffering Haunts Tulare County After Bad Weather Freezes the American Dream


On an early March afternoon in Woodlake, Francisco and Maria Trinidad Rodriguez sit in their carefully furnished living room and recall what brought them here 18 years ago from Zacatecas. Before they ever planned to leave Mexico, Francisco says, they had heard about the gold in the trees.

Enough gold for the Rodriguezes, and many others, to buy into the American Dream.

This is the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the world’s richest farming areas, where the Orange Belt runs along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Most of the valley’s 70 million cartons of oranges are shipped each year from Tulare County.

But not this year. Not since the freeze.

Now the gold lies rotting on the ground. Increasingly rancid oranges solidly carpet the groves. And those left on the trees, looking so perfect on the outside, are worth about as much as fool’s gold.

Yet the financial losses, estimated by some at more than $1 billion, pale considerably when measured against the human suffering.


Normally during the spring, the Rodriguezes pick oranges nine hours a day. Instead, Maria Trinidad, 46, has stayed home today, worrying; Francisco, 48, has just returned from the pool hall where, he readily admits, he goes because she upsets him, too.

One big worry is this small, cheerful house that they bought several years ago. Thrifty people, they have kept up with their mortgage payments. But the next payment will deplete their life savings.

In 18 years here, they have never been out of work, never collected unemployment, never taken a food box. Until now.

Daughter Maria, 23, one of four Rodriguez children, has been working as a payroll clerk and now is about to go back to college. The house is full of the contributions from her paychecks--sofas, lace curtains, bric-a-brac.

“We’ve always thought of ourselves as prospering,” she says.

Reality, it seems, has not yet hit her parents fully. Woodlake is their home and they don’t think of going elsewhere, except for brief fruit-picking forays if work becomes available. Francisco talks of finding out about home equity loans. They never believed the dream would come to this. Not here.

“Nunca,” Francisco says emphatically. Never.

On Dec. 20, the Arctic Express swept over California. Valley temperatures fell below freezing and stayed there. For three nights it stayed below 25, and as low as 18, for up to 12 hours; the cold did not let up until Jan. 3.

With at least 70% of the winter navel oranges still on the trees and the summer crop of Valencias just developing, the valley’s 200,000 acres of citrus were wiped out by the freeze. Oranges and lemons were destroyed; other crops such as avocados, pistachios and olives were severely damaged.

“I’ve been in this racket a long time and I’ve never seen a year where there’s nothing to harvest,” says Robert Bream, a 75-year-old grower who remembers the freezes of 1937 and 1949. He has spent his life with citrus, growing up on a family farm in the San Fernando Valley.

Like farmers up and down the Orange Belt, Bream desperately ran wind machines and heaters. By the second night, he says, “the fruit froze right facing the orchard heater.” After that, he wrote off the crop and worked only “to maintain tree conditions.”

Curtis Lynn, county Cooperative Extension director, says freezes are not unusual for the citrus industry: “But this kind is. The hours of cold were greater than ever. It’s the longevity that caused so much damage.”

It wasn’t just the fruit. Trees were damaged or killed and, in some cases, whole orchards froze to death. Particularly vulnerable were lemon trees and young orange trees. Not until spring, when the trees “leaf out,” will the total effect be evident. New trees will not bear fruit for several years and will take five years to reach full production.

Tulare County sustained 62% of the valley’s citrus loss. Rather than 50 million cartons of navel oranges, 14 million left this season as fresh fruit. And the 20 million cartons of Valencias expected this summer? There will be none. An optimistic estimate of next November’s harvest, several growers and agriculture experts say, is 80% of average; 40%-60% may be more likely.

Preliminary estimates of fruit losses were put at $314 million, plus another $150 million “add-on value” at the packing houses. But people here talk upwards of $1 billion when they look at the domino effect.

Before the freeze, unemployment among Tulare County’s 308,622 residents already had reached 15.2%. This month, it started at 19.2%; Lindsay reported 47.2%.

There will be no work to speak of in the citrus industry until November and about 15,000 of its workers already have lost their jobs to the freeze. (Statewide, officials say, more than 100,000 farm workers have been idled.) And that doesn’t include the fallout from jobs in service, supply and retail industries.

To the people of Tulare County, December’s record freeze jolted like an earthquake. The aftershocks keep coming, steadily shaking all levels of the community.

“We have got a disaster here, a total disaster,” says Roy Rockholt. “Only you can’t see the buildings falling down.” He retired several years ago to Porterville from the Bay Area and now runs the Helping Hands soup kitchen. Traffic has doubled since the freeze, Rockholt says, and the kitchen now serves up to 500 people a day.

The earthquake analogy is constantly used, as if it’s the only way to get the world’s attention. People here claim, as do some legislators and agency officials, that the freeze is California’s third worst natural disaster. (The first two spots go to the 1906 San Francisco and 1989 Loma Prieta earthquakes.) And they predict the crisis will last at least two years.

After the October, 1989, quake, the state immediately authorized an additional 1/4-cent sales tax for 13 months. People here want a similar response, yet say their pleas fall on deaf ears. What with the Gulf War, the state of the economy, plus California’s deficit and drought, the freeze has evoked little response or help from outside the county, they say.

Rockholt details what he sees: hunger, disconnected utilities, evictions, homelessness, increased family problems and domestic violence: “It just snowballs. If we don’t get some sort of help, it’ll be bad . . . and the drought is right behind it. It’s like a plague almost.”

Unlike the area’s seasonal agricultural workers, citrus workers have year-round employment and, often, benefits like health insurance and pension plans. Regardless of their ethnic backgrounds or length of time in the country, Tulare County is their home.

“They’re good citizens. They’ve never asked for handouts before,” says Rockholt, who describes the scene at the soup kitchen: “At first (the citrus workers) were sending their kids in to eat. They’d be sitting in the car and wouldn’t come in. They’re proud people. It’s hard to get in a line. We try to be as nice to them as we can. I know I’d hate to do it.”

Hunger, unemployment and inadequate shelter are not strangers to this county or valley--an agricultural area with few other industries; even in normal times, they are endemic. This month, for example, the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation released results of a 1990 survey that showed widespread hunger among children in the four-county area of the Central San Joaquin Valley.

Of 335 low-income families with children under 12, 97% said they regularly ran out of money for food; 89% said they cut back on children’s meal sizes and 38% said their children went to bed hungry an average of five days a month.

The children, the study found, are malnourished, receive poor, if any, medical attention and, as a result, often do poorly in school.

By all accounts, the small community of Lindsay, in the middle of the Orange Belt, is one of the hardest hit.

LoBue Bros. Inc., one of 14 packing companies there, is run by descendants of the man who founded it 57 years ago. On Dec. 26, grandson Fred LoBue faced what he calls the hardest day of his life. He and a plant supervisor walked into the packing area, gave a talk . . . and laid off 120 people.

“Most of them knew it would be pretty dramatic,” says LoBue, secretary-treasurer of the firm. “We quit picking on Christmas Eve and we did not have another box to run. Everybody held their chins up until I got up there, and that’s because I got emotional. That broke it for everyone. They just stood there and cried. I’ve been working here since ’65 . . . (and) some of these people have been working here longer than I have. It hurts to think about it.”

Before the freeze, LoBue Bros. Inc. employed 425 people, most of them pickers and packers. All but 15 have been laid off.

Now, the cavernous packing and shipping houses stand silent and almost empty. March is supposed to be the peak month for the navel harvest; 30,000 cartons of “Sun-Rapt” oranges should leave the LoBue warehouse six days a week. Instead, inside a vast cold-storage area, a few pallets of USDA surpluses and donated foods--canned tomatoes and apricots, concentrated cherry juice--await delivery to food pantries.

Joe LoBue, director of marketing and Fred’s cousin, spends much of his time on the phone, locating free food from his business contacts and lining up trucking for it. On a recent morning, he had good results: apples from Washington state, avocados from San Clemente, a load of produce from Hollywood, noodles from Gardena.

Around the corner at the Lindsay-Strathmore Coordinating Council, about 50 farm workers wait in line outside the door for food boxes. Director Sara Rodriguez is delivering something between an apology and a warning: No trucks have arrived; they are welcome to what remains, but there is very little--rice, beans, flour and fresh kiwi fruit.

No one leaves.

Minutes later, on the phone in her closet-sized office, Rodriguez wearily tells a caller: “I’m sorry. We have no more money to help with light bills.” Then, pushing fatigue from her voice, her tone grows encouraging: “Yes, we can still help with the gas bill. Bring it in.”

About 10 miles outside of Lindsay, in Plainview, a drab little community on a grid of blacktopped roads off a highway, Lino and Lidya Morales are two months behind on their rent. Here three years from Michoacan in central Mexico, they have worked as orange pickers, and two of their eight children--ages 8 months to 12 years--were born in this country.

Cradling her youngest, Adam, in one arm, Lidya stands in her front yard, scraping pulp from an apple and spooning it into the baby’s mouth. Lino looks on, awkwardly.

The family had eaten some leftover soup with potatoes for breakfast, Lidya says. And for dinner? There was still rice, and a small amount of beans. And flour for tortillas. No vegetables. No one bothered to mention meat.

She’s been receiving $77 a week in unemployment; Lino’s has yet to begin. Red tape seems to tie up other benefits for which they may be eligible, and both sound vague about the future.

When they missed the rent, $350, for the third time, and received an eviction notice, “Sara helped out,” Lidya mumbles in Spanish, referring to Sara Rodriguez. It is clear they hope she’ll somehow help again.

Sandy Beals, executive director of Foodlink, a nonprofit food bank that distributes food to 42 emergency food pantries in the county, says she knows the only solution: “We need national disaster assistance, so we can at least keep people fed and in their homes. We’ve got to prevent homelessness.”

When the freeze came, Beals acted fast, appealing statewide to food banks and other sources. “When a family lives paycheck to paycheck--and on $5 to $7 an hour, they do--within two weeks, they’re out of food,” she says.

Beals knew existing resources would not be enough. Food pantries are common in the county, but the demand increased astronomically, she says: Lindsay, a 2,075% increase; Woodlake, 1,111%; Porterville, 212%; Visalia, 139%.

Although she no longer had oranges to trade, organizations such as the Westside Foodbank in Los Angeles have sent help, but say their own resources are limited and local demand is great. Between private donations--such as those LoBue brings in and food from service organizations--and government commodities, Beals estimates the effort is still two-thirds short of what is needed.

And, she says, the average household size here increased from six in January to 8.5 by February--a sign people are moving in together to save money or because of evictions.

Beals was not alone in immediately realizing the magnitude of the crisis. During the first week of January, Curtis Lynn phoned social-service organizations, governmental agencies, banks, businesses, growers and advocacy groups.

On Jan. 10, the Tulare County Agricultural Worker Relief Task Force held its first meeting.

“I’ve never seen farmers, farm workers and social-service agencies work so well together,” says Lynn, who chairs the 70-member, 45-organization group. As do many others here, he calls the cooperation the only good result of the freeze.

But their common purpose, as Lynn himself acknowledges, is sorely tried by overwhelming problems and inadequate responses.

Ernie Hernandez, director of the United Way in Tulare, heads task-force fund raising. Thus far, he says, his committee’s efforts have focused locally. No public appeal has gone out, he says, mainly because, “we’re not sure how to make it into a national effort.”

The committee has received about $130,000: $50,000 from the American Red Cross, $50,000 (of a $100,000 grant) from the San Francisco based-Rosenberg foundation, and local donations.

“We thought once word got out, we’d be kept busy distributing money,” Hernandez says. “That’s how naive we were. The war hit, and that was it. It’s been dribbling in. We’ve been able to keep the food flowing, but it’s gone as soon as it comes in. And now requests for shelter and utility assistance are coming in. It’s so scary. If we get involved in that, we can have all your resources gone in a day.”

He is not far off the mark. Carolyn Rose, director of Community Services and Employment Training, says CSET’s annual allocation of federal emergency housing funds was gone by the end of January. The agency has helped 58 families, but as of mid-March, the wait list had 2,716 rent requests and 141 mortgage requests.

Several blocks from Francisco and Maria Trinidad Rodriguez’s house in Woodlake, Sara Banda sits in the apartment of her sister-in-law, Elvira Guido, holding a stern letter from a home finance company. It warns of foreclosure if a payment is not received.

Banda left Mexicali 27 years ago, and her circumstances bear little resemblance to those of newcomers like the Morales family in Plainview. Her roots and investments here are deep; she and her husband have raised four children, and have worked, planned and bought into a modest version of the good life.

Somewhat jittery and distracted by her tension, Banda explains her complicated finances to Manuel Jimenez, a neighbor and farm adviser for the county’s Cooperative Extension program. Banda and her husband own two buildings, the one with the foreclosure warning and this modest fourplex where they sit. None of the tenants, including Guido and her husband, who owe three months’ rent, can pay. They’re all out of work, including Banda, who lost her job as a grader at Golden State Packers.

They probably will lose the other building, Banda says, but she and her husband are desperate to hang onto this one, where they live. They try to stay no more than two payments behind.

Both she and Guido say it is the first time they have asked for food stamps, MediCal, utilities help and free food boxes. They don’t like asking, and Banda, whose husband has found a job as a forklift driver, was turned down at the food pantry. She had overcome her embarrassment, forced herself to get in line and then . . . more embarrassment--and no food.

Laughing nervously, Banda says the Ford she bought is about to be repossessed “any day now. It’s the only car we have.”

Unable to offer much reassurance, Jimenez says lamely, “When you become a regular American, you start to get the dream. And with it you get the debt.”

On Jan. 11, Gov. Pete Wilson declared a state of emergency in 17 counties, including the San Joaquin Valley, and one month later, President George Bush declared a major disaster in 31 California counties. As a result, and with pressure from legislators, some state and federal regulations have been loosened, waived or amended to include freeze victims.

But the problem is, Task Force chairman Lynn and others stress, the declarations came without dollars; no money has been allocated. In March, Wilson announced $4 million for loan guarantees and “bridge loans” to farmers and rural businesses. The money was transferred from funds left over from the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake relief fund; a 1/4-cent sales tax, imposed from December, 1989, through December, 1990, had raised about $800 million.

People here appreciate the help, but insist they need their own 1/4-cent sales tax. Their legislators have not been encouraging and Task Force members warily caution each other about high hopes.

“We’re thinking now of a limited duration tax, say three to six months,” says one Task Force member. “We know there’s a deficit. But we think the people of California would be willing to accept a sacrifice for the people who put food on their tables.”

On Tuesday, Wilson pledged more state help for Tulare, Kern and Fresno counties, asked President Bush to provide more federal assistance, and called on Californians to provide more private aid. During a trip to Visalia, the governor said National Guard units would help transport food. And, he said, the Office of Emergency Services could use resources of any state agency to help communities affected by the freeze.

But, Wilson said, he would not support a sales-tax increase.

Much of what money is currently available, Task Force members and others contend, is tied up in regulations that make it virtually impossible for people to apply for help. Supposed waivers seemed to have strings or, at best, were unclear. Sara Rodriguez and others say many legal residents fear, despite assurances to the contrary, that asking for help will endanger their status here. So, they won’t ask.

And, as Lynn says, “there isn’t much aid anyhow, and what there is doesn’t amount to much” for an individual. For example, average unemployment insurance for agricultural workers has been running from $90 to $100 per week.

“I’ve got a boiling rage,” says the Rev. Dick Pitcher, sitting in his sparse study at the United Methodist Church in Lindsay. His face reddens as he describes the sources of the rage, his own words seeming to stoke the fire.

He faults federal and state elected officials and agencies for having made a “pitifully small response” to the freeze, despite figures documenting a staggering need:

“The only figures they look at are polls. Voter support--a population base that votes. That’s kind of cold, but I think that’s how the system works. If it happened in San Francisco or Los Angeles, they’d be falling all over themselves.”

Everywhere, it seems, emotions run high, nerves are shot.

Overwhelmed and overtired, people who have pulled together are beginning to tear apart. Meetings can deteriorate into debate about who has been hurt the most, who might get more than their fair share of aid, who has not pulled their weight or who is being favored or discriminated against.

A tense go-round between David Gibson, who directs the Lindsay Chamber of Commerce, and Ernie Hernandez, of the relief task force, is an example.

At an afternoon task-force meeting in Visalia, Gibson comments that $100,000 grants really wouldn’t do much beyond “Band-Aid programs” in the Lindsay-Strathmore area, and he reveals some independent lobbying efforts that his town had made in Sacramento.

Several caution him on the need for the county to present, as Hernandez says, “one voice.”

It does not turn into a shouting match. Both men, patience strained, repeatedly say they appreciate the other’s position.

“But who out there is telling about the people in Lindsay?” Gibson stubbornly asks.

“We all are. Give us some credit,” Hernandez replies.

But that doesn’t end it.

“Am I hearing we should not be out doing our own thing?” challenges Pitcher, who had helped put together an interfaith group that brought in about $25,000 from national church organizations.

No, no, no, people hastened to assure him.

No sooner does this exchange die, however, than Manuel Jimenez rises and quietly but urgently says: “The farm workers are getting frustrated. There’s got to be some advocacy. Things are not happening fast enough.”

People sound stung. “Well what’s the answer?” asks one. “What would you have us do?” queries another.

“I don’t know,” Jimenez replies. “I’m just telling you that at some point there will be more unhappiness. You’ll see people in the streets.”

It is not just agricultural workers who are suffering, people say. The freeze has hit the middle class.

“People aren’t buying,” says Lindsay Mayor John Maynard. Business is down in town, requests for credit are up and merchants are keeping inventories low. Maynard has the Western Auto franchise in Lindsay and has laid off one full-time and two part-time employees.

“We’re down as low as we can be,” Maynard says of his place. “We can’t cut deeper.”

Excusing himself, he goes to the counter and waits on two customers. A case in point, he says when they leave: They were not buying.

“We’re a payment agent for General Telephone, and both of them were about to be cut off,” Maynard says. “She could only pay half her bill. He made a one-third payment on his.”

The town is populated by “hardy people” and will pull through, he says. But there are real worries, like how are they going to feed kids once summer comes and school is out? He’s been told that kids are cleaning their plates and asking for seconds on vegetables at school lunch; the meal is important to them. And there are other signs in the classroom--distraction, aggression, kids starting to lose hair.

“One of the biggest problems we’ve had,” Maynard says, “is convincing the outside world we’ve got a problem.” He says it will take drastic federal and state measures like the 1/4-cent sales tax to pull them through, and he knows big cities will resist it at first.

But he warns of far-reaching repercussions: “Ultimately, they will pay for it, one way or t’other.”

His own town, which has a $1-million budget, has lost about $200,000 in sales-tax revenues. It is considering cutbacks in the public safety department, the fire department and the school. It’s hard to know where to cut, Maynard says.

When people are depressed and broke, and kids are on vacation, Maynard says, “you need to spend money on recreation. If you cut things like the recreation budget, you inherit the wind.”