Back to My Soil: The last Filipino Farm community in Orosi, California

POOR correspondent - Posted on 06 July 2010

Tony Robles/PNN
Tuesday, May 27, 2008;

"I had come back to myself and my roots, here in this narrow strip of land. Back to my soil and to my father's faith"

--Carlos Bulosan from "America is in the Heart"

I had the privilege of reading at an East Bay elementary school 2 years ago. It was a multicultural event and I read to the children--children with African faces, Filipino faces, Mexican faces, Laotian faces (beautiful faces), each face a seed of hope, a flower. I read my story--the story of a young Filipino boy named Lakas (The Filipino word meaning "Strength") who organizes his elders to fight their eviction by a greedy landlord.

I walked and came upon the school garden where bright fruits and vegetables bathed in sunlight on a bed of nutrient rich soil. I then came face to face with a sign announcing that the garden had been brought to the school, in part, with the cooperation of Comcast Cable. The clouds hovered overhead, partially covering the sun. I stood in the shadows a few feet away from the corporate logo thinking that nothing is sacred to the corporations -not even an elementary school garden.

People with cultural and spiritual connections to their ancestral lands are on the move locally and globally. Thanks to agreements such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement), small farmers are losing their lands and fleeing to the cities in record numbers. These "agreements" eliminate tariffs on imported crops leaving local farmers unable to compete with the multi-billion dollar subsidies of American agribusiness. Indigenous farmers are in resistance around the globe from Mexican corn growers to pig farmers in Haiti.

This global fight is being waged locally in the small community of Orosi, California near Fresno the battle between a Filipina farmer and the local utility intent on seizing her land located in the last remaining Filipino farming community in the United States.

Mary Jane Galbiso is a fiery lady-a warrior in the tradition of Filipino union activists and workers who fought big agribusiness, forged alliances with Latinos leading to the birth of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW).

The battle ground is her 20 acre organic farm--Ilokano Family Farm in Orosi, a rural community in California's Central Valley in Tulare County, 200 miles southeast of San Francisco. What's at stake is the future of the last Filipino farming community in the United States.

Mary Jane purchased her farm in 2002. The original owners were Filipino tomato growers. Mary Jane's family attempted to buy the farm in the 1970's but the owner resisted, eventually selling the property to a family intent on transforming it into a 88 unit housing development. The owners were advised that the land had insufficient sewer capacity which led to the cancellation of a proposed housing development on the property. Mary Jane purchased the property afterward, making improvements that included an agricultural storage building, irrigation well, pump shed, sidewalks, driveways and solar panels.

The Orosi Public Utility District levied a $120,000 assessment on the property based improvements in preparation for the housing development that had been proposed in 1995. Now the district is suing Mary Jane for the $120,000, which she sees as unjust due to the fact that 88 water and sewer hook ups down on the property was for the purposes of a housing development that never came to fruition . The fight is tangled in the courts with legal bills mounting on both sides-far exceeding the original 120,000. Both parties are embroiled in a battle in which Mary Jane has been painted as an outsider, a trouble-maker disturbing a normally tranquil community. Mary Jane sees the district's lawsuit as part of a land grab.

Farming is in Mary Jane Galbiso's blood. She is aware of its historical and cultural importance, citing the anniversary of the 1965 grape strike when Filipinos and Latino's worked together to improve working conditions, eventually winning a landmark labor contract. "It's difficult to keep young folks interested in our farming history," says Galbiso, whose farm produces organic Filipino and Asian vegetables such as Upo squash, bitter melon and talong. "We envisioned our farm as a Filipino youth camp, available to all Filipinos in this country as a way to connect with our traditions. The vegetables are sold at the Alemany Farmers Market in San Francisco and in markets in San Diego and Los Angeles.

Mary Jane's family has been in the US for generations. Orosi became a Filipino American farming community in the 1960's after US immigration widened, allowing more immigration from Asia. The area saw an influx of Filipinos from the Philippines who were experienced in working the land. "Farming is labor intensive," says Mary Jane. "To keep jobs you need to lessen mechanization. The machines that are used in big farms pollute the air and the soil. Our farm is small so we have goats that eat the weeds and solar panels to work our irrigation pumps." Mary Jane sites the cost of doing business, particularly now. "The war is driving up the fuel costs. It's not the production that's costly, it's the distribution. It costs $180.00 to fill up the tank to go down to LA, both ways."

Mary Jane is a successful real estate broker, dividing her time between Orosi and San Francisco. She could have remained in San Francisco but realized that she was losing part of her heritage. "My mom and dad and family have farmed for generations. I realized that if I'd stepped away, I'd be the first generation of my family that did not farm."

Ilokano Farms practices traditional farming. "The big US farms push tractors and mechanization and that is not what we're about" says Mary Jane. "Our vegetables are grown from seed we brought directly from the Philippines-not synthetically modified. No hybrids or grafting. Our seeds are from plants that have sustained and nourished our people for millennia."

Mary Jane sees the attempt to seize her land as collusion on the part of developers and the water district. "This is about keeping the country, country. Bottom line, it is about saving family farms and keeping more land as agriculture rather than having it fall into the hands of developers who are trying to turn small, rural towns into bedroom communities for the big cities like Fresno."

Mary Jane Galbiso's fight is a fight for land--the fight for independent farmers to keep their land, free from the insatiable appetites of ravenous developers. It is also resistance to corporate food producers. She points out, "Our vegetables are important in the fight against diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure and the onslaught of 'modern-day' diseases. Traditional foods are important for all people to turn to in ensuring good health."

*The week of May 18th, the Orosi Public Utility District board voted to foreclose on Mary Jane Galbiso's farm. In response, Ms. Galbiso, herself a board member, introduced a resolution attempting to settle the ongoing litigation. The resolution was not heard and the litigation is ongoing and she is launching a board recall effort as this article goes to press.



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