BAKERSFIELD — Gov. Gray Davis announced a “Buy California” program Friday, promoting native farm products as part of an initiative to invigorate economic growth in the farm-rich Central Valley.
The governor called on lawmakers to support the marketing plan, which would cost $5 million for the state and $5 million from agricultural interests to promote produce, dairy and poultry.
“You’re all familiar with the success of ’It’s the Cheese,”’ Davis said, referring to a dairy marketing campaign on TV and billboards.
“Coming soon it will be the almonds, the grapes, the cherries, the tomatoes, the alfalfa, and the sweet potatoes too.”
Davis made his announcement at the second Central Valley Economic Summit, which brought together local, state and federal officials from across the valley to discuss the challenges faced in this part of the state.
While the valley is home to the nation’s richest agricultural land, it’s also a place of great disparity, with high unemployment and rural poverty.
Farmers face a shortage of water, law enforcement faces a mounting methamphetamine problem and bad air quality plagues the region.
At the same time, the region stretching from Bakersfield to Redding is experiencing some of the fastest population growth in the state as migrant workers come to work the fields and Bay Area commuters relocate in search of cheaper housing.
“We’re putting a lot of money in the Central Valley because this is where the growth is, this is where people are going to be for the next 25 to 40 years,” Davis said.
But one lawmaker in the audience said the valley’s lack of state funding, compared with other regions, required the governor’s commitment to combat the legislative strongholds from urban areas.
“Historically, we’re long on words and short on dollars,” said Assemblyman Dean Florez, D-Shafter.
“We simply lack the funding and can’t match the 22 legislative votes of the Los Angeles delegation.”
Davis said he has given the valley more attention than any previous governor and pointed to commitments in education, including the University of California campus in Merced that he has pledged to have open by 2004.
Lack of education is one of the greatest barriers to leading the valley to prosperity
As the valley changes demographically, more doctors will be needed from different cultural backgrounds to treat the diverse communities, said Dr. Deborah Stewart, an associate dean the University of California, San Francisco medical program in Fresno.
However, one of the areas biggest problems is that so many students don’t go to college or pursue advanced degrees.
“They don’t believe they can do it,” said Stewart.
“No one in their family has gone to college, nevermind med school.”
He also announced an additional $32 million in statewide grants and bonds for groundwater storage and water conservation projects, with about half that money for the San Joaquin Valley.
Davis couldn’t avoid the topic of energy – his “least favorite subject.”
As he has done throughout the state’s power crisis, Davis distanced himself from the cause of the problem, bashed out-of-state companies that own the power plants for price gouging, and trumpeted his fast-track approval of a plants throughout the state.
He also thanked Kern County for hosting the greatest number of new plants proposed and reminded farmers that $70 million is available to help them install energy efficient equipment and save money on power bills.
Law enforcement officials spoke with Davis about the continuing meth problem in the valley. Davis was shown household chemicals that could easily be purchased to cook meth. The center of the state is becoming the epicenter for production of the highly addictive, mind-altering drug.
The governor proposed $45 million to fight the drug, but the Legislature whittled that figure down to $30 million, which is still considered significant because the federal government has only provided $1.4 million, said Stanislaus Sheriff Les Weidman.
“From our vantage point, what’s killing us isn’t the energy, it’s the meth epidemic,” Weidman said. “Thirty million, that’s a huge boon to us.”