National Policies Have Local Effects

Outside the Putah Creek Cafe in downtown Winters, California
Outside the Putah Creek Cafe in downtown Winters, California (James Fallows / The Atlantic)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The ongoing theme of this site is the possibility and practical-mindedness of much of local-level America, at just the moment when national-level politics have become so bitter and dysfunctional.

But of course cities exist within states and regions, and states and regions are subject to national policy and international trends. Here are two illustrations, from opposite sides of the country, of the way national policies of the moment are affecting local efforts we’ve chronicled over the years. One is from the rich farmland of California; the other, from a challenged city in industrial Pennsylvania.

Almonds and walnuts in California: Five years ago, Deb Fallows and I made the first of what became many visits to the farming town of Winters, California. The first time we went, it was to see whether a plein air arts festival we’d heard about in this small town could really have the effect some local patriots had claimed.

On later visits, we talked with farmers, schoolteachers, founders of a newspaper, restaurateurs, and others about how the town was trying to use its commuting-range proximity to Davis and Sacramento (on the east) and the San Francisco Bay Area (on the west) as an economic benefit, while retaining its identity as a farm town rather than a bedroom or boutique community. Our most recent visit was late last month, when we joined a celebration for the launch of the Yolo County Library Foundation. (Deb had written about the library’s role in the town, in a chapter of Our Towns.)

We also wanted to hear, on this trip, about the farming economy. Practically anything will grow (if irrigated) in California’s incredibly fertile Central Valley. For this part of the valley, the most economically valuable crops in recent years have been walnuts and almonds, for which there is huge demand around the world.

An orchard of young walnut trees, just across Putah Creek from downtown Winters, California, last month (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

When we first visited five years ago, the main question for the area’s nut-tree farmers, and for California’s agricultural economy as a whole, was whether the state’s drought-ravaged water supplies could support such commercially valuable but water-intensive crops.

We talked with scientists, environmentalists, regulators, and farmers about the effect of climate change and water supplies on America’s most agriculturally productive state. In Our Towns, I described one walnut farmer who was trying a radically sustainable approach. A sample:

Russ Lester, a nut-tree farmer, was born in the 1950s in a part of the state then famous for its fruit and nut orchards, and now known as the Silicon Valley.

“The Santa Clara valley, where we had our farms, was known for its incredible prunes and apricots and cherries, and was called ‘The Valley of Hearts Delight,’ ” he told us, when we visited him and his daughter on their walnut farm outside Winters. “Obviously that’s all changed—it kind of looks like L.A. now.”

Lester is a stockily built, balding man with an inviting smile, who wore blue jeans, running shoes, and a California surf-shop T-shirt as he walked us through the orchards.

Russ Lester, at his packing house near his walnut orchards, a few years ago (James Fallows / The Atlantic)

With the money from [a sale of family orchards in Silicon Valley], the Lesters moved north, to the Winters area. In 1979 Russ Lester and his wife, Kathy, in their midtwenties, bought sixty-eight acres of neglected orchard that they began replanting with walnut trees.

The resulting operation, known as Dixon Ridge Farms and now covering more than 1,400 acres, attracts visitors from around the world and has been honored by the California state government for its commitment to sustainability in use of energy, water, chemicals, and other components.

“My definition of sustainable farming means that we should be able to keep on doing what we’re doing today, producing good healthy food, pretty much forever. We try to limit the inputs from off-farm, and limit our impact on the environment.”

For water use, the Lester approach involves not tilling the ground between the trees but instead planting legumes and clover. The resulting two-foot-high cover crop, plus walnut shell mulch (and twigs and pruned branches), reduces evaporation.

Water is applied through an unusual irrigation system that utilizes low pressure, rotary sprinklers suspended from hoses snaked through the trees, a process that minimizes waste and allows the cover crop to grow over the entire surface.

While many walnut and almond growers pull out and replant their trees roughly every 25 years, “We have trees that are over 110 years old,” Lester said. “With the shorter cycles, it’s like walnuts on steroids—they produce a lot, and then they peter out, as you would if you were on steroids. You have to rip them out. But if you manage them correctly, they can grow for a long, long time and still produce an excellent crop. And you’re sequestering a lot of carbon in the trees themselves, creating a stable, healthy environment for various critters.”

We saw Lester and some other growers on this recent visit. At least for now, the water situation in California is radically different than it was a few years ago. Starting in 2011, the state had several straight years of record-low rainfall and snowpack. By 2013, nearly all of California was officially in drought conditions. The past two years have been the reverse: nonstop rains, heavy snowpack, replenished reservoirs, and farmland threatened more widely by floodwaters than by drought.

The latest drought officially ended in March, according to California’s drought-monitoring site.

Obviously this is not the end of water or climate questions for California, or American farming in general. But it meant that our conversations with farmers were about a different existential threat. That threat is trade war.

Over the past decade, U.S. growers of almonds, walnuts, and pistachios (nearly all of whom are in California) invested heavily in developing their Asian markets. They promoted the health benefits of eating nuts; they advertised nuts as luxury items and high-status gifts; they produced videos of Chinese and other Asian celebrities touring California orchards; and as a result, their business soared. China’s per capita consumption of walnuts, for instance, has gone up tenfold since the 1990s.

Now demand—and prices—is plummeting, mainly because of retaliatory tariffs imposed in China and elsewhere (including India and the European Union), substitute products grown in Chile and other countries, and domestic growers in China.

High-end organic producers, like Lester’s Dixon Ridge Farms, have held up better than larger-volume conventional growers, mainly because the organic market is more concentrated in the U.S. But prevailing prices for normal growers are way down. One farmer told me that the in the past two years, the price of “in-shell” standard walnuts had gone from about $1.50 a pound to about 60 cents—and that was before the latest round of U.S. tariffs and retaliatory Chinese response. Almonds have undergone almost as significant a collapse of both demand and prices. You can read more on the farm-world consequences of the trade war here, here, and here.

Some family growers who survived the drought might not survive the trade war, a grower told me. But the problem he worried about was longer term. “We’ve worked so hard to build these markets. Now they see us as an unreliable supplier. And other suppliers will move in.” Chile was a particular threat, because “their nuts are good” and, with Southern Hemisphere seasons, they can send crops when U.S. producers cannot.

Working hard to adapt to changes in market tastes and in climate, possibly succumbing to political battles—readers have heard all this about soybean farmers in the Midwest. It’s happening elsewhere, too.

New Americans in the Rust Belt: The front page of The New York Times on May 13 had a story about a refugee-related economic “problem” that immediately rang true to us.

The problem was not that too many refugees were flooding into an American labor market, depressing wages and displacing native-born workers. It was the reverse: that struggling cities were attracting too few refugees, and therefore depleting their corps of entrepreneurs, mainly because fewer refugees were being allowed in the country under current rules.

The story, by Christina Goldbaum, began:

Over the past few decades, as a manufacturing decline left homes vacant and storefronts dark, New York’s upstate cities opened their doors to refugees. The influx, while modest, gave new life to neighborhoods, helped alleviate labor shortages and shored up city budgets.

We have seen this pattern across the country, and notably in Erie, Pennsylvania, where the native-born population has been falling but where immigrants—and especially refugees—have been crucial in buoying population and entrepreneurship.

Mohammad Zkrit and three of his children, originally from Syria, arrived in Erie as refugees. (Deborah Fallows / The Atlantic)

In the past two years, the U.S. has drastically cut the number of refugees it has accepted. This has an obvious effect on the countries refugees are trying to escape—but also on cities that have absorbed them, like Erie. As a recent column by John Micek, the editor in chief of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, put it:

Without a “stream of immigrants and refugees,” and their children “arriving to work in the city’s plastics and biofuels plants on Lake Erie … the city’s population might have dropped as low as 80,000,” reported recently, citing information provided by a senior aide to Erie’s Democratic mayor, Joe Schember.

“That would mean a lot less federal funding, a lot less tax dollars, a lot more difficulty filling job openings and a lot more deteriorating housing stock,” the aide, Renee Lamis, told Stateline. “… We are a perfect example of a place in need of immigrants and refugees.”

“We have literally hundreds of job openings, and our landlords have vacancies,” Lamis said, The city “had to raise income taxes and raid reserve funds to make ends meet,” Stateline reported.

And as Matthew Rink, a reporter for the Erie Times-News, said:

Erie has experienced “drastic” declines is in its refugee population, said Dylanna Grasinger, director of the International Institute of Erie, a division of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

In the current fiscal year, Trump has capped federal refugee resettlements at 30,000, the lowest since the refugee resettlement program began and only a third of the 90,000 historical average.

Erie can’t control the number of refugees the U.S. admits. The farmers of Yolo County can’t control trade wars. They do their best with what is within their control, and are whipsawed by changes from the top.

What do these two changes—in trade policies, and for refugees—have in common? Making the United States more closed, rather than more open. Through the centuries, a closing-down America has been one moving backward, rather than ahead.