Residents support city of Central Valley amid drought in California

Ramon Chavez was 7 years old in Culiacán, Mexico when his parents told him they were going to the United States. He thought he was going to Disneyland.

They ended up in Stratford.

Chavez spent his childhood and adolescence running in the small farming town in the Central Valley and swim with friends in nearby canals. Everyone, as the saying goes, knew everyone. Small businesses, such as gas stations and mercaditos, was about independent living away from the amenities of the big city.

“I’ve fallen in love with it ever since,” said Chavez, now 39.

But like many rural towns in the American West, Stratford, about 40 miles south of Fresno in Kings County, is a shell even from its humble heyday. It fades in the middle ever higher temperatures, years of drought and recession.

Westlake Farms, once the city’s largest employer, reduced its 65,000 acres and carried out massive layoffs in 2000 on a base operation. U.S. Census figures show Stratford’s population has grown from 1,277 in 2010 to 901 in 2020.

Land flows here, sometimes at almost historic rates of over 1 foot per year, due to the excessive pumping of groundwater. Of its four wells, Stratford can only rely on one, the others are unreliable and unusable.

Estella Lopez waits for the clothes to dry on a line at her home in Stratford.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

The people of Stratford have tried to do what they can to help keep it afloat. The last business to open, a taco truck, arrived at the request of the city. To raise money to revitalize the city, a nonprofit called Reestablishing Stratford is asking for local grants and receiving donations from local clubs and residents to organize 5k runs, food drives and even haunted mazes. for Halloween.

“Small towns like this remind you of all those positive little traditions that big cities may be starting to lose,” said Robert Isquierdo Jr., a former resident who co-founded the association with Chavez.

“Rural areas and small towns struggle because they lack economic diversification,” said Lisa R. Pruitt, UC Davis Law School professor whose work focuses on people and places. rural. “If you lose a major employer, then what do all these people do? In a drought, I guess, farm jobs are affected. If you lose your job by doing X, you cannot recover by doing Y because Y does not exist.

Two arches that once boasted “Annually: 1 million pounds of butter.” 1 Million Sacks of Grain ‘stand at opposite ends of a middle strip in central Stratford.

The main street goes around it. At least 15 businesses, including a hair salon, card room, and Chinese restaurant, once served the growing neighborhood. Cereal and cotton crops and dairy farms dominated. Migrants from all over found their way to Stratford for seasonal work, causing the town’s population to skyrocket.

Basque and Portuguese settlers left their mark. Peter Irigaray built a house in 1919 and turned it into a popular restaurant with Basque-inspired cuisine. The The city hosted an annual Portuguese celebration in honor of Queen Saint Isabella of Portugal with a parade and mass that was interrupted after many years by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many townspeople gather at a local lodge for traditional Portuguese food, like sopas.

Mornings in Stratford are so calm that the chirping of birds and the creaking of car tires on the dried leaves against the asphalt are amplified. Families sit outside in their garden before the sun gets unbearable. Chickens and dogs roam free. For fun, some families ride quad bikes or go fishing outside of town at Kings River and the Tulare Lake Canal. Some high school kids play chase with stray dogs and hang out at the local elementary school until it’s time to go home.

As the morning sun cast an orange tint over the valley in late September, farmers walked into a makeshift cafe set up in a Napa Auto Parts along Main Street for a free cup of watered down Folgers. Today’s edition of The Fresno Bee sat on a nearby table with stacks of My Job Depends on Ag Magazine.

As far back as they can remember, farmers have always met in this auto parts store because there was no other public place to meet for coffee.

Conversations range from the latest farm machinery to a farmer’s recovery from COVID-19.

Farmers, ranchers and residents come together for morning coffee at the NAPA Auto Parts store in Stratford.

Farmers, ranchers and residents come together for morning coffee at the NAPA Auto Parts store in Stratford.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

A pedestrian shares the road with a tractor in Stratford.

A pedestrian shares the road with a tractor in Stratford.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

“He was a little Mayberry when we were kids,” said hay grower Danny Rodrigues, 52.

“I can’t get a gallon of milk anymore,” complained another farmer. “Only candy, beer and fries.”

Wesley Rodrigues’ father owned the store and then passed away. Now Wesley, 41, manages it with his mother and older brother.

Background chatter is a familiar sound to Wesley, 41, as he called a customer who had purchased a mop. He remembers listening to a group of older farmers when he helped his uncle restock the shelves as a child.

New resident Gailton Moore spends her time renovating a van outside her home in Stratford.

New resident Gailton Moore spends her time renovating a van outside her home in Stratford.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Across the street, past the middle strip, there is a liquor store, market, clothing store with food truck, US post office, community health center, supplier of N&S Tractor farm equipment and a Pentecostal church.

High school girls right next to a bus crowd the Stratford Market counter as owner Mahmod Alrihimi, left, calls shopping.

High school girls right next to a bus crowd the Stratford Market counter as owner Mahmod Alrihimi calls shopping. The market is one of the few businesses open in the ailing town of Central Valley.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

At 8 a.m. Mahmod Alrihimi – better known as Kenny – opened his market across from Napa. The longtime store owner, originally from Yemen, arrived in Stratford in 1990 and opened his shop. He saw how a confluence of struggles in agriculture impacted his business and Stratford. He stopped selling meat years ago when the migrant workers no longer showed up. Too many pounds of beef and steak have gone bad, he said.

“Before, there were a lot of people, but not anymore,” he said.

He moved to Lemoore with his family in 2019 for a better home. He considered moving his store to a bigger city, but it would cost money that he doesn’t have. Most of the time, he’s bored. He talks on the phone with family members to pass the time. Or watch the news on their iPhone. Sometimes he looks into the distance as he sits behind his ledger in silence.

Stratford residents Estella Lopez, left, and her husband Francisco, right, peel the outer shells of the pistachios

Stratford residents Estella Lopez, left, and her husband Francisco peel the shells of pistachios in the front yard of their home.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Alfredo Encinas, 41, and Melissa Plascencia, 27, moved from their home in Riverdale, about 20 miles north, and moved to Stratford in 2018. After three months of renovating the vacant Main Street storefront near from Kenny’s Market, the couple opened El Mochomo. .

They sold Portillo work boots and offered money transfers for the first year. People weren’t interested in new shoes, but relied on transfers to send money to Mexico. Plascencia said the benefit was minimal. A $ 1,000 transfer earns him about $ 15 – barely enough to make ends meet, even in an area where the median annual income is around $ 50,000 per household.

Patty Silva, director of the district utility office, processes a customer's bill.

Patty Silva, director of the district utility office, processes a customer’s bill.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

So she thought of another idea to help them supplement their income: selling hot dogs wrapped in bacon. They parked a cart in front of their store and added chairs to their sidewalk. Residents quickly started asking for tacos, burritos, and tortas.

From 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., they juggle the shop and the food truck. Their upgraded truck is decorated with images of the food they sell – and La Virgen de Guadalupe.

Still, the couple say their profits are meager. There have been times when Encinas hired temporary work on a dairy farm, Plascencia said.

A vintage automobile sits on blocks in a dusty lane.

A vintage automobile sits on blocks in a dusty lane.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

As the heat in the valley subsided in the late afternoon, 16-year-old Miah Villaseñor and his five friends broke through the silence of the town. Bethany Zavala, 16, and Britney Montoya, 16, laughed as they walked the aisles of the library with the red Kool-Aid Bursts they bought at the market. Others slammed their backpacks onto a round table.

When asked what they do to pass the time, they playfully pointed out their city’s shortcomings. There was no gas station. it’s hot.

“We love to be chased by dogs,” Britney said, causing her friends to laugh. “This is the place to get a free dog.”

“If you want a business, don’t open here,” Bethany said. “The thrift store opened one day, then never again. “

A high school student walks towards a bus stop as the sun rises over Main Street in Stratford.

A high school student walks towards a bus stop as the sun rises over Main Street in Stratford.

(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Teens dreamed of pursuing careers as a lawyer, law enforcement officer, veterinarian in big cities and possibly other states. But they still felt that there was something special about small town life.

“The community comes together when it’s needed,” said Miah, born and raised in Stratford. “And when people get together, they can make new friends.”


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