California drought brings smaller harvests, more hunger among farmworkers
DUCOR, Calif. — Here in the produce basket of the nation, the drought has so dried out the farm economy that farmworkers depend on charity to fill their pantries.
These are the human faces of the diminished winter harvests: Manuel Avila, Jorge Rivera, Adriana Garcia, Jessica Yanez, Salud Santacruz and more than 17,000 others who confront hunger because of reduced hours or lost jobs in food picking, processing and packing.
“Before, I worked 10 hours a day,” Avila said through a translator as he picked up rations of free raisins, beef stew, orange juice and applesauce at a roadside stand run by the nonprofit aid group Proteus. “Now there are lower hours, five or six,” the orange picker said. “There’s less fruit, because there’s less water.”
“I can only work from 7 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon,” said Santacruz, who packs grapes from the fields around this tiny community. “It’s less, much less.”
Under sodden gray skies, the 2014 drought feels far away, but it is just now being felt in the reduced agricultural yields of the California’s southern Central Valley. With an estimated 420,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated cropland removed from production this summer, the state expects losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in dairy and livestock value, and $453 million in added costs due to additional well-pumping, based on NASA space satellite imagery and an economic analysis by Josue Medellin-Azuara and colleagues at the University of California, Davis, Center for Watershed Sciences.
Although that lost acreage is represents only 5 percent of the state’s total agriculture, it hits hard in the towns in Tulare Lake Basin—among the poorest in the state. “There are pockets of real pain and suffering,” said the report’s lead author Richard Howitt, a UC Davis professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics.
The unemployment rate in Kettleman City is 18.1 percent; Stratford, 24.5 percent; and Garden Home, 22.4 percent, according to John Lehn, chief executive of Kings County Economic Development.
Those are more than double the statewide rate of 7.3 percent—and three to four times higher than in the Bay Area, where unemployment rates range from 4.3 percent in San Mateo County to 6.8 percent in Solano County.
The loss of farm jobs swamped overall gains in San Joaquin Valley jobs in nonfarm industry sectors, including transportation, utilities, education and health services, counties report.
Particularly needy are undocumented workers, who are ineligible for food stamps or other government assistance. Aid groups like Proteus report a surge in requests for help paying rent and utility bills.
But even skilled longtime Californians — who manage crews, lay irrigation pipes, fix tractors, spray and prune — are working fewer hours.
Pilots of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, who plant rice fields, said their business was cut by half.
The state’s almond production is off by 15 percent, which means three weeks less work for those who hull and shell at Stanislaus County’s Stewart & Jasper Orchards, said Jim Jasper, a leader in the state’s almond business. Workers who clean, size and box almonds will lose four to five weeks of employment, he said.
There are fewer boxes of navel oranges to fill at packing plants — not only because of reduced yield, but also because fruit is smaller, said Bob Blakely of Exeter’s California Citrus Mutual, a trade association of the state’s 2,200 growers. An estimated 78 million boxes of navel oranges will be packed this year, down from 85 million last year.
“It affects the whole economy,” said Les Wright, agricultural commissioner for Fresno County, the nation’s top agricultural county, where, compared with last year, acreage planted for lettuce is down 50 percent; barley, 74 percent; wheat, 38 percent; garlic, 34 percent; onion, 30 percent; cotton, 22 percent; and processed tomatoes, 16 percent.
“Not only the field worker, but the truck driver, the fertilizer supplier are affected,” said Wright. “The local cafe. The landlords.”
“The drought is like throwing a pebble in the lake,” said Lehn, of Kings County Economic Development. “You don’t know where rings stop.”
In Alpaugh, where the average annual per capita income is $8,162, grocery manager Hamid S. Obad waited for customers. He used to order three or four pallets of inventory every two weeks; this winter, he is ordering just one a week.
“When everybody’s working, everybody’s happy,” he said. “Now, no water, no work, nothing.
“They’d come every week for a burrito. Now they come every two weeks,” he said. “Before, we sold Huggies diapers. Now, they buy the cheaper stuff.”
It is a wrenching decision to cut jobs, farmers and ranchers said. But it is essential to long-term survival.
Shawn Stevenson uprooted 400 acres of his 1,200 acres of lemon, orange, almond, pistachio and olive trees at Harlan Ranch in Clovis, farmed by his family since the 1940s. With an unprecedented zero allocation of federal water, there was no way to keep the trees alive, he said.
But the toughest decision involved people, not the trees. With yields and revenue plummeting, he was forced to cut four jobs, offering early retirement through incentives in the ranch’s profit-sharing plan to men in their 60s and early 70s.
“Of all the decisions you have to make, that is the worst one. The absolute worst,” he said. “These are men I’ve known since I was a little boy. They’re skilled men—they’ve been here 30, 40 years. It’s a tearful thing, for everybody.”
At Bettencourt Farms in Hanford, third-generation farmer Aubrey Bettencourt gathered her workers around a table. Some have worked at the ranch almost her entire life. But with no federal water, 800 of 1,000 acres of her family’s farm was fallowed.
“We sat down and said: ‘We don’t have the work for you to do to survive. You need to go somewhere where you can. You have skills—it is necessary to go where work is available,’ ” Bettencourt said.
“They understand. But it is a big loss for us because there is such depth of knowledge and experience—about the soils. About the crops. The water. The equipment. The computer. And they have contacts on other farms; if there’s a piece of broken equipment, they know who can fix it.”
About 2 inches of rain has fallen on the fields this month, raising hopes for next spring’s strawberries, spinach and broccoli.
But for this year’s harvest and its workers, it is too little, too late, she said.
“They’re leaving us and the community, taking that knowledge with them,” she said. “They’re picking up and moving.”