Fear in the fields: Drought means job losses for California farmworkers

Thousands of workers could be laid off as land is left fallow and farm owners seek to save their businesses

A worker aerates the ground around the vines at the Russell Family Vineyard, near Paso Robles in Napa Valley, part of California’s wine-making region, which has experienced extreme drought.
David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty Images

HURON, Calif. — The sun has just risen, and the air is crisp as about 30 workers start their nine-hour day digging holes to prepare the ground for vine plantings along furrows that stretch as far as the eye can see.

A second crew of 30 will join them later to work the fields of the Esajian Farming Co. The work is hard, but at $8.50 an hour in a tough economy, the jobs are in demand.

For Emisael Benitez, 18, who lives with his mother and six younger brothers in nearby Madera, this is his livelihood. He is happy to be working now. But the hundreds of acres of land that lay barren throughout Fresno County and the rest of the San Joaquin Valley are a constant reminder that his future — and those of many like him — may now be in jeopardy.

“I am afraid,” Benitez said.

With only about six weeks left until the rainy season ends, California farmers and their workers are bracing for the worse from a drought so severe that it could beat 500-year records. “This here will surpass anything I’ve had to deal with in my lifetime,” said Chuck Herrin, who runs Sunrise Farm Labor and provides workers and equipment for area farms. None of his contracts have been dropped so far, but “I know it’s coming,” he said.

The pinkish-white blossoms of almond trees blanket miles and miles along I-5, but this visual bounty is interrupted by stark stretches of fallow fields. Signs proclaiming “No water = no jobs” have become part of the pastoral scenery. Farmers, who just found out they will get no water from the federal Central Valley Project this year, are having a “Sophie’s Choice” moment: Do they hope for more water and risk planting seasonal crops? Or do they take a loss and leave the land fallow? Their decisions will affect thousands of farm laborers and hundreds of farm suppliers and contractors.

“We’re in survival mode,” said Todd Neves, who may leave a third of his 2,400-acre Golden Valley Farms fallow. That means laying off 10 of his 50 employees, including irrigation supervisors, field crews and — most painful of all — some workers who feel a little like family. One employee, a ranch assistant who has been with him seven years, should be cut and probably will be. “It is killing me,” Neves said. “I have not been able to let him go.”

A sign near Highway 99 calls for water and drought-management action.
David McNew/Getty Images

How many jobs will be lost won’t be known until summer, when the full impact of the drought can be calculated. But everyone is expecting the worst. “I think we’re frankly in uncharted territory,” said Rob Lapsley, president of the California Center for Jobs and the Economy. But if previous droughts are any indication, about 15,000 jobs on farms and in farm-related industries could be lost.

The 2009 drought, one that was less extreme than this year’s, caused the loss of 6,000 jobs and $350 million in lost crops, said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.

But most of the land that time was used to grow cheaper crops, such as corn, alfalfa and cotton. This year it has been projected that up to 10 percent of the 8 million irrigated acres in California will simply lie dormant, about double the amount from five years ago. “If acreage that’s fallowed doubles, the economic impacts will probably more than double because it will move in to high-value crops,” Michael said. “I could see that $350 million could be close to $1 billion — 6,000 jobs could be 15,000 this year.”

The numbers will not crystallize until after the blueberry and cherry harvests begin in late April, onion and garlic July through October and so on.

Worth Farms — where Chuck Herrin’s son, Chuck Herrin Jr., is a partner — will leave 1,000 of its 6,000 acres uncultivated. The impact would have been worse had the farm not put in eight wells in recent years that can tap groundwater when reservoirs run dry. “If it wasn’t for those, we’d be 50 percent to 70 percent fallow,” said Chuck Herrin Jr., who estimated each acre requires 40 hours of labor per year to maintain.

He can’t say how many of his 40 employees will be let go or how many fewer seasonal workers will be hired. Some may keep their jobs but work fewer hours, he said. “The steadiness of the work is going to be affected,” he said. “A lot of the people are extended family. We watched their kids grow up. The foreman has been with us 40 years.”

It’s not just the jobs on the farm, said Rick Worth, the farm’s owner. “Chemical companies won’t be selling chemicals,” he said. “Tire shops won’t be selling tires.”

The Community Action Partnership of Madera County, a nonprofit that provides services for low-income families, is scrambling to get a handle on the number of people who may need assistance this summer.

“We don’t know how it’s going to affect us yet,” said Amelia Ortiz. “If our families are not going to be working because of the drought, that means we’re going to have less children in the Head Start program. There is so much up in the air, so much uncertainty.”

Ruben Gallardo, who supervises farm crews provided by Sunrise Farm Labor, said there is no doubt job losses are coming. “Work right now is the same, but farmers are cutting back,” he said.

California Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative leaders have unveiled a $680 million plan to alleviate the impact of the drought and improve water use efficiency. In a nod to the gravity of the impact on workers, some $50 million of the package is to be spent on emergency food and shelter for those put out of work because of the drought.

Not everyone thinks the disaster is entirely natural, however. “If they operated the system properly, there would not be a shortage of water,” grumbles Chuck Herrin Jr. That’s a common refrain among growers who are angry about environmental restrictions that divert water to the ocean to save the endangered delta smelt rather than into reservoirs to water their fields. “They have to relax these ridiculous regulations,” he said. “If there is any positive, it took a drought like this to highlight all the problems.”

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