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California farmers brace for the worst

Drought expected to hit hard in Central Valley, leaving farm workers unemployed, crops unplanted

Posted: February 3, 2014 7:00 a.m.
Updated: February 3, 2014 7:00 a.m.
 

MENDOTA (AP) — Amid California’s driest year on record, the nation’s leading agricultural region is locked in drought and bracing for unemployment to soar, sending farm workers to food lines in a place famous for its abundance.

One-third of the Central Valley’s jobs are related to farming. Strains on water supplies are expected to force farmers to leave fields unplanted, creating a ripple effect on food processing plant workers, truck drivers and those who sell fertilizer, irrigation equipment and tractors.

No place may be harder hit than Mendota, a small farm town where unemployment rose above 40 percent at the height of the economic recession in 2009, also a dry year. Mayor Robert Silva said he fears this year could be even worse.

“We’re supposed to be the cantaloupe capital of the world,” Silva said. “But we’re the food line capital of the world.”

Residents of Mendota late last year began seeing tough times on the horizon when little rain fell in the valley and snow didn’t blanket the High Sierra. This marks the third consecutive dry year for California, and Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency.

This past week, the snow pack’s water content was measured at 12 percent of normal. State officials announced that they would not be sending water to California’s agricultural customers. U.S. officials are expected in late February to announce they will allot only a fraction of the federally controlled water that farmers want, if any.

If that scenario plays out, Silva estimates the lines they saw outside a Mendota food bank five years ago could run three times as long this year. His town’s unemployment today is at 34 percent — the highest in Fresno County — and interim City Manager Don Pauley figures it will top 50 percent.

A 2012 study by the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California, Davis, found that farming and food processing industries created nearly 38 percent of all Central Valley jobs. Every 100 farm and processing jobs create work for another 92 people, said the report, which measured agriculture’s impact on the state’s economy.

Fresno County led the nation in farming in 2012, generating nearly $6.6 billion in economic activity, said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. With no surface water for farmers, he anticipates that up to 25 percent of irrigated field and orchards in the county will lay unplanted.

This time of year, farmers start to plant tomatoes for use as paste and spaghetti sauce. Next come onions, garlic and cotton, which are among some 400 variety of crops grown in Fresno County. Farmers may have no choice but to rip out permanent crops, such as almond orchards and vineyards that take years to mature, or let them dry up with no irrigation.

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