The Drought and Farmworkers

With the entire state of California now on a severe drought watch, there’s lots of attention and hand-wringing about the impact on consumers, what the drought means for lawns and golf courses, and the increased fire danger. But in California’s San Joaquin Valley, home to several of the highest-producing agricultural counties in the country, the economic impact is starting to be felt in earnest as the harvest season begins. And much of that impact falls on farmworkers.

Because of a shortage of water for the second straight year (2013 was the driest year on record in California), more land is going unplanted and some growers are shifting to more profitable crops, where they have that flexibility. But vines and trees have to be tended to or ripped out. The move toward planting more profitable and water-hungry crops like almonds has only exacerbated the water problem.

The ripple effects of the agricultural crisis affect almost every segment of the area’s economy, and cause great pain and dislocation for farmworkers and their families. Here’s a quick round-up of a few recent stories and reports that try to quantify how bad the situation may be this summer:

The California Institute for Rural Studies issued  a report estimating as many as 30,000 jobs could be lost, with as many as 1 million of the 5 million acres of farmland in the San Joaquin Valley going uncultivated.

A UC Davis report projects losses to the Central Valley economy of $1.7 billion and 14,500 lost jobs.

And some of the most compelling human stories of the drought are being told by KVPR, the excellent Central Valley public radio station, in its series, “Voices of the Drought”, which chronicles the impact in many, sometimes unexpected ways. A a recent piece, for example, pointed out attendance was way down in some school districts because farmworker families had to move elsewhere for work.

It will be a very difficult summer ahead for farmworkers in the Central Valley, and I’ll try to keep posting relevant information and stories. Any suggestions welcome.

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