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Valley's ag, water economics a conundrum
Jun. 28, 2009
The message from farmers is dramatic and direct: drought and federal water restrictions are crippling San Joaquin Valley agriculture -- and threaten America's food supply.
"This is a crisis, and it's a worsening crisis," said A.G. Kawamura, California's secretary of food and agriculture. "The federal government needs to understand this [will have] a major impact on America's food supply, on the nation's food security."
Yet even as growers fallow thousands of acres and lay off workers, farm employment in Fresno County is the highest in a decade -- and agricultural production hit a record value in 2008.
What's going on?
There's no fast and easy answer. Valley agriculture and water economics are too complex for that.
There are stark differences between the east and west sides of Fresno County alone.
In the vast reaches of the west side, sharp limits on water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have forced growers to plant fewer acres and hire fewer workers. Unemployment rates are above 30% in towns like Mendota, Huron and San Joaquin. Packers and processors have closed as business dwindles.
But on the east side, farmers face fewer water cutbacks. More water means more work -- enough so far, apparently, to take up the slack being felt in the west.
Estimates from the state Employment Development Department show that through May, the number of farm jobs in Fresno County is higher than in any year since 2000.
The number of agricultural jobs in Fresno County averaged 42,100, or about one in eight jobs in the county. That's up 1,200 from the same period in 2008. The state collects figures only for the county as a whole.
Water deliveries cut
The sprawling Westlands Water District this year will receive only 10% of its contracted federal water allocation from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta -- the lowest allocation in more than 30 years.
Pumping restrictions to protect the Delta smelt and salmon also make it hard for farmers to obtain surplus water from water districts north of the Delta. Instead, farmers must pump low-quality, salty ground water just to keep permanent crops such as almond trees alive. They need more and better water to produce a viable crop from those trees.
"I'm teetering on a pogo stick out here," said grower Shawn Coburn, who farms several thousand acres, including almonds and wine grapes, on the west side. "Without water, I'm done. ... The people who used to provide food for America can't provide food for themselves."
Farmers in Westlands will fallow more than 100,000 acres because of a lack of water, said Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for the district. That is nearly double the 55,000 acres fallowed in 2006, the last time Westlands received its full water allocation. The district encompasses about 600,000 acres, including about 100,000 that are permanently retired.
West-side grower John Harris said his farm payroll for the first six months of this year will be about $3.2 million -- a little over half what it was in 2007, when the current drought began.
"Were it not for ground water pumping and carryover water, these declines would have been even more dramatic," Harris said.
The decline in work has meant hardship for many families. In Firebaugh, local charities gave away about 1,500 boxes of food to needy families last week.
"If there wasn't a need, these people wouldn't be standing in line for hours," Firebaugh City Manager Jose Antonio Ramirez said. "It's embarrassing for them, but it's a necessity."
"Not everything happening out here is related to water, but the majority is," Ramirez said. "We were giving out food before, even when things were better, but maybe only about 300 boxes."
There's no doubt that water restrictions hurt employment on the west side, said David Sunding, a professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California at Berkeley and director of Berkeley Economic Consulting Inc.
Moreover, it's still too early to see effects of the water shortage in employment and farm revenue statistics, Sunding said. He expects the numbers will get worse.
"Peak farm employment only starts to happen around now with the harvest of vegetable crops, tree crops and others through late summer," Sunding said. "We need to see what the data says six months from now."
But Jeffrey Michael, an economist from Stockton's University of the Pacific, believes farmers are exaggerating the effect of federal water restrictions. Unemployment always has been high on the west side, and the recession has taken a heavy toll, he said.
Experts also have long pointed out that farming on the west side faces a growing challenge from minerals in the ground water that build up in soil, eventually poisoning crops.
"The economy is more complex than a lot of folks out there let on," said Michael, who infuriated west-side farmers with a newspaper essay last month in which he questioned the link between west-side jobs and water availability.
Local agriculture officials agree that the east side of Fresno County is helping to make up for declines in the west.
"Fresno County is huge, and the east side is working and viable," said county Agricultural Commissioner Carol Hafner. "Even though we have lost some packing sheds, others are picking up the slack and will likely be hiring more than they have in the past."
Last year, Fresno County remained the leading agricultural producer in the state, topping the $5.6 billion mark, the highest total ever. The county saw increases in several crops, including almonds, pistachios, pomegranates, citrus and blueberries. More than 13,000 acres of fruits and nuts were added in 2008.
But Hafner expects no records for 2009.
"The west side is losing acreage, and I would expect the annual crop report to go down," Hafner said. "Production levels are dropping because there isn't enough water."
One economist argues that agricultural employment is an unreliable indicator of economic health because there's no distinction in the state figures between part-time or piece work and a full-time job.
"It doesn't mean the total wealth as a result of those farm jobs has gone up," even if employment has increased this year, said Richard Howitt, a professor of agricultural resource economics at UC Davis.
Steve Patricio, president of Mendota's Westside Produce, agreed.
"The reality is that people on the west side are working less, even though they have jobs," Patricio said. "The total numbers don't tell the whole story."
Patricio said reduced water supplies on the west side have shifted production of some crops such as melons and processing tomatoes to other regions of the Valley.
Within the Westlands Water District, melon acreage has dropped by about 50%, Patricio said. And picking up the slack are growers in other areas who have more water available.
The relative health of other farming areas isn't something to be taken for granted, state agriculture secretary Kawamura warned. Future environmental regulations in the Delta and demands for water to re-establish salmon runs on the San Joaquin River could result in irrigation hardships for farmers beyond the west side.
"I don't think this will be the only area to be affected by regulations," Kawamura said. "The entire east side of the Valley could easily find itself in this same kind of pattern."
Michael said he understands there is real pain in the west-side cities. He's just not convinced that water is primarily to blame.
"I've seen the anecdotes from farmers who say they're letting people go, and that adds up across a lot of farms," he said. "I'm sure the water situation is having huge impacts on the profitability of individual farmers."
Sunding and Howitt agree with Michael that the west-side economy is lackluster even in good times.
"If they gave the west-side farmers all the water they wanted, would all of the problems in these cities be solved? No," said Sunding. "But the point is, it would help."
Affixing blame on water or other economic factors doesn't change the reality for west-side residents, Howitt said.
"The bottom line is, we know that if farmers can't get water, they can't grow the crops," he said, "and if they don't grow the crops, they don't employ farm labor."
"We know we're starting from a basis of
high unemployment in these west-side towns
anyway, so what this creates is an incremental
impact on these people who are already having
a difficult time," Howitt said. "It's making
life rougher -- by a lot."
Valley towns struggle to break dependency on ag
MENDOTA -- Less than two miles from downtown, a section of flat-as-a-pancake farmland is giving way to a concrete monolith that eventually will house about 1,200 federal prison inmates.
That's just about the only tangible effort to create nonagriculture jobs in this farming town of about 10,000 people -- and it's nowhere near enough to help employ the thousands who have lost work amid an unprecedented crisis.
For years, Mendota and other west side farm towns have sought to broaden their job base and wean themselves from the vagaries of irrigated agriculture -- the very basis of their existence. But geographically and economically, the deck has been stacked against them.
Feds reduce water to Valley farms
LOS BANOS -- Federal officials told hundreds of farmers in the Westlands Water District on Monday that they will get even less irrigation water -- just days after the district announced a rationing plan.
Farmers in the nation's largest federal water district will be hit hard -- many said they expect to abandon crops or even go out of business for lack of water.
Two members of Congress and district officials urged Gov. Schwarzenegger to declare a state of emergency.
Water draws Interior chief to Fresno for hearing
MENDOTA -- Under increasing political pressure to address California's water crisis, the Obama administration said Wednesday it will dispatch Interior Secretary Ken Salazar to a hastily organized town hall meeting Sunday in Fresno.
Interior Department officials have not yet identified a location for the meeting, which is scheduled to run from 2:30 to 4 p.m. But it will be Salazar's first official on-the-ground visit to the region.
On Wednesday, meanwhile, state agriculture officials said that a combination of drought and federal environmental regulations have the potential to turn a short-term water crisis into a long-term agricultural and economic disaster.
Efficient water use crucial for Valley farmers
From the sky, John Diener's farm looks like a swath of Kansas grafted onto the rugged flatlands of the San Joaquin Valley's west side.
Hundreds of acres of crops grow in a circular patches on Diener's land. The idea is to save water with an irrigation system that rotates around a pivot in the center of each field.
The automated system is common in the Midwest, where farm labor is scarce -- but it's gaining traction here as growers adapt to the new reality of farming.
Valley growers to get bad news on water deliveries
West Valley farmers Friday will hear the news they have feared for weeks an unprecedented forecast of no federal water for their multibillion-dollar industry.
Farmers now must shift into survival mode, pumping ground water to keep orchards alive and leaving bare dirt where tomatoes, onions and melons grew in previous years.
People are going to be using every available ground-water well and trying to get by, said Sarah Woolf, spokeswoman for Westlands Water District, the largest of the affected districts.
Bee staff writer Robert Rodriguez contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at email@example.com or (559) 441-6319.
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