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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."

Counting question

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."

Beyond water

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."

Similar stories:


Bee staff writer Robert Rodriguez contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at tsheehan@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6319.

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Comments: 12     Showing:

  • jeffmichael wrote on June 29, 11:04 PM:

    Tesla, I'm Jeff Michael, the economist you accuse of bias.

    I suggest you google my name and endangered species act. You will see that most of my previous research is interpreted as anti-ESA and has been praised by the Wall Street Journal, American Enterprise Institute, Rush Limbaugh and other non-liberals.

    I don't like farm subsidies, but I'm not anti-farmer. I believe in property rights. I like low taxes, and tend to be skeptical of big state bond issues whether they are for water projects or high-speed trains.

    I do not support the peripheral canal. I could be convinced to change my mind by a good cost-benefit analysis and strong governance plan. I have been critical of the BDCP and Delta Vision for not sponsoring one. That is the same view as the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office. Hardly radical. In fact, isn't it Republicans who usually argue for cost-benefit analysis of everything government does.

  • Tesla_X wrote on June 29, 12:28 PM:

    Fair and Objective Journalism involves getting authoritative opinions, qualifying those opinions by stating known background and bias (if any) of the source relative to the issue and fact checking.

    Representing them without such qualification of facts and bias being known gives the impression they are impartial, objective and accurate....they are NOT.

    Fair coverage of this CRITICAL EVENT becomes possible with a more thorough vetting of the facts, issues and participants with a true investigative journalistic process.

    For example, how about you Bee Boys locate & interview that fish biologist that I keep hearing KMJ speaking about with hard data questioning the Genetic Lineage of the smelt? Publish his data too.

    You could go a long way by exposing any BAD SCIENCE, bad stats and improper application of the ESA in such a case, and be an asset to your community...instead of just narrating the West Side turning into a dust bowl.

    Thanks for writing and listening.

  • tsheehan wrote on June 29, 10:04 AM:

    Perhaps some readers have overlooked the inclusion of many other voices in this story besides UOP's Jeff Michael: economists David Sunding from UC Berkeley and Richard Howitt from UC Davis, state food and ag secretary A.G. Kawamura, farmers and others. Not sure how one extrapolates from that a sense of selectivity or an endorsement of ag's destruction. But at the very least, thanks for reading.

  • Tesla_X wrote on June 28, 9:21 PM:

    The article author fails to clearly identify the economist quoted for the pro-ESA, pro-carbon-tax, anti-peripheral canal and anti farmer guy that he is and simply introduces him as an 'economist' from UOP, that is not "even handed."

    At the very least, it is an incomplete article, at worst disingenuous and misleading.

    It reads like it was penned to try to blunt the public perception of the economic disaster that is unfolding on the west side....so I'm leaning toward the latter.

    Belittling, selectively covering, endorsing or encouraging the destruction of the local farming industry and JOBS for the benefit of a fish or other environMENTAL agenda is proof that some of our local news entities are little more than extensions of some Liberal Enviro PR Department.

    And the newspapers wonder WHY subscriptions are dropping off?

    You people in the 'liberal media' are gonna feel real smart standing in a breadline in a couple years.

    Or, try this: Put your species & local community needs first

  • DaleStewart wrote on June 28, 6:17 PM:

    The article was even-handed. It didn't favor either position, or at least attempted to.
    If we are nearing a 'collapse of civilization' then why has Fresno county achieved yet another record year in Ag production? And if things are so bad, why have we added
    increasingly more Ag jobs for the last ten years?

  • look2see wrote on June 28, 4:18 PM:

    Try googling "growing lettuce in North Dakota" and learn something, citzen.
    Don't be such a spoiled baby- the future will require everyone's cooperation and effort.

  • citzen wrote on June 28, 11:27 AM:

    try growing lettuce in north dakota, looksee

  • look2see wrote on June 28, 10:59 AM:

    Kudos to Tim Sheehan and Robert Rodriguez and the Fresno Bee on an excellent, well written and well researched article presenting the true picture from all angles- a refreshing change indeed.
    Most of California, including the west San Joaquin Valley, is a desert- it always has been and it will always be: enjoy it for what it is. Even if you drain all of California's rivers into it- all you will do is permanently destroy California's balance of beautiful natural resources for the profits of a few (and not you and me).
    California is not the only state capable of growing food- checkout the heartland and the rest of the country where they have been doing it for centuries longer.
    More intelligent, informative articles like this one, please!

  • Hillbillylilly wrote on June 28, 10:02 AM:

    No Water affects EVERYONE.
    How do the farmers pay for their farm equipment, land and home mortgage?
    Food Processors, Equipment, Parts, Sales and Repair.

    This problem just keeps trickling down to EVERYONE.

    And just think, THE DELTA IS MAN MADE.

    And now the CAP-AND-TRADE SCAM, the largest tax increase in U.S. history.


  • amsler wrote on June 28, 9:59 AM:

    The inmates are running the asylum. These "experts" need to live in the real world sometime.

More comments on this story: 12


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