Other Opinions

Genoveva Islas: Drought's effect on farmworkers

FresnoJune 26, 2014 

This month's Drought Report from the National Climatic Data Center reiterates what we already know: The drought is bad, and the heat is making it worse.

The Central Valley is experiencing an "extreme" to "exceptional" drought. The drought's economic implications were highlighted in last month's Preliminary 2014 Drought Economic Impact Estimates in Central Valley Agriculture, containing some staggering numbers. Total drought-related economic impact to the Central Valley was estimated at nearly $1.7 billion, with 14,500 jobs lost, and a $555 million drop in total household income.

President Barack Obama has promised federal aid and Gov. Jerry Brown signed a drought package, both of which are essential. But as someone who comes from a farmworking family and has worked for years with farmworkers and farmworker communities, I am deeply troubled by the inadequacy of this response for people in greatest need, and by the short-term vision these responses represent.

On the heels of the drought's natural and economic catastrophe, a social catastrophe is looming for farmworking families. It is a catastrophe that we could address, if we had the vision and commitment to do so.

The drought package and federal aid will provide food and housing assistance. Without mistake, farmworking families need these resources. But while a meal at a food bank may address immediate hunger, it doesn't make the car payment or pay for a child's asthma medication. Housing assistance will keep a roof over a family's heads but may not keep them in their current homes, ripping them away from social support, and their children forced to leave familiar schools.

For the undocumented, who make up roughly 50% of farmworkers in the U.S. and who are valuable contributors to our agricultural economy, the picture is bleaker. Many forms of aid are unavailable to them.

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that over 60% of farmworker families live below the federal poverty level. These families struggle to meet their basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. It is unrealistic to think that they are able to prepare for the impacts of weather and climate catastrophes such as the current extended drought.

As all of us in the Valley know, drought means fallow fields, and fallow fields mean no work. With their specialized skills, farm laborers have limited access to other employment. Without a livelihood, families already living hand to mouth will face desperate circumstances. We need to invest in helping to build resilience in a work force that picks and processes our food, that contributes to our society's health and well-being.

Why not model our programs for farmworkers on our programs for farmers? Wage replacement for the farmworkers, like crop insurance for farmers, would give farmworkers resources through this crisis that they can direct, as they need to: to stay in their homes, put food on the table and buy clothes for their children. Wage replacement would help stabilize families and keep communities intact, offering the mutual support we know is essential in the face of crises and challenges.

For farmers, as a nation, we are thinking ahead. The federal administration has created "climate hubs" to provide crucial support to farmers to transition to more climate resilient farming practices. Why not think ahead for farmworkers, too, and provide the type of opportunity — in the land of opportunity — that has been so successful elsewhere in the world? We could provide micro loans and other development opportunities, investing in these hard-working individuals and giving them the opportunity to realize entrepreneurial ideas, while contributing to building a more stable, sustainable and resilient Central Valley economy.

The drought is a test of who we are as a society, but it is not the last test. Climate change will continue to throw at us droughts, wildfires, superstorms and more. Providing aid such as meals and housing aid is critical during this crisis, but without an equitable set of other supports, we keep farmworkers impoverished and disempowered. Let's think about investing in ways that will make a difference now and in the future. The drought is an emergency. But it is an emergency we can, in the face of a changing climate, expect to see more of.


Genoveva Islas is director for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program (www.ccropp.org), a program of the Public Health Institute.

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