Agriculture

Westland’s farmers major contributors to Valley economy, report says

Westlands Water District farmers are trying to let people know that they are important job creators in their region, but they need water to grow jobs as well as crops.
Westlands Water District farmers are trying to let people know that they are important job creators in their region, but they need water to grow jobs as well as crops. rbenton@sacbee.com

Westland Water District’s farmers generated $3.6 billion in economic activity and created 29,000 jobs, according to a recent economic analysis commissioned by the district.

The report, written by Pepperdine University public policy professor Michael Shires, details Westland’s contributions to the local and regional economy while also pointing out the consequences of farming without a reliable water supply.

Growers in the sprawling district that spans 1,000 square miles over parts of Fresno and Kings counties fallowed 220,000 acres in 2015-16. The acres weren’t farmed because of a shortage of water stemming from a multi-year drought and water demands for environmental purposes.

District officials said they sanctioned the report, in part, to counter critics who say that west-side farming uses too much water and that more water should be made available to maintain a fragile ecosystem in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

“Our local farmers constantly face an uphill battle against interest groups from outside the area who mischaracterize facts and data in order to demonize and diminish the importance of agriculture,” said Johnny Amaral, deputy general manager for external affairs. “This report puts into perspective the relationship between agriculture and the economic well-being of the region.”

As one of the region’s major economic drivers, agriculture is responsible for one in eight jobs in Fresno County and one in six jobs in Kings County. Shires estimates that in the Westlands area alone, farming has created nearly 29,000 jobs.

Agriculture creates jobs on the farm, but also in related employment, including packing, processing and shipping.

“Ag is one of those few areas where value added does create jobs,” Shires said. “You go from dirt and seeds to a significant amount of economic activity and job opportunities for people.”

Along with creating jobs, Westland’s farmers also grow more than 3 percent of the nation’s fresh fruit and vegetables and 5 percent of the state’s fruit and nut crops.

But farming on the west-side is also in a state of transition as the availability of water becomes more critical. In the last several years, growers have received little to no water from the federal Central Valley Project – the system that supplies water to farmers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.

A shortage of water has caused an increase in groundwater pumping, the fallowing of farm acres and a switch to permanent crops with higher-profit margins. Those crops include almonds and pistachios and make up nearly 50 percent of Westland’s acreage, up from 10 percent in 2000.

Losing more acreage, however, could trigger an increase in farm-related unemployment, a greater reliance on imported produce, potentially higher prices for fresh fruit and produce, and farmers moving out of the region.

Shires said it is unlikely that the San Joaquin Valley will become the new Silicon Valley, generating high-paying tech jobs.

“This region’s prime local asset is farmland,” he said.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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