A new study estimates the drought will cost California’s agriculture industry $1.5 billion and untold wages for thousands of farmworkers.
With an estimated 420,000 to 700,000 acres of irrigated cropland removed from production this summer, the state expects losses of $810 million in crop revenue and $203 million in dairy and livestock value, and $453 million in added costs due to additional well-pumping, based on NASA space satellite imagery and an economic analysis by Josue Medellin-Azuara and colleagues at the University of California at Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.
Although that lost acreage is only 5% of the state’s total agriculture, it hits hard in the towns in Tulare Lake Basin — among the poorest in the state. “There are pockets of real pain and suffering,” said the report’s lead author Richard Howitt, a UC Davis professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics.
The loss of farm jobs swamped overall gains in San Joaquin Valley jobs in nonfarm industry sectors, including transportation, utilities, education and health services, counties report.
Even skilled workers — who manage crews, lay irrigation pipes, fix tractors, spray and prune — are working fewer hours.
Pilots of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, who plant rice fields, said their business was cut by half.
The state’s almond production is off by 15%, which means three weeks less work for those who hull and shell at Stanislaus County’s Stewart & Jasper Orchards, said Jim Jasper, a leader in the state’s almond business. Workers who clean, size and box almonds will lose four to five weeks of employment, he said.
There are fewer boxes of navel oranges to fill at packing plants — not only because of reduced yield, but also because fruit is smaller, said Bob Blakely of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual, a trade association of the state’s 2,200 growers. An estimated 78 million boxes of navel oranges will be packed this year, down from 85 million last year.
“It affects the whole economy,” said Les Wright, agricultural commissioner for Fresno County, the nation’s top agricultural county, where, compared with last year, acreage planted for lettuce is down 50%; barley, 74%; wheat, 38%; garlic, 34%; onion, 30%; cotton, 22%; and processed tomatoes, 16%.
“Not only the field worker, but the truck driver, the fertilizer supplier are affected,” said Wright. “The local cafe. The landlords.”
“The drought is like throwing a pebble in the lake,” said John Lehn, chief executive of Kings County Economic Development. “You don’t know where rings stop.”
Shawn Stevenson uprooted 400 acres of his 1,200 acres of lemon, orange, almond, pistachio and olive trees at Harlan Ranch in Clovis, farmed by his family since the 1940s. With an unprecedented zero allocation of federal water, there was no way to keep the trees alive, he said.
But the toughest decision involved people, not the trees. With yields and revenue plummeting, he was forced to cut four jobs, offering early retirement through incentives in the ranch’s profit-sharing plan to men in their 60s and early 70s.
“Of all the decisions you have to make, that is the worst one. The absolute worst,” he said. “These are men I’ve known since I was a little boy. They’re skilled men — they’ve been here 30, 40 years. It’s a tearful thing, for everybody.”
At Bettencourt Farms in Hanford, third-generation farmer Aubrey Bettencourt gathered her workers around a table. Some have worked at the ranch almost her entire life. But with no federal water, 800 of 1,000 acres of her family’s farm was fallowed.
“We sat down and said: ‘We don’t have the work for you to do to survive. You need to go somewhere where you can. You have skills — it is necessary to go where work is available,’ ” Bettencourt said.
“They understand. But it is a big loss for us because there is such depth of knowledge and experience — about the soils. About the crops. The water. The equipment. The computer. And they have contacts on other farms; if there’s a piece of broken equipment, they know who can fix it.
“They’re leaving us and the community, taking that knowledge with them,” she said. “They’re picking up and moving.”