Agricultural Workers on the Front Lines of California’s Drought

Farmers in DroughtCalifornia is enduring its third consecutive year of drought and the impacts to agriculture and its economy are profound. The limited ground water and dry wells are impacting everything from the price of organic almonds to the connoisseur’s grass fed beef. In my previous blog entitled California, the House of the Rising Sun,  I highlight the effects the drought is having on farmers and ranchers, and the emergency measures being implemented to conserve water and change the way we manage it. The untold story behind the headlines is the significant impact the drought has on agricultural workers and entire communities as its arid grip tightens across the land.

Let’s take a moment to delve into the human impact on real people living and working in rural California. As water becomes scares and expensive, farmers and ranchers are making hard choices to plant fewer crops or let the land lay fallow. It just doesn’t make sense to grow onions, a low value crop, if the cost of the water is more than the onions will fetch on the market.

When a farmer makes the tough decision not to plant something it produces a mighty ripple effect that cascades down to the farm workers and their communities.  The California drought is challenging a group of people already living on the edge, a group of people we mightily depend on for our food.

credit Richard Thornton Shutterstock

Richard Thornton / Shutterstock.com

Most of the people who pick, harvest, wash and pack our food originated from another country. They may not be documented and they may not even make minimum wage. Let’s consider a few personal stories to drive home the plight of these individuals. Their names have been changed but their dire straits are echoed up and down the state.

Elisa Mendoza came to California just three years ago to pick row crops on the west side of the central valley. At that time, onions, melons, garlic and asparagus were planted in great abundance. Elisa comes from the mountainous regions of Mexico and her native language is of indigenous origins. Through her work she has picked up Spanish and a little English, and can get by with very modest communications. When the farm labor contractor came to her and told her there would be no harvest this year because the farmer wasn’t planting a crop she was forced to work for another labor company who paid much less. She no longer makes  minimum wage and has learned not to complain for fear of losing her employment or worse. She is sometimes harassed by this new foreman and cannot complain. She can barely make ends meet.   Drinking water in her town is getting scarce and bottled water is an expensive luxury. She continues under harsh conditions with no safety net. Her future and that of her children is uncertain.

Her cousin Alejandro is lucky enough to have a car and can drive to the growing regions south and east where there are still grapes and peaches to be harvested. He drives two hours each direction to work eight hours in the hot fields. He does not see his family much during the week.  Before, he was able to work hard and also spend time with his children in the evening. He had time to take English language classes to supplement his integration into the U.S. He dreamed of becoming a U.S. citizen one day. Now he just drives the dusty road and works. In the busy months overtime used to be a much appreciated way to get ahead.  Now overtime pay is a thing of the past because there is much competition to harvest the “tree-fruit”. With his car and his time he is just getting by. His hopes of education and citizenship are on an uncertain hold.

Guillermo and Carmen Garcia have been in the central valley for almost ten years. Up until last spring they had regular year-round employment with a large grower in west Fresno County. They worked hard and loved their small rural community. Now they have part time employment and are having trouble making their rent each month. Their small town seems to be transforming before their eyes.  Many of their neighbors have all packed up and gone; the corner food market has shut its doors, the gas station no longer pumps petrol, and the health care specialist stops by only once per month. Unemployment could soon reach 40% in their village.  They think it is time to pick up roots and move to the coast where it is said one can still pick plenty of berries.  Their community will suffer their loss and the coast offers up nothing but uncertainty.

Picking and PackingThe human impact of this drought is excruciating on the local level. It only exacerbates the already poor conditions farm workers are subject to. One third of all farm workers in the U.S. live in California, some are undocumented and exploited by farm labor contractors. Most do not have their own transportation and some are not paid minimum wage.  Many have no health care insurance, speak rudimentary English and coexist in crowded housing conditions.

 

They work harder than most people I know and are grateful to do it.

Sustainable agriculture must include caring for the workers so essential to our food supply. It should include fair housing and access to drinking water. Government aid must include job training in areas such as irrigation and innovative water management technology. With a trained labor force we can create a culture of conservation, water use and state of the art groundwater management. We can also preserve our rural communities.

The next time you slice into that watermelon or bite into that nectarine consider the hand that picked it, washed and packed it. Those who perform the most important agricultural tasks are on the front lines of this disaster.  Let’s not forget them or their plight.

To read more on California’s Drought impact and the Sustainable Ag and Food Systems Finders work click here.

3 thoughts on “Agricultural Workers on the Front Lines of California’s Drought

  1. I really appreciate this post. More work needs to be done to support farmworkers, especially access to decent, affordable housing, considered a basic human right by the United Nations. In our work with farmworker families in California (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1314924/), we have found extremely poor housing quality, including high rates of crowding, mold and pest infestations (which increases home pesticide use and exposure). Many folks are working on housing issues and related issues under a domestic fair trade standard and on other fronts, and a lot more needs to be done.

    • Dear Asa,
      Thank you so much for reading my blog and commenting. These social issues need to be incorporated into how we grow our food. I like the idea of a domestic fair trade standard but to date it hasn’t gained much recognition or traction within the US. The organic standards were once intended to include language on social issues but we are a long way from that happening.
      I appreciate your insight and comments, Melody

  2. Well, the “land of the free” started this during the New Deal and over a few generations and with a minority fraction of the population still in agriculture the constituency has shifted both numbers-wise as well as mentality-wise. I remember having had farmer’s children in my class when I was going to school in a small rural town. Then we moved to a city and in my (European) high school there already were children who had never actually seen a cow. One of my friends in class when I observed that the regulated milk fat content marked on the bottles had changed in the European Union from 3% to now 3.5% fat in full-fat milk he remarked “Oh, they’re putting more of it into it then”. I first didn’t understand this remark at all. But after a few days I asked him “What did you mean by that remark”. It turned out … he thought the fat was put into the milk at the dairy. I was speechless until I could explain to him the reason they now allowed 3,5% RESIDUAL fat in milk was due to the fact that a) cows now produced fatter milk due to breeding “better” milk cows and b) the EU already had a huge amount of surplus butter because it guaranteed prices and therefor decided to leave more fat in milk rather than having to pay for it in the form of butter. Now I am sure this was just the top of the iceberg of not understanding farming in “modern” (urban) populations. Naturally such mentality breeds favoring regulation. If it were not for the FDA etc. who knows if farmers would put fat in their milk …

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