The Sacramento Bee: Hope on fallowed fields

Mar 11, 2015
In The News

MENDOTA, Calif. — In this region that calls itself "The Cantaloupe Center of the World," vast fields that once annually yielded millions of melons lie fallow. And, for some farmers, planting tomatoes and other traditional row crops may now constitute acts of courage.

America's largest agriculture economy is changing because of a lack of water. Amid a prolonged drought and an anticipated third straight year of cutbacks in federal water supplies, the one assured constant is stress.

Farmers who can afford them are sinking wells, extracting groundwater that works for groves of almonds and pistachios. But the groundwater is generally too salty for crops of vegetables and grains that have made the Central Valley the nation's food basket. And questions persist over how long the groundwater supplies will last - and whether growers will get enough of the reservoir water they crave.

In California's $40 billion agricultural sector, farmers face hard choices on what to plant and how much. They weigh crop losses and the costs of acquiring new ground or surface water supplies against cutting labor or selling off their farms.

Farm fields are shrinking, and working hours for tens of thousands of laborers have been slashed.

"We're in a severe hole right now," said Ryan Jacobsen, CEO of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. "And it's very unlikely we'll get out of it."

Farmworkers Cruzana Rayon in Mendota and Flavio Martinez in Madera scrimp on basic staples as their hours plummet. Laid-off farm contract foreman Jose Morado of Hanford seeks a new career. Mendota laborer Carlos Quintero waits in the predawn chill for work that seldom arrives.

Veteran Valley farmer Joe Del Bosque in the rural Fresno County community of Firebaugh is fallowing nearly one-third of his 2,000 acres and reducing payroll 20 percent. Pima cotton grower Todd Allen in Firebaugh feels tortured by anxiety over whether to hang on to farmland passed down from his father.

The challenges are illuminated in Firebaugh. There, Del Bosque, 65, wistfully drives his pickup truck alongside the San Luis Water District Canal that cuts through his property.

The canal normally gets a heavy share of its water from the U.S. Department of Reclamation's Central Valley Water Project. But last year, all federal water supplies were cut off in parts of Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Merced and Madera counties due to the drought conditions. That followed an 80 percent cut in 2013.

Some farmers, including Del Bosque, paid for emergency water supplies, delivered to the canal from far-flung water districts, or drilled new wells.

He watered his almond groves but abandoned his alfalfa crop. He reduced his production of cantaloupes, honeydews, tomatoes, wheat and asparagus. With little or no expectation of any federal water supplies, Del Bosque plans the same crop reductions this year - or more. He has already decided to fallow one 125-acre field that produced 1 million cantaloupes in 2014.

He hopes to maintain work for his two dozen full-time employees but may cut his seasonal workers from as many as 350 in past years to as few as 20.

"It's very scary," said Del Bosque's foreman, Arnoldo Alfaro, 56. He's a veteran equipment operator and field hand whose features are weathered from years of farm labor. He touched his hand to his heart.

"If there is no water, there is no work," he said.

A study by the University of California, Davis Center for Watershed Sciences estimated the 2014 drought would cost California agriculture $2.2 billion due to crop loss and increased water pumping charges. The expected loss in agricultural jobs was more than 17,000 seasonal and full-time workers.

In the worst-hit Central Valley, the study estimated that farmers would lose 410,000 acres due to fallowing based on projections that 2014 would be the third worst drought in California history. As it turned out, 2014 was the state's eighth worst drought, but UC Davis agricultural economist Josue Medellin-Azuara said the Valley crop loss may have topped 500,000 acres.

"There are areas that are severely affected by drought, and families depending on agricultural activity for their income will be very severely affected," Medellin-Azuara said. "There will be a ripple effect and poverty."

Mike Wade, executive director for the California Farm Water Coalition in Sacramento, said the crisis may bring lasting change in Valley agricultural practices as "farmers respond to markets, water supplies and what their costs are."

Ground zero for the human impact of farm labor losses may be Mendota, a hamlet of 11,400 mostly Spanish-speaking residents, rows of stucco bungalows in town and ramshackle mobile home parks for migrant workers just outside the city limits.

The high school football team, a perpetual winner in recent years, is made up of kids who often either work in farm fields or are children of farmworkers. The agricultural economy, and the cherished local cantaloupe harvest, normally fills Mendota's beauty salons with customers and keeps the grocery stores, carnicerias and panaderias in business.

But unemployment in Mendota has hovered between 32 and 39 percent in recent years and is expected to soar much higher if water shortages this year are as bad as last.

"Last summer, we were really expecting to cross 50 percent unemployment, and I think we could cross that this year," said Mendota City Manager Vince DiMaggio. "Seasonal jobs are leaving and more and more full-time jobs are becoming part time with no benefits. So the reality is that you have as many as 70 percent of the people unemployed or underemployed and working in jobs that can't support their families."

At Mendota Migrant Head-start, farmworker and parent volunteer Cruzana Rayon, 30, said she and her husband are getting far less work pruning and binding almond tree branches in the winter or harvesting pistachios or packing melons in the spring and summer.

"We have been so impacted by the lack of water," Rayon said. "They have cut our hours. Before we worked 10 to 11 hours a day, now it's six to eight. Before we had steady work for six or seven months, now it's three or four."

Her family is cutting back on purchases of groceries and clothes. She only occasionally pays the phone bill.

"Right now, I see something like a phone as a luxury," Rayon said. "But I have a daughter with asthma. What if she can't breathe and I can't call if there is an emergency?"

Seasonally limited jobs of pruning trees, spraying fungicide or preparing fields for harvest are shrinking more this winter. And, in Mendota, an increasingly anxious crowd of laborers swells in the predawn hours and again at dusk in the parking lot outside the Lavanderia Sonora laundry and the Sonora Department Store, an old art deco building converted to a market and taqueria.

"I get here between 3 and 4 a.m. and wait in the cold," said Carlos Quintero, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador who has been working in Valley farm fields since 2010. It's been five months since he had a regular job, harvesting melons in Mendota.

Recently, he found a single day's work. He joined seven other men in the back of a pickup truck hauling laborers to prune pistachio trees for $9 an hour in Coalinga, an hour away. Quintero returned to the Mendota parking lot every day the next week, dressed smartly in pressed denim jeans, plaid shirt and cap, looking for work but finding none.

Full-time farmworkers are affected as well. Flavio Martinez, 31, a 10-year employee at Del Bosque Farms, 20 miles from Mendota, used to work 70 hours a week. But his hours fell sharply as Del Bosque cut farm payroll.

For Martinez, who earns $9.50 an hour with health insurance and matching company deposits in a retirement savings account, the change forced him to move into a shared rental house with a second farmworker family to cut expenses. "The impact is tremendous," he says.

At the Mendota Food Center, the town's major supermarket, business is down sharply as farmworker families purchase less.

"I've worked in the grocery business for 19 years," said Frank Gonzales, 50, a meat and produce manager. "I never saw things so bad as in 2014, and 2015 looks worse."

In January 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought emergency and announced statewide water conservation goals after vast tracts of farmland were fallowed in 2013. The next month, President Barack Obama visited the Del Bosque farm.

Del Bosque, the son of a farm manager who has been working in agriculture since he was 9, wanted the president to understand the Valley farm economy and the breadth of its production and challenges.

Obama met with Del Bosque in a ranch shop room in a roundtable meeting with farmers, water agency officials, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, Brown, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer and U.S. Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno.

Afterward, Del Bosque walked with the president through once lush fields, their terraced rows now dried to hard clumps of dirt. The two men chatted about their daughters. And Del Bosque proudly talked up the importance of what he still produces. "I grow all the crops the first lady would like our children eating to be more healthy and less obese," he told the president.

"We got no water out of it," Del Bosque said, reflecting on the meeting nearly a year later, "if that's what you want to know."

During his visit, Obama announced $100 million in disaster relief to help ranchers feed livestock during the drought, $3 million to help ensure clean drinking water supplies for rural communities and $60 million in assistance for local food banks serving displaced workers and their families.

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recently announced $27.5 million in assistance for the Central Valley Water Project. But no new federal water supplies were included in the aid.

Storms in December allowed the California Department of Water Resources to increase deliveries to customers getting water from the state water project. That means water agencies serving farmers will get 15 percent of normal state supplies compared with 10 percent in 2014.

In November, California voters also approved the $7.12 billion Proposition 1 water bond measure to fund water system improvements, including $2.7 billion for water storage projects, dams and reservoirs. But those improvements are largely for future droughts.

With farm labor scarce in Mendota, the emergency food truck from the federally funded Community Food Bank arrives every two weeks. People who can certify they have lost jobs or working hours due to the drought can pick up boxes of rice and beans, spaghetti and pasta sauce.

Joseph Riofrio, a City Council member and former mayor who owns a popular pool hall and rental properties in town, bristles over the image of the food trucks.

"We're the food giveaway capital of the world," he said.

Riofrio said Mendota's local labor force remains strong and dedicated. He blames farmers' complaints about water for casting a pall over broader economic ambitions of the valley.

"The farmers want water and they say what they want," Riofrio said. "But there is work out there."

Riofrio boasted about a McDonald's and an AutoZone that recently opened in Mendota and speaks with envy about the Walmart in the nearby community of Ker-man. He also says he wants to bring new light industry to town.

In 2009, a solar power facility was built within city limits. And now, on 600 acres of parched farm land outside of town, construction crews for First Solar are erecting a grove of metal platforms. They are to have photovoltaic panels that will sell energy to the Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and provide 400 jobs.

Riofrio looks at the vast expanse and sees a future beyond farming.

Jose Morado, 45, hopes to move from agriculture to new opportunities. In 27 years of farm labor, Morado worked along 100 miles from Huron to Hanford, Mendota to Firebaugh. He started out earning less than $5 an hour, harvesting garlic, onions and tomatoes. He worked his way up to a contract foreman earning $18.30 an hour for a Valley produce company.

During the drought last summer, he was laid off. After weeks of searching, he wound up picking tomatoes for $9 an hour.

"When I started seeing those small checks, while trying to pay the rent on my house, everything added up," Morado said. "I needed to change my job for a new career. They (farmers) were telling us they would be planting way less this year than last. And that's when I knew there was no future in agriculture - at least not here."

Recently Morado attended the first day of a seven-week course in solar photovoltaic design and installation. At a south Fresno facility, the nonprofit Proteus Inc. is preparing former farmworkers and other displaced laborers for new careers, including truck driving and installing solar panels.

Morado joined two fellow Hanford residents, Enrique Gamino, 23, a farmworker who got laid off last June, and John Ruiz, 51, a produce-house worker who quit in frustration over decreasing work hours at a tomato cannery and onion and garlic processing plant in Firebaugh.

"The seasons were getting shorter and shorter and the time for a change," Ruiz said.

With the help of job placement counselors, graduates of the Proteus program are finding $12- to $15-an-hour work installing solar panels, with a chance of completing additional apprenticeships to move up to higher paying jobs.

"These guys are used to doing hard work," said Shane Hess, the class instructor for the program funded through grants from the U.S. Department of Labor and the California Employment Development Department. "They're used to being out in the sun. We train them for skills they need to learn."

Firebaugh farmer Todd Allen 52, used to cultivate 600 acres of cantaloupes, wheat, pima cotton, safflower and a sudangrass, a feed crop shipped to Japan for Kobe beef. His dad, the late A.E. "Buzz" Allen, started the family farm with 1,000 acres of alfalfa in 1975 "when the government told my dad you can take as much water as you want."

Now the younger Allen says, "I'm starting to realize this (farming) is a game I need to get out of before it is too late."

Just four years ago, when farmers on the Central Valley Water project got 80 percent of federal water deliveries, Allen grew 300 acres of wheat, 150 of cotton and 150 of cantaloupes.

The next year, with a 40 percent water supply, he grew 300 acres of cotton and 75 of cantaloupes. In 2013, federal water deliveries dropped to 20 percent of requested supplies and he cut his cotton production in half. In 2014, with no federal water, he grew 150 acres of cotton and let his cantaloupe fields go fallow.

Allen, who once paid as little as $100 per acre-foot of water, now says he can't afford the $800 to $1,000 or more for replacement surface water supplies from regional water districts. So this year, he said, "I'm down to zero crops. I don't think I'll be able to plant a thing."

He sold 150 acres last year. He is financially solvent and can walk away. Yet he is trying to decide whether to drill a $750,000 water well and keep farming or to sell his remaining acreage and leave agriculture for good.

"We get no respect out here and we're the breadbasket of the nation," Allen said bitterly. "If I had to, I could probably get out of this and have some money in the bank to look for another job. But I love this work. I really do. But the stress is grinding."

Meanwhile, 75-year-old Mendota farmer Juan Guadian is reinvesting in the Central Valley agriculture economy.

Guadian was 15 when he came to California in 1955 as a seasonal worker under the former Bracero program. He worked from El Centro to the Salinas Valley, refusing to wear down amid the harsh physical labor of the farm harvests. "When I came from Mexico, what I kept on my mind was that this is the United States and, if one has a dream to do something, he is not going to tire easily," he said.

Guadian, who became a U.S. citizen in 1960, worked for four decades as a foreman for ranches in Fresno, Merced and Madera counties. Along the way, he bought his own farm seven years ago, planting 150 acres of almonds near Mendota. Last year, he invested $500,000 to drill a 1,100-foot well on his property.

Guadian says the well water is too salty for planting cantaloupes or tomatoes or most other vegetables without blending it with surface water supplies or paying for costly purification that could wipe out profits. But his almond trees like the well water. And now he's thinking of buying another 150 acres nearby to grow pistachios.

Still the old farmer wonders about the future. "What's going to happen in 12 years when my well goes dry?" he asks, then answers. "Those trees are going to die."

He is not quitting. He attempted that once. It was the only thing that ever made him feel tired.

"I don't want to retire," he said. "I'm going to be right here to do the job."