How This Valley City Plans on Surviving Historic Drought

(Editor’s note: This story was originally published by Fresnoland (https://fresnoland.org/2022/11/14/another-dust-bowl-how-this-california-farmworker-city-plans-on-surviving-historic-drought/), a nonprofit news organization.)

Nohemí Ramírez has worked for more than 14 years in agricultural fields and packing houses around Huron, a small rural city located 50 miles southwest of Fresno.

Ramírez, a 52-year-old immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico, said Huron is a “perfect place,” where she has everything she needs: community, friends so close they feel like family, and especially, work.

But all of that’s in jeopardy because of the ongoing drought, now the driest three-year period on record in California history. With thousands of acres surrounding the city laid fallow, or pulled out of production, Ramírez said she and her fellow Huron-based farmworkers are struggling to find fieldwork this harvest season.

Central Valley farmworkers have already faced a host of changes to their livelihood in recent years. Ramírez and four current or former farmworkers interviewed for this story said the drought—along with the compounding impact of a 2016 California law that requires growers to pay workers overtime after eight hours, and the pandemic—have all resulted in fewer hours and lower income.

“Our work and hours have been reduced; we have many unemployed,” she said in Spanish. “The price of food, homes, taxes: everything is going up and doesn’t stop. How are we going to support ourselves?”

California’s agriculture industry lost more than $1 billion in revenue and more than 8,750 direct jobs as primarily Central Valley farmers pulled nearly 400,000 acres out of production in 2021 alone.

The drought comes at a time when local water agencies have also had to start implementing groundwater sustainability plans as part of California’s 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA), the state law meant to protect subterranean water resources. That resulted in even less water for growers.

And some experts say things could get worse.

UC Berkeley economists estimate that, over the next two to three decades, the central San Joaquin Valley will likely see nearly one million acres of agricultural land permanently pulled out of production, or about one-fifth of the productive land, resulting in job losses for 42,000 in the farm and agricultural service sector.

These challenges are already playing out in Huron, Ramírez’s home and a majority Latino city. Rural, low-income and Latino communities are most at risk in periods of drought, according to a 2021 legislative analyst office report.

Ramírez said she might move to Sacramento in search of new employment opportunities.

“I’m thinking about it,” she says. “I don’t know if our situation will change.”

While some agriculture industry leaders say they fear farmworkers might be forced to leave the central San Joaquin Valley in search of work, experts say farmworkers don’t want to leave their homes and therefore a large-scale migration of workers is unlikely.

Huron city leaders, meanwhile, are looking to bring “Huroneros,” or Huron residents, less water-dependent jobs and more economic opportunities.

“We’re the most climate-resilient farmworker city—or at least, striving to be,” Huron Mayor Rey Leon said.

That way, if the drought gets worse, “there’s some hope for survival,” Leon said.

Huron: The Heart of the Valley

Huron—a city often referred to as the “cornucopia” of the San Joaquin Valley—used to be a place with an “abundance” of work, Ramírez said.

Migrant farmworkers used to flood the city during lettuce harvest season in early spring and the late fall, when work was bountiful.

“There was a point in our history, which is not too long ago, that we used to have 8,000 migrant farmworkers come per season,” Leon said.

This influx of people—who needed places to sleep, eat and pump gas—was a “huge economic stimulus” for the city, Leon said. “The main street was like downtown L.A., if not worse.”

But all of that started to change about 20 years ago, said Leon.

Over the years, growers in Huron and other west Fresno County communities have faced higher water rates and competition from cheaper, imported produce, Philip Martin, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis, said in an e-mail statement to the Fresno Bee/Fresnoland.

As a result, growers gradually turned to higher-value crops, he said. Some of these crops, such as almonds, are less labor intensive and therefore require fewer workers.

Along with almonds, pistachios, tomatoes and grapes are among the crops grown in the region, according to a 2021 report by the Westlands Water District, the water agency that services the local agribusinesses surrounding Huron. Last year, farmers left unplanted more than a third of the 563,616 acres in the Westlands Water District.

Leon said all of these changes meant there was no longer enough work to support thousands of migrant workers on top of the local population. “Our reality is much different today,” said Leon. “The economy in Huron is just not the same.”

Huron, with a population of 6,222, was 94.5% Latino and had a poverty rate of 41.3% as of 2021, according to the latest Census data.

Ana Trejo, a member of the Huron-based chapter of Lideres Campesinas, a nonprofit organization that supports female farmworkers, said the drought-induced loss of farmwork has a ripple effect on the community’s economic well-being.

Some Huron residents who don’t work in the fields earn a living selling meals to farmworkers or providing “raites,” or rides, to the fields. Food vendors park alongside pistachio and almond orchards to sell tacos, fresh fruit—mangoes, melons and coconut—and refreshments to farmworkers and other passersby.

Trejo, 64, used to work in the fields, but today, she earns money by babysitting the children of farmworkers. Lately, she’s seen her stream of clients fluctuate.

“Supposedly it’s peak harvest season—the best time for work,” she said in Spanish.

But she’s hearing otherwise from farmworker parents. “Suddenly, the moms tell me, ‘I’m not going to work—the employers stopped us until future notice.’”

“That’s how I know employment is down,” Trejo said.

A Possible Dust Bowl?

Manuel Cunha Jr., president of the Nisei Farmers League, said he knows growers who moved to other states due to the high labor and water costs associated with doing business in California.

As the drought drags on, further limiting agricultural employment opportunities, he says he’s concerned workers might need to drive further and further distances for work.

Or worse, they could leave rural Central Valley communities like Huron altogether.

“The west side is going to take a tremendous hit because that land is going to go dry,” he said. “And where do those workers go?”

Cunha said he’d like to see more water storage projects, such as dams, to help improve water access in the Central Valley.

Without it, he said, “you’re going to see a migration.”

Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, said that a mass migration is the “worst-case scenario.”

LeMay cautioned, however, that pulling one million acres of central San Joaquin Valley farmland out of production over the next two to three decades—as some have predicted will occur under SGMA—could lead to “massive job loss” that would force people to move.

He said the state should “try to save every acre of land that we can” from being pulled out of production.

“My family would not be Californians today if there was not the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma,” he said in a Sept. 22 interview with KVPR.

“If not mitigated correctly,” he said, a Dust Bowl–type event “could become a reality here in the central San Joaquin Valley.”

The fears around a possible mass migration, however, are speculative at this point. Experts who study drought, agriculture and farm labor say projections of massive drought-related job losses are inflated.

Josué Medellín-Azuara, an adjunct fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Merced, said that based on his analysis of historical employment drought trends, the Central Valley is “unlikely” to see mass layoffs or migration caused by either regulations or climate events.

Still, he said, “we should be careful saying that a few thousand (lost) jobs won’t make a difference in the larger economy.”

Others, like Martin of UC Davis, pointed out that past drought-related job loss projections have overestimated the impact of job loss.

Still, Huron’s mayor, Leon, said he’s working to make sure these fears don’t become a reality. “I could see it happening in (some) communities,” he said. “I’m trying to prevent it from happening in mine.”

Leon is using his capacity both as mayor of Huron and the founder and executive director of the LEAP Institute (Latino Equity Advocacy & Policy), a Valley-based nonprofit organization, to advocate for a more diverse economy.

His nonprofit is paying to retrain people for solar energy jobs. He also launched a green “raiteros” electric vehicle ridesharing program.

In 2018, Leon signed a city ordinance requiring new developments in the city to utilize gray water systems—which he hopes will bring plumbing jobs to Huron. He hopes to eventually attract industries like manufacturing, assembly and agriculture technology and sustainability to the city.

Huron needs an economy, Leon said, that “is not 100% dependent on the amount of water that traditionally we have been dependent on.”

People Need a Place to Eat

Bars, taquerias, corner markets, a Straw Hat Pizza shop and a beauty salon are among the small businesses that line Lassen Avenue, the main road that runs through Huron.

In August, two new businesses cropped up on Lassen Avenue: La Nueva Segunda, a thrift shop, and Mariscos del Malecon, a new seafood restaurant.

Rosa Moreno opened the businesses in search of less physically demanding work. She’s worked in the fields since she was 12 years old.

So far, Moreno has hired three people to help out at her businesses. One of them is Ramírez, the farmworker in search of work.

For now, Ramírez has decided to stay in Huron, where she works about two to three hours per week, sorting clothes and ringing up customers at the thrift shop, in order to make ends meet.

Huron community members and leaders say they trust that community will persevere in the face of climate change.

“No matter how hard it gets,” Mayor Leon said, “a lot of people will just be really stubborn and stick it out.”

Moreno agrees. “There are a lot of changes in Huron,” she said in Spanish. “And despite the negative changes, like the lack of water, people aren’t really convinced to leave.”

Instead, they try to adapt, she said.

“They keep building houses, building apartments and doing other things to help Huron grow,” she said.

For Moreno, this growth is good news for business.

“People need a place to eat.”

  • Melissa Montalvo

    Melissa Montalvo is a labor and economic inequality reporter with the Fresno Bee and Fresnoland. She graduated from the University of Southern California with a B.A. in international relations, minors in business law and French, and Renaissance scholar and Global scholar distinctions.

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