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Amid California’s three-year drought, a San Joaquin Valley farmworker considers seeking work outside the region

Craig Kohlruss
The Fresno Bee
A sign on the edge of the city of Huron sits near an empty field on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. Many fields around the southern San Joaquin Valley have been left fallow as the drought continues, drying up work for families in the process. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

There’s no end in sight for California’s prolonged three-year drought. With fewer agricultural jobs available in the San Joaquin Valley, will farmworkers decide to search for new opportunities outside the region?

The idea of a drought-driven migration isn’t unheard of. In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl rampaged through Oklahoma, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas and Kansas. Farming families were forced to move west to find fertile land.

“My family would not be Californians today if there was not the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma,” says Ian LeMay, the president of the California Fresh Fruit Association. “They migrated to California and bounced between the Coachella Valley and Salinas Valley for years until they were able to find sustainable, long-term work here in the central San Joaquin Valley.”

Nearly a century later, some say the San Joaquin Valley is heading toward its own version of a Dust Bowl because of climate change.

“The West Side is going to take a tremendous hit,” says Manuel Cunha, the president of the Nisei Farmers League. “That land is going to go dry. Where do those workers go?”

A UC Merced study found the state’s agricultural industry shed over 8,000 jobs, transitioned nearly half a million acres out of production and lost a billion dollars in revenue because of the drought last year.

And UC Berkeley economists estimate the situation will get worse in the coming years, as California implements the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. They predict over the next few decades, the central San Joaquin Valley is likely to see nearly one million acres of land pulled out of production, resulting in the loss of 42,000 jobs.

Cunha says the valley has already been feeling the worst effects of the drought.

“The people who got hurt are Mendota. Farmersville, Shafter,” he says. “All these rural communities, the 43 small rural communities in the valley.”

Huron farmworker says she needs more work

We went to one of those rural communities. The city of Huron sits on the west side of the valley, just 50 miles southwest of Fresno. We wanted to find out how workers are faring during the drought.

We met with a group of farmworkers at Mariscos del Malecon, a small seafood restaurant right off the 269 highway. They planted their roots in Huron, raising kids and grandchildren over the years. They told us they harvested every crop imaginable: tomato, garlic, onions - even watermelons and other fruits.

Nohemi Ramirez, who’s lived in the rural city for over a decade, fondly remembers when the harvest in Huron was abundant.

“Farmworkers from all over the state would travel to Huron,” says Ramirez in Spanish. “There was such a high demand for workers.”

But according to Ramirez, those days are long gone. Even though she loves working in agriculture and the tight-knit community in the city, she’s considering leaving the valley to find work.

“Almost everyone has thought about leaving at one time or another,” she says. “Even those who’ve built their lives here. It’s just not beneficial to stay in the city anymore.”

Will the agriculture industry adapt to climate change?

One researcher doubts there will be a mass exodus of farmworkers from the valley.

“We are unlikely to see major layoffs due to regulation or to climate,” says Josué Medellín-Azuara, a researcher at the Public Policy Institute of California. “The industry will likely reconfigure and the landscape of agriculture might look different.”

LeMay of the Fresh Fruit Association agrees. He says the industry has already started adapting to the effects of the drought.

“The way in which we use water is extremely efficient. Hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, has been invested over the last two decades in trying to maximize every molecule of water that we have available to us,” says LeMay.

Craig Kohlruss
The Fresno Bee
Nohemi Ramirez works in a thrift shop in Huron to make ends meet while the drought keeps her from finding work in the fields. Dry fields are limiting work opportunities for families and making an impact on local businesses in the city in southwestern Fresno County. CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

But with the drought in full effect, Nohemi Ramirez is still thinking about leaving Huron. For now, she’s been working a couple hours a week at a newly opened thrift store to try to make ends meet.

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

If she does choose to leave, Ramirez would go to Sacramento. She’s hoping there’ll be more agricultural jobs in the northern part of the Central Valley.

This story is part of a series produced by the Central Valley News Collaborative and Fresnoland exploring the impact of climate change in the central San Joaquin Valley.

The Central Valley News Collaborative is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.