Everybody Do Your Rain Dance

1930s dust bowl migrants

1930s dust bowl migrants

It’s almost impossible to imagine the devastation many families felt as they abandoned their mid-west farms and headed west to greener pastures in the wake of the dust bowl crisis of the 1930s. Most families did not receive a warm welcome when they made it to the border of California.  In 1935, Collier’s magazine relayed a potent description: “Very erect and primly severe, [a man] addressed the slumped driver of a rolling wreck that screamed from every hinge, bearing and coupling. ‘California’s relief rolls are overcrowded now. No use to come farther,’ he cried. The half-collapsed driver ignored him — merely turned his head to be sure his numerous family was still with him. They were so tightly wedged in, that escape was impossible. ‘There really is nothing for you here,’ the neat trooperish young man went on. ‘Nothing, really nothing.’ And the forlorn man on the moaning car looked at him, dull, emotionless, incredibly weary, and said: ‘So? Well, you ought to see what they got where I come from.”

In the decades since this great migration to California, the Golden State became an incredibly profitable agricultural hub- the most lucrative in the nation. Although our states’ agricultural industry has become much more developed and sophisticated, one thing remains eerily similar to the scene painted by Collier’s magazine above: destitute migrant farm workers (mostly from south of the border these days) still show up every year on California’s doorstep. In some cases they are just as desperate as the man portrayed above, and unfortately, this year (a very dry year), they will hear those same words: “there really is nothing for you here… nothing, really nothing.”

Granted, California’s soil isn’t quite blowing away, but its definetely thirsty. California’s thirst was only partially quenched over the past couple weeks when some dearly needed precipitation arrived thanks to a series storms. Despite the storms, the sad reality has set in that the Golden State is looking a little too golden, and she is going to need more than a few storms to bail her out. As California’s spring growing season approaches, water remains scarce, and farmers are preparing to cut back on the amount of acres they sew. This means less jobs for migrant farm workers.

Californian farmer assessing the dry soil

Californian farmer assessing the dry soil

Daniel A. Sumner, an agriculture economist and the director of the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California, Davis, predicts that as much as 600,000 acres could go unplanted this year. Aside from the obvious issues of food shortage (California produces up to half the nation’s produce), and drought-related losses in agricultural revenue (forecasted at 11 billion dollars this year for CA), the drought will most likely hit migrant farm laborers in the most immediate, tangible, and devastating way.

In the Central Valley, farming and food processing provide nearly 40% of all jobs. For the city of Mendota in Fresno County the rate of unemployment is currently at 34%. In 2009, the economic meltdown coincided with a dry year and unemployment rose above 40%. Mendota Mayor, Robert Silva, believes that this year could be even worse. Droughts in the past have seen unemployment rise in other Central Valley towns by as much as 45%, and this year is likely to be no exception. In a good year, migrant farm laborers find seasonal work with large farming operations in the San Joaquin Valley. They make minimum wage doing strenuous and often dangerous field work. As harsh as it sounds, this grueling work is the life blood of their families. Without it, many workers have to turn to food stamps.

migrant farm workers

migrant farm workers

Will new migrant laborers even bother coming to California this year? For the ones that are already here, the outlook is grim. In a good year, Chuck Herrin, owner of Sunrise Farm Labor, based in Huron, “puts between 1,000 to 3,500 people to work.” Unfortunately, this year he said he “will be lucky to hire 600 at the season’s peak” (http://bigstory.ap.org/article/california-farmers-brace-drought-unemployment). That will inevitably mean longer lines at the food banks in California’s Central Valley- a tragic site in heart of the nation’s food production epicenter.

Adam Hanbury-Brown is a Research Associate at TerViva BioEnergy

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