When California Sen. Dianne Feinstein drafted legislation that would weaken endangered species protections to deliver more water to San Joaquin Valley farms, her rationale was jobs.
“People in California’s breadbasket face complete economic ruin,” the Democrat said in a recent statement.
She was joining a chorus of Central Valley politicians and farm groups that during the last year have painted the region as a dust bowl, beset by drought and environmental protections that are cutting vital water deliveries and the jobs that depend on them.
But crop and labor statistics for 2009 belie the image of a withering farm economy teetering on the edge of collapse.
“People make a lot of claims, but the data you see is showing growth,” said Paul Wessen, an economist with the California Employment Development Department. “We’re just not seeing the job loss.”
In Fresno County, the state’s top-producing agricultural county, the number of farm jobs rose slightly last year.
Department figures show farm employment has increased statewide since 2006 -- a year of bountiful water supplies in the valley -- and dipped only slightly between 2008 and 2009.
Growers of major crops such as rice and processing tomatoes enjoyed a bumper year in 2009. Grape production was down slightly, but still among the highest on record.
And though photographs of farmers bulldozing their almond groves for lack of water were a media favorite, California had more acres of bearing almond trees last year than ever before.
“The agricultural industry in 2009 is going to be one of your stellar performers in the state in terms of revenue,” said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton. “Outside of healthcare, they’re probably No. 2 in terms of dodging the worst impacts of the recession.”
According to employment department figures, the number of farm jobs statewide fell less than half a percent from 2008 to 2009. Meanwhile, construction work plummeted 17.8% and manufacturing jobs were down nearly 8%.
Michael spent much of last year disputing dire forecasts of the toll water shortages would take on the Central Valley economy.
“We had a whole series of reports that blew things out of proportion,” he said. “Not only were the numbers in the reports too high, politicians seized on them and rounded them up.
“It kind of established this perception . . . that it’s catastrophic,” he said.
The overall agricultural payroll decreased only marginally, Michael said, because unemployed construction laborers turned to lower-paying farm jobs. That provided an ample labor pool for growers, who have complained of a chronic shortage of field hands. Those with water hired more.
If there had been no water shortages and unplanted fields last year, Michael estimates, there would have been an additional 8,500 farm-related jobs in the San Joaquin Valley.
At the beginning of 2009, Richard Howitt, a UC Davis professor of agricultural and resource economics, predicted that water cutbacks could deal a huge blow to the state’s farm belt -- a loss of as many as 80,000 jobs and up to $2.2 billion in revenue.
He based the estimates on models using early government projections of water deliveries from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta.
He later revised those numbers downward significantly, both in response to Michael’s criticism and a bit of a bump in irrigation deliveries.
But farm advocates, he complained, kept repeating the high estimates and also wrongly blamed most of the delivery cuts on protections for migrating salmon and the delta smelt, when the drought was the bigger culprit.
“There’s been a lot of PR put out, attributing a lot of drought impacts to smelt -- and that’s not correct,” Howitt said.
He now estimates that water shortages cost the Central Valley 21,100 farm-related jobs and $703 million in agricultural revenue. Compared with the state’s $36 billion farm economy, “this loss is not big,” Howitt said. “But the story is not the aggregate. It’s the concentration.”
Because irrigation districts on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley have junior rights in the big federal irrigation project that supplies much of the region, they were the hardest hit by the water shortages.
Most of the acreage left unplanted was on the valley’s west side. But other parts of the valley didn’t have water problems.
“We still had a very viable and active economy going on the east side,” said Carol Hafner, Fresno County’s agricultural commissioner. Many farm laborers who couldn’t find work on the west side followed the crops to the east side.
With an estimated 40% unemployment rate and long lines at food banks, the bedraggled farm town of Mendota became a poster child for west-side suffering last summer.
But Mendota’s unemployment rate is chronically among the highest in the state. It was nearly 32% in 2003, a year when valley farms got average irrigation deliveries from the delta.
Al Montna, a Sacramento Valley rice grower and president of the State Board of Food and Agriculture, said some 2009 crop values could be higher because growers used what water they had to irrigate their most profitable crops.
“Even though that paints a rosy picture, it’s very explainable when you just plant the higher-value commodities,” he said.
“The west side of the valley was a major wreck,” he added. “We had hearings at the Fresno County Farm Bureau where growers and farmworkers were crying.
“These people have been damaged tremendously with this water shortage. Whatever you want to call it -- whether environmental or drought-related -- it’s real,” he said.