Drought Forces Calif. Farmers To Cut Back On Planting

In California, agriculture is a $44.7 billion industry and the ongoing drought has many farmers worried. Some already have cut back on planting crops and some banks are withholding loans.

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NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey, Nathan Rott, here. Let's jump in a truck, and I'll explain as we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRIVING ON ROAD)

ROTT: We're driving on a dirt road about an hour and a half west of Fresno, in California's Central Valley. Joe Del Bosque is in the driver's seat.

JOE DEL BOSQUE: So, my ranch is kind of spread out.

ROTT: Del Bosque is a farmer. He grows cantaloupe, asparagus, almonds and cherries - just a handful of the 230 different types of crops that are grown in the Central Valley. In total, a third of the country's entire produce is grown here.

That is, when there's enough water.

BOSQUE: This land over here on our left is not going to be planted.

ROTT: According to the U.S. Drought Monitor, about 62 percent of California is under extreme drought conditions. That means many farmers in the Central Valley - like Del Bosque - are having to cut back.

BOSQUE: This is where we had organic melons last year. This year, we're not going to plant it, because we don't have enough water. So there will be about 40 acres lost here.

ROTT: So, 40 acres - how much money can you make off an acre?

BOSQUE: That probably returns 8 to $10,000 an acre.

ROTT: So, if you do the math, taking that lowball figure, this empty field is a loss of...

BOSQUE: Yeah, 320,000.

ROTT: That's $320,000.

BOSQUE: Yeah. That's high-valued stuff.

ROTT: Del Bosque says most of that money is spent on operations, like growing expenses...

BOSQUE: Labor...

ROTT: Shipping and transportation.

BOSQUE: It comes back to us, and it goes out through the community.

ROTT: And Del Bosque says that's the key: A third of Fresno and neighboring Kings County's farmland is expected to sit fallow, or not be planted this year because of drought. That's 312 square miles. And it's not just farmers who are going to be affected.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIZZLING FOOD)

ROTT: Maria Vasquez is cooking up some breakfast sausage at a small cafe in nearby San Joaquin. It's a small, no-stoplight town of about 4,000 people, about halfway between Del Bosque's farm in Fresno.

MARIA VAZQUEZ: (Spanish spoken)

ROTT: When there's no water, there's no anything, Vazquez says. It affects the whole town. She's been running this restaurant for six years, and she says the only thing that brings customers in is the surrounding agriculture.

MAYOR DHALIWAL AMARPREET: Everything screeches to a halt once a drought hits or the agriculture is impacted negatively.

ROTT: Dhaliwal Amarpreet is the mayor of San Joaquin.

AMARPREET: Folks in my community, you know, they're not rich people, but they're very proud and resolute.

ROTT: And during the last drought, in 2009?

AMARPREET: They had to stand in full lines at the time, just because there was no work.

ROTT: And he says this drought is worse. One water expert from UC Davis estimated that if the drought persists, anywhere from 10 to 20,000 farmworkers could be out of work. And that's not including the packagers, the shippers, the machine shop workers or the Maria Vazquezes of the Central Valley. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

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