Farmworkers See Jobs, Earnings Shrivel In California Drought : The Salt More than 21,000 are out of work this year from California's drought, a study says. The majority are farmworkers, and those lucky enough to have a job are often working longer hours for less money.

Farmworkers See Jobs, Earnings Shrivel In California Drought

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Here are two major effects from California's long-running drought. If you work on a California farm, you are making less money. If you own a California farm, you may be making more.


We'll report both sides of the equation this morning, and we begin with California farm workers. They live a migrant existence. It's never an easy life, and the rules under which they're paid make it harder now. Here's Lesley McClurg of Capital Public Radio.

LESLEY MCCLURG, BYLINE: Leaning forward and crouching from the waist, Anastacio picks strawberries from plants about as tall as his knees. We're not using his last name because Anastacio and his family are undocumented. He's working in an organic field in Watsonville, near Santa Cruz. This year, he's averaging about half as many boxes of berries as he usually does.

ANASTACIO: (Through interpreter) We are earning less money because we are done with work early, and there is less fruit.

MCCLURG: A steady stream of sweat pours off his brow. He and his family illegally crossed the border from Mexico about six years ago. When he arrived, his average day was about 11 hours. Now it's seven.

ANASTACIO: (Through interpreter) We take longer to fill up the box because the strawberries are smaller. When the strawberries are bigger, you fill up the box faster.

MCCLURG: He gently places the glistening fruit in yellow baskets. He's paid by the box, but his supervisor will refuse the fruit if it's blemished. His wife, Dominga, is out of work. She strained her back from picking berries.

DOMINGA: (Through interpreter) We don't have enough for food. For example, right now we have to pay rent and bills, and they are expensive.

MCCLURG: Dominga and her husband have four children. The family lives in a tiny apartment paying $1,600 a month. The story is similar at a nearby migrant camp. Aracelli Fernandez and her children dig through donated piles of clothes strewn out on a dusty lawn.

ARACELLI FERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) In past years, the grass was so green that we could come out and lay out during our breaks. If you take a look now, everything is dried up.

MCCLURG: In 24 years of picking, she says she's never seen such wilted plants.

FERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) We could be making 50 boxes in a day. But right now we're only making 25 to 30 boxes per day.

MICHAEL MCCANN: These people live in poverty normally. So when you cut their hours or cut their ability to work, it just makes a poor situation worse.

MCCLURG: Michael McCann is the executive director of Proteus. The organization offers services to agricultural workers. They're based in Visalia, near Fresno. It's ground zero for drought devastation. He says workers paid piecemeal are struggling the most.

MCCANN: Smaller fruit is an absolute. There's no question. It's easily seen. An orange, which normally is a little larger than a baseball, is now a little smaller than a baseball.

MCCLURG: It's a hydration issue. Cells in the fruit won't enlarge if they don't have enough water. McCann says some farmers will pay laborers a higher wage to make up for smaller fruit, but not all do.

MCCANN: When they do the food pantry, when they do the food delivery services out there, the lines are blocks long, and yet the supermarket is empty. So that's a pretty simple visual example of the effect economically.

MCCLURG: Nearly 600,000 acres are not being planted this year. That's costing California's agriculture industry about $1.8 billion dollars. And the hit is the hardest on workers at the bottom. Berry picker Aracelli Fernandez says the stress is taking its toll.

FERNANDEZ: (Through interpreter) I suffer from migraines. I have to show up to work regardless of the pain because if I don't work, there isn't food in the house.

MCCLURG: She places her hand on her lower back and points to a large knot. She lifts up her pant legs and reveals swollen knees. But she feels lucky to have a job. For NPR News, I'm Lesley McClurg in Watsonville.

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