Drought in Calif. worries farmers

Unemployment, low yields would have ripple effect

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MENDOTA, Calif. — Amid California's driest year on record, the nation's leading agricultural region is locked in drought and bracing for unemployment to soar, sending farm workers to food lines in a place famous for its abundance.

One-third of the Central Valley's jobs are related to farming. Strains on water supplies are expected to force farmers to leave fields unplanted, creating a ripple effect on food processing plant workers, truck drivers and those who sell fertilizer, irrigation equipment and tractors.

No place may be harder hit than Mendota, a small farm town where unemployment rose above 40 percent at the height of the economic recession in 2009, also a dry year. Mayor Robert Silva said he fears this year could be even worse.

"We're supposed to be the cantaloupe capital of the world," Silva said. "But we're the food line capital of the world."

Residents of Mendota late last year began seeing tough times on the horizon when little rain fell in the valley and snow didn't blanket the High Sierra. This marks the third consecutive dry year for California, and Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a drought emergency.

This past week, the snow pack's water content was measured at 12 percent of normal. State officials announced that they would not be sending water to California's agricultural customers. U.S. officials are expected in late February to announce they will allot only a fraction of the federally controlled water that farmers want, if any.

If that scenario plays out, Silva estimates the lines they saw outside a Mendota food bank five years ago could run three times as long this year. His town's unemployment today is at 34 percent -- the highest in Fresno County -- and interim City Manager Don Pauley figures it will top 50 percent.

Officials at Mendota's City Hall aren't the only uneasy ones. Steve Malanca, general manager at Thomason Tractor in Firebaugh, said farmers have already told him that digging deeper wells and buying irrigation water are higher priorities in 2014 than investing in new farm equipment from him. With reduced work in the fields, Malanca said it's clear he will have to lay off some of his 49 employees.

The ripple effect of drought extends to the trucking companies that haul crops, tire companies that outfit the big rigs and fuel suppliers who provide diesel, he said. Employees at John Deere world headquarters in Moline, Ill., will feel repercussions from drought in California.