New America Media, News Feature/, Jacob Simas
FRESNO, Calif. -- Across the central valley of California, spring has brought fresh growth and all the hopes associated with a new farming season. But venture off the highway, and the fields surrounding Fresno reveal a far less romantic vision of life in the valley. Scattered groups of farm workers, unemployed and desperate, are emerging from a long cold winter spent living outdoors, in the same orchards that were once their livelihood.
Nobody knows how many farm workers here are homeless. And while longtime community members say they are likely a small percentage of the unemployed farm worker population, it is the first time they can recall seeing living conditions get this bad for the workers who help put food on our tables.
“I was somewhat unwilling to accept that there were farm workers who were living outdoors,” said Anna Garcia, a field researcher and long time resident of Fresno, who was assigned to investigate the housing conditions of farm workers in the area.
What she discovered were groups of experienced workers who have resorted to taking shelter in “abandonadas” - large swaths of orchard that have been removed from production by growers due partly to a severe water shortage in the state.
According to the Westlands Water District, 240,000 out of roughly 600,000 acres of farmable land in western Fresno and Kings Counties sat idle in 2009, a result of less water being pumped from the Sacramento Delta south into the San Luis and Coalinga Canals that feed central valley farms. The outlook for 2010 is improved, but still extreme. The district expects 170,000 acres will be fallow again this year.
In turn, less land being farmed means there are fewer jobs to go around for agricultural workers. Manuel Cunha, president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, estimates that 60,000 workers on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley alone have been displaced due to the water crisis. While some of those workers have been absorbed into other farming operations on the east side, said Cunha, the current supply of skilled workers simply outnumbers the demand for their labor. And even though the agriculture industry in California has been largely unaffected by the economic recession, he said, the pressure being felt by agriculture workers has become more acute.
“Now that the construction industry is tremendously down, those workers (are) looking for jobs in agriculture. So you have two groups competing for agriculture jobs, but they aren’t there.”
Men from one group of half a dozen workers, who have been living in a makeshift tent under the shade of an abandoned plum orchard, said they have no other option but to wait out the dry spell.
“I don’t want to be here anymore, but I can’t go home,” said one worker from Chiapas, the elder of the group who his companions referred to affectionately as “Tio” - Spanish for uncle. “I’ve been here for six years now,” he said. “I’m worn out. I’d like to go home, but my land is far away, and it will cost me $500 to get there.”
“Some of them feel like they’re stuck here,” said Garcia. “They don’t have anywhere to go, there is no available work right now, and they are at loose ends.”
Money is not the only reason why some of these workers are feeling trapped. Several said the increasing difficulty and danger associated with crossing the border has caused them to dig in their heels.
“Even if I were to leave here, I wouldn’t be able to get back,” said one worker from Mexico, who despite 22 years of laboring in California fields, has not been able to secure his permanent residency status. “I came here when I was 14, and I’ve spent more of my life here in the United States than in Mexico,” he said. “If I couldn’t come back, I’d be really screwed.”
In another farming town close by, more homeless workers cooked hardboiled eggs and potatoes over an open fire. They too, had chosen an untended orchard as their home. What little they have, they said, has come from a combination of recycling bottles and cans, and when they are lucky, the occasional small job.
“We’ll go to town and ask people if we can work in their yard for ten, fifteen, maybe twenty dollars,” said one man.
The other camp didn’t appear so lucky. They too survive on recycling and pulling their resources, but food, they said, comes primarily from the trash bins of stores and restaurants in town. As we spoke, the men cooked a stew comprised of chicken and vegetables that had been thrown away. Despite having little to eat, the man cooking the food says the pot will feed up to 15 hungry workers on any given day.
“It’s not the best food,” he said. “But it gets the job done.”