Drought killing farm jobs — even as they grow

Despite the drought, jobs and revenue in 2014 continued to grow in some parts of California agriculture. Workers shown here in 2013 are harvesting cauliflower on the Central Coast, which was less affected by the drought. Photo by John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources.

Despite the drought, jobs and revenue in 2014 continued to grow in some parts of California agriculture. Workers shown here in 2013 are harvesting cauliflower on the Central Coast, which was less affected by the drought. Photo by John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources.

By Josué Medellín-Azuara, Richard Howitt, Duncan MacEwan, Daniel Sumner and Jay Lund

With all the news about the drought drying up farm jobs, it seems paradoxical that California agriculture actually came out a bit ahead on employment growth last year.

The industry gained a monthly average of more than 4,000 jobs, up 1 percent from 2013, according to the latest state Employment Development Department statistics.

How could this be?

The drought has caused growers to fallow hundreds of thousands of acres and forced ranchers to sell off livestock. But some parts of agriculture have continued to grow in revenue and jobs (albeit at a slower rate because of the drought).

Workers harvesting

Workers harvesting swiss chard on Central Coast, winter 2013. Photo by John Chacon/California Department of Water Resources

The growth in labor is largely from farmers shifting to more profitable, permanent crops that usually take more hands to produce, a trend that has been going on for many years.

Global markets are favoring tree fruits and nuts, vine crops and vegetables with high prices, such as almonds pistachios and grapes. This is feeding conversion of farmland from annual crops and pasture to orchards and vineyards that are too valuable to fallow.

Despite the drought, growth in these more labor-intensive crops increased overall agricultural employment last year to a monthly average of 412,300 jobs, the state labor data show.

Last summer we estimated the 2014 drought would result in the loss of 17,100 jobs across California’s economy, with 7,500 of these jobs directly related to agriculture. The fallout has been harsh on many farm communities already suffering from high unemployment, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley. But it is not inconsistent with the longer-term increase in total farm employment.

Blossoms appear on the trees in the many orchards of the San Joaquin Valley.

A San Joaquin Valley almond orchard in bloom, winter 2013. California growers are shifting to more profitable permanent crops such as almonds, which usually are more labor-intensive than the lower-value annual crops such as alfalfa.

Consider the stock market and suppose you own stock only in Google. If Google goes down, but the market as a whole goes up, no one will question that you have lost money. The same idea applies to the 2014 California drought: Total statewide farm employment (stock market) increased because of strong specialty crop prices and other factors unrelated to the drought. The drought (Google) nevertheless led to significant fallowing and farm job losses in many parts of the state.

Aggregate employment statistics can be misleading, especially in agriculture, with its high proportion of undocumented, seasonal, part-time and contract jobs.

Drought impacts on farm employment are estimated by going directly to the cause, namely water shortages. These shortages are then expressed in lost jobs using economic models that link water to farm production to farm jobs. This gives an estimate of the incremental effect of drought on agricultural employment.

The drought-related job loss estimates from our models do not account for the compensating effects of regional shifting of jobs or water trades. But they do give a good indication of areas most vulnerable to drought.

Richard HowittJosué Medellín-Azuara and Jay Lund are with the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences; Duncan MacEwan is with ERA Economics in Davis, Calif.; and Daniel Sumner is director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center.

California's agricultural workforce grew slightly in 2014, largely because growers are shifting to more labor-intensive, permanent crops with higher prices, such as almonds and grapes. However, the drought sharply decreased employment in contract farm labor and other support jobs during the irrigation season. Source: California Employment Development Department

California’s agricultural workforce grew slightly in 2014, largely because growers are shifting to more labor-intensive, permanent crops with higher prices, such as almonds and grapes. However, the drought sharply decreased employment in contract farm labor and other support jobs during the irrigation season. Source: California Employment Development Department

The San Joaquin Valley saw the largest farm job losses in California during the 2013-2014 irrigation seasons, with modest gains in some areas. A similar trend occurred in the South Coast. The Sacramento Valley saw job increases in the hundreds – far less than would have been expected with no drought. The Central Coast, which is less affected by drought, had increases in all job categories. Source: California Employment Development Department

The San Joaquin Valley saw the largest farm job losses in California during the 2013-2014 irrigation seasons, with modest gains in some areas. A similar trend occurred in the South Coast. The Sacramento Valley saw job increases in the hundreds – far less than would have been expected with no drought. The Central Coast, which is less affected by drought, had increases in all job categories. Source: California Employment Development Department

Year to year growth in California’s agricultural employment during this five-year period peaked in 2013 at 15,000 jobs, then in 2014 plummeted to 117 jobs. Source: California Employment Development Department

Year to year growth in California’s agricultural employment during this five-year period peaked in 2013 at 15,000 jobs, then in 2014 plummeted to 117 jobs. Source: California Employment Development Department

 

Further reading

California Employment and Development Department. 2015. “Agricultural employment in California.” Last visited June 3, 2015

Howitt R, Medellín-Azuara J, MacEwan D, Lund J and Sumner DA. 2015. “Preliminary analysis: 2015 drought economic impact study.” UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. 9p

Howitt R, Medellin-Azuara J, MacEwan D, Lund J and Sumner DA. 2014. “Economic analysis of the 2014 drought for California agriculture.” UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences. 20p

Lund J. “Why California’s agriculture needs groundwater management.” California WaterBlog. May 26, 2014

Medellín-Azuara J, Lund J and Howitt R. 2015. “Jobs per drop irrigating California crops.”California Water Blog. April 28, 2015

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7 Responses to Drought killing farm jobs — even as they grow

  1. T. R, H says:

    Such BS!! The jobs that are being lost are those of illegals who populate the central valley. The agricultural industry buys the cheap labor illegally!

    Like

  2. nuts4ag says:

    Are nut crops and vineyards really more labor intensive? Maybe table grapes but I thought labor intensive crops were on their way out due to increases in labor costs. Or is this labor not field labor but processing labor?

    Like

  3. Tom Arthur says:

    I’m curious about the most efficient use of CA water to produce jobs and GDP.

    The agricultural rhetoric about Water “for farming” = Food, GDP and Jobs makes readers think farming is “pure” while ignoring other uses of water. The intent, of course, is to justify more water for the ag industry. How could anyone be against more water for farms? Not only do you get food you get jobs and a thriving economy!

    Have you done a study on other industries and their need for water as it relates to creating California jobs and GDP?

    Questions worth considering.

    A gallon of water used by Chevron, Apple Computer, golf courses, a hospital, etc. produces how many jobs and adds what to GDP?
    Water used for urban landscape produces how many jobs? How much GDP? If you add up the entire supply chain? (I pay $200/month just get my lawn mowed – until this summer.)

    I could imagine water used by Chevron produces fewer jobs/gallon but considerably more GDP/gallon than any ag business.

    Let’s face it, 30% of the water used by farming is for exporting out of the country. That’s almost twice as much water as all other human consumption combined. The only justification is profit for farming if you don’t add the “jobs and GDP” discussion to the argument. Just think, maybe that same water diverted to other industries or even the environment (all outdoor activities, travel, tourism, etc.) could produce considerably more jobs and GDP than farm exports…

    Love to see the numbers.

    Thanks for the blog!

    Tom

    Like

  4. A good post which proves one thing. Many people yet don’t relate the importance of food production and its origins to all other forms of employment and how it affects the world universally. The basics of food whether animal, vegetable or tree crops are life giving essentials. We can live without Iphones, TV and battery operated cars and have for an eternity looking back but try doing that without water and its priorities for seed planting, food gathering, fishery and ivestock. What’s left boils down to survival.

    Jerry

    Like

    • Tom Arthur says:

      I completely agree.

      It would be very helpful to look at agriculture in that light. So, I would like to see water analyzed for US Food Survival/Consumption, GDP and Jobs – separately.

      Start by subtracting all exports (since that isn’t consumed by US citizens.)
      Subtract non-food crops (cotton, flowers, etc)
      Somehow, rank food for survival/good nutrition vs other (for instance corn for fuel, grapes for wine, tobacco/marijuana for smoking, barley for beer/whiskey, etc) Of course, fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy are all in the “survival bucket” if not exported. A UC Davis view of this would be really interesting.

      I guess (love to see the actual numbers from the experts) that over 40% of CA ag water use is not for “survival” products (that alone solves our water consumption problem I assume). Then, we can prioritize and ensure we have plenty of water for crops that actually create nutrition that keeps us alive, as you point out. I would agree to continue the massive subsidies for all water applied to these crops. Use market based pricing for all others.

      Then, let’s look at efficient uses of water for creating both GDP and Jobs since that seems to be a favorite topic by agriculture. I think we can all agree if water is an important ingredient in a supply chain with GDP and Job output, we should use our limited water on the supply chains that produce the most/gallon (after everyone is fed, of course). This is where I think you may be confused. It’s not to rank food vs iphones, It’s to objectively understand water as a BOM (bill of material) unit in a given supply chain as it relates to GDP and Jobs.

      If a gallon of water for 1-800-flowers, Gallo or cotton on Harris Ranch produces more GDP and Jobs than that same gallon used by an Apple employee than flowers, wine and clothes should be next in line to get a drink.

      Like

  5. Pingback: Drought bites harder, but agriculture remains robust | California WaterBlog

  6. Pingback: You Can't Always Get What You Want - A Mick Jagger theory of drought management - WaterSmart Software

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