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).
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.
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 Howitt, Josué 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 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