HURON, Calif.—Two years of dry weather and regulatory water cuts are taking a mounting toll on California’s giant farm belt, forcing farmers to idle more fields and workers even as much of the rest of the Golden State continues to recover from a debilitating recession.
As they did last year after a dry winter forced state and federal water managers to cut their allotments, farmers here in the Central Valley again this year are letting fields go fallow after being advised they would receive as little as 20% of their contracted supplies of water from the mountains of Northern California.
Salvador Juarez picks onions in California’s Central Valley town of Huron, where fields and workers are being idled because of dry conditions.
At Harris Farms off Interstate 5, executives say they have opted to fallow 3,037 of their 14,000 local acres this year, compared with 2,600 in 2012, and plan to triple that to 9,236 acres next year. In so doing, the big farm expects to shed all but 500 to 1,000 of its 4,000 seasonal workers by next year, executives of the farm say.
David Wood, chairman of the company’s beef division, warned the economic fallout rippling across the sprawling valley is likely to worsen next year, as farmers have to make planting decisions for 2014 based on water cuts scheduled to extend at least until early next year.
“This year will be tough, but next year could be catastrophic,” Mr. Wood said. The production cutbacks aren’t expected to affect U.S. food prices much, because other growing areas such as Mexico can fill in the gap.
Exact estimates on acreage cutbacks throughout the valley, where much of the state’s $40 billion-a-year agriculture industry is based, haven’t yet been tallied, but farming officials expect them to be substantial. The amount of land used to plant cotton, for example, will shrink 24% this year to 280,000 acres from 367,000 acres in 2012, off from a five-year peak of 456,000 in 2011, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates.
Officials of the 614,000-acre Westlands Water District, where Harris Farms is situated, say many of its farmers plan to fallow fields this year after the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in March cut water allotments in their district to 20% of its normal amount. In 2012, the agency had cut the allotment to 40% from 80% in 2011, which was the last wet year in a state that frequently undergoes drought.
California’s mountain snowpack was 52% of its normal average April 1, when it is typically at its peak, compared with 55% the same time in 2012 and 165% in 2011, according to surveys by the California Department of Water Resources.
The slowdown comes as the Central Valley, one of the hardest-hit parts of California during the recession, has been regaining its footing. The unemployment rate in Fresno County, for instance, fell to 11.8% in May from 14.9% a year earlier, according to Labor Department estimates. California as a whole has been recovering, with unemployment falling to 8.6% in May from 10.7% a year earlier. The U.S. unemployment rate was 7.6% in May.
But with estimates of as many as seven jobs dependent on each one on the farm, business leaders here worry the economic recovery in the Central Valley will fizzle out, especially in towns wholly dependent on agriculture. Here in Huron, a town of 7,000 about 50 miles southwest of Fresno, businesses already report a falloff in sales this year.
“Water equals money here,” said Ron McIlroy, owner of McIlroy Equipment, an agricultural manufacturer that has seen sales fall 30% this year from the same time in 2012.
In Huron, even workers still in the fields are tightening their belts. On a recent break from hoeing in a melon field, 40-year-old Marta Patricio of Huron said that while she works 60 hours a week, she expects her hours to be sharply reduced soon. “I’m worried because I have to be able to work to sustain myself and my family,” said Ms. Patricio, a single mother of three.
That sentiment is hurting small-business owners like Ahmed Alarami, who estimates sales at his Buford Star Mart gas and convenience store in Huron have fallen 45% so far this year compared with last. As a result, he recently closed an in-store deli that had employed three workers, leaving only himself and one employee to run the rest of the business. “I’m thinking next year it will be even worse,” Mr. Alarami said.
Farmers blame the water shortages on a system they say exacerbates the impact of periodic dry spells, such as when flows are shut off in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta because of federal restrictions to protect species such as the endangered smelt.
Gov. Jerry Brown is backing a plan to overhaul the system by building twin diversionary tunnels, but it faces an uncertain outcome amid a flurry of lawsuits recently filed against it by opponents including farmers and environmentalists.
For now, farmers are making do the best they can. On his family’s 3,600-acre farm near here, Dan Errotabere recently drove his truck past some of the 600 acres of fields he is letting go fallow this year—almost twice as much as last year. He said that is forcing the farm to use half its normal level of 80 seasonal workers for tomatoes and other crops.
“This system,” Mr. Errotabere said, “does not work without water.”
Write to Jim Carlton at jim.carlton
A version of this article appeared June 27, 2013, on page A3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: California Farm Belt Shrivels.