Drought Impacting Covenant Farmers, Field Workers, Camps

TURLOCK, CA (October 9, 2015) – Covenanters involved in this state’s agriculture industry, whether they be farmers or migrant workers, are being hit hard financially by California’s historic ongoing drought, and the threat of fires like those that have decimated much of Washington in recent weeks remains high.

Tuolumne-River-drought

The Tuolomne River provides much needed water to farmers but levels continue to drop

The ongoing drought is expected to leave 430,000 acres of land parched and uncultivated this year alone, according to National Geographic. Water controlled by the state has either been cut off or greatly reduced to farmers. The Don Pedro Reservoir, Turlock’s principal source of power and water for this city in the state’s Central Valley has water levels one-third of its previous average.

As a result, crops are being cut back, and there has been less food for farm workers to pick.

The simple laws of supply and demand also have pushed costs above what many farmers can afford. “Some farmers are having to sell their water and letting their ground go fallow,” said Steve Carlson, pastor of Turlock Covenant Church, which is located in the Central Valley, one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world.

California’s leads the nation in dairy production and the number of milk cows, and much of the industry is located in or around Turlock. It has been especially hard hit, Carlson said,

The high price and limited availability of feed has severely hurt farmers. “Many small dairies that either don’t have land to grow hay or alfalfa or can’t afford the feed have to sell to the larger corporate dairies,” Carlson said.

The drought also has led to a huge drop in the production of other crops such as tree fruit, almonds, and vegetables. Vernon Peterson, a member of Kingsburg Covenant Church owns and operates a farm that produces various organic stone fruit crops including peaches, plums, nectars, and apricots.

Vernonpersimons

Farmer Vernon Peterson of Kingsburg has had to invest much more of his profits into wells, a temporary solution

“Typically, farmers in this area can rely on surface water from a nearby canal,” he explains. “When there’s a short water year, we switch to pumps. Unfortunately, we’ve had several short water years in a row, so all of our water has to come from a well.”

Drilling a well is an extremely expensive undertaking – in fact, it is prohibitively so for most small farming operations. Peterson’s farm is big enough that it has not been threatened as some others.

Still, he says, “The drought has forced me to spend a decent portion of my profit on water, something I wouldn’t have to do otherwise,” he says.

Blake Carlson, another Covenanter and Kingsburg area stone fruit farmer with over thirty years of experience, echoes Peterson’s lament. “I’ve had to put in multiple new and deeper wells,” he says. “It’s a huge expense – about $50,000 per well.”

He adds, “Many farmers are digging deep wells, but ground water is rapidly being depleted.”

Perhaps the hardest hit, however, are the farm laborers. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, an estimated 18,000 people have lost their jobs because of the drought — most of them in the Central Valley.

The lack of production has meant much less work for the laborers, says Gume Cruz, a Covenanter who harvests fruits such as grapes, nectarines, peaches, plums, oranges, mandarins, and lemons. “We’ve been late to pick some fruits because of the lack of water.”

Workers, such as Vernon Peterson's employees, who have been able to find jobs are among the fortunate.

Workers, such as Vernon Peterson’s employees, who have been able to find jobs are among the fortunate.

Those who do have jobs are working harder for less pay because the lack of water has caused the fruit to be smaller. Because laborers generally are paid according to the number of bushels they pick, they must work even harder at the already physically demanding jobs, to fill their buckets.

Cruz notes that the Hispanic community has few options other than farming because most of the workers are undocumented. They do not receive any benefits or subsidized health care even though state officials have referred to them as the “backbone” of the valley’s $6.6 billion agricultural economy.

“Farmers who are documented are laid off but can collect unemployment,” Cruz said. “Those who aren’t documented are basically out of income.”

The drought has posed a different kind of threat to Covenant camp operations.
The coming months are wildfire season. After enduring a summer filled with wildfires that have already consumed 305,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, residents are bracing themselves for a difficult and potentially devastating autumn.

“Wildfires put us on high alert,” said Joel Rude, interim executive director of Alpine Camp and Conference Center in Blue Jay. “We routinely practice evacuation procedures with campers and staff.” Alpine has also partnered with local schools to explore even more efficient evacuation and transportation procedures in the event of a nearby wildfire.

The drought also has led to heightened awareness of water conservation.
had a significant impact on Covenant camp operations. “Some of our wells are at very low levels,” Rude said. “We remind our guests of the drought and encourage them to take short showers and use water sparingly.”

“Conservation is very much on all of our minds,” said Tim Boynton, Kingsburg Covenant Church. This has made us very grateful anytime we get some rain. I saw people dancing in a parking lot when we had an unexpected shower during the summer.”

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