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These are the impacts of California's worst drought on record


California farmers and farmworkers are struggling under California's worst drought ever. Officials say this year, the third straight year of drought, is the driest on record. Six million Southern Californians are under water restrictions, and the agriculture industry is upended. Hernan Hernandez used to tend crops alongside his farmworker parents during breaks from school. He is now executive director of the nonprofit California Farmworker Foundation. Welcome.

HERNAN HERNANDEZ: Yes, thank you, Leila, for having me.

FADEL: Thank you for being here. So if you could start just by giving us a sense of how this drought is impacting farmworkers and farmers.

HERNANDEZ: Yeah. So when we look at the California drought, every year, it continues to get worse with climate change...

FADEL: Right.

HERNANDEZ: ...In areas like the Central Valley that depend on the Delta, the river that goes up from up north to the central California and to an area that produces about 50% of the nation's fresh fruits and vegetables from Fresno a hundred miles north, south, east and west. As the drought continues to get worse, we're continuing to see farmworkers struggle just to make a living. And this means that when there's a drought, when there's land that goes fallowed, when there's land that no longer gets harvested, farmworkers who rely on those fields for employment are all of a sudden unemployed, and they don't have enough income in order to make their day-to-day needs because their work continues to be shortened by the drought.

FADEL: So what type of policies need to be in place to help farmworkers who are continuing to lose work? California's considering legislation that would provide a stipend to farmworkers who just have less crops to care for. The state Senate is looking at buying water rights from growers. You run an organization that aims to give farmworkers a seat at the table to shape policy. Is this the kind of policy that would help?

HERNANDEZ: You know, I think when you think about the drought relief bill, it's a good way to start the conversation in regards to what's happening in California. It's a good support service for farmworkers. But overall, I think it's going to be very complex. It's going to encompass various strategies. We have to look at infrastructure. We have to look at the management of the water, and we have to look at also workforce development for the population that's currently being displaced because of the lack of availability of employment like they used to in the '90s and 2000s.

FADEL: So when you say workplace development, are you saying leaving the industry as a whole?

HERNANDEZ: I think working alongside the industry in terms of agtech but also if farmworkers need a pathway, that have to be outside of the industry, then we have to think about what those pathways are going to be in order for them to continue sustaining their families and the communities they call home today.

FADEL: You know, in the age of climate change, Hernan, are we going to have - be having these same conversations year after year about drought and unemployment and fields that are fallow and can't be used? I mean, what is the larger-picture solution here?

HERNANDEZ: I think the larger-picture solution is the state - the government has to figure out what value they want to place on agriculture and how many resources are they going to allocate to these areas like the Central Valley that are in need of resources to sustain these economies that were built on agriculture. And I think as a society, we have to start thinking if we want to continue growing the fresh fruits and vegetables in this nation, or do we want to send them abroad? And what does that mean for the individuals that made up the industry and that continue to work day to day to make sure that everybody has the fresh fruits and vegetables that they're - at their tables?

FADEL: You talked about the pressures on farmworkers and their families. If you could give me some examples of things people are dealing with as they have less and less work.

HERNANDEZ: One of the major issues is rent relief. This is affecting everybody. The housing crisis is real in California. It doesn't matter if you're in San Francisco, LA or Central California.

FADEL: Yeah.

HERNANDEZ: Farmworkers are being pressured in the market, and they can't afford to pay for rent in the state. We also talk about child care. We talk about the current inflation, the gas, the grocery store prices. And then you couple that with the 40-hour workweek, and farmworkers are struggling just to keep their families intact. So it's happening at a degree that we've never seen before. And I think 2022 was the year in which all these issues just compacted and are really affecting the life of the population that we serve.

FADEL: Now, you said 2022 is the worst that you've seen, and it's the driest year on record. But let's say this drought breaks next year. It's a wet year. Is that enough to fix the damage of this yearslong drought and what people are struggling with?

HERNANDEZ: No, I don't think it's enough to fix the damage. I do think it's only going to get worse with climate change. But this drought is here, and I don't see it going anywhere. So we have to start thinking about what does policy look like in the future to help this population?

FADEL: Hernan Hernandez is executive director of the California Farmworker Foundation. Thank you so much for being on the program.

HERNANDEZ: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.