BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Bob Taylor was barely 2 years old when his parents packed as many belongings as they could into their rickety old car and headed west from New Mexico toward California.
It was 1936, the height of the Dust Bowl, when the worst drought the country had ever seen forced tens of thousands of families to abandon their parched farmlands and head west in the hope of finding jobs and a more stable life.
Taylor’s parents were farm laborers, cotton pickers from Oklahoma and Texas who had slowly inched their way west chasing the crops that had somehow managed to survive the lack of rain. But then came the terrible dust storms, choking black blizzards of dirt fueled by the loose soil of eroded farmlands that swept across the plains, turning the days as dark as night. They were monsters that suffocated the life out of anything the drought hadn’t managed to kill — crops, animals and even people, who began to die from the dust that filled their lungs.
Taylor was too young to remember how bad it was. But he grew up hearing the stories from his parents, of how the land that had once been so rich and lush and healthy had slowly turned cracked and brittle and unwelcoming of life. How a drought that initially seemed like nothing more than a passing dry spell gradually unfolded into a disaster that destroyed the livelihoods of millions of people and deeply scarred the land in ways that never really healed.
“The time was hard,” Taylor said. “People were tough, my parents were tough… But the drought didn’t let up. It had no mercy at all on anything or anyone.”
The terrible struggle of Dust Bowl refugees was later immortalized by John Steinbeck, who based “The Grapes of Wrath” on the experiences of people like Taylor’s parents. Photographers like Dorothea Lange documented the heartbreaking plight of migrant farm families, as they escaped the drought only to suffer extreme poverty and discrimination as they tried to rebuild their lives out west.
But the most important testimony of that era may rest with Taylor and other children of the Dust Bowl, the last generation of Americans who understand in a way many never will the quiet danger of a sustained drought and how devastating it can be to the land, its industry and people.
It’s those stories he heard as a child that Taylor has been thinking about lately as he’s driven the back roads of Kern County, the heart of California’s central farming valley, where his family resettled and he’s spent his entire life working in agriculture.
Taylor, who is now 80, has watched as some of the most viable farmland in the country has slowly withered away in recent months. In its place is the same kind of cracked, fallowed ground that his parents spoke of so long ago, perpetuated by a drought so catastrophic that many here have wondered if the dry spell that drove their ancestors toward California decades ago may be repeating itself here in a way that could be even more devastating.
An unprecedented 82 percent of California is in an “extreme drought,” according to the latest U.S. Drought Monitor report released last week. Of that, 58 percent of the state is in an “exceptional drought” — the driest conditions possible — an increase of more than 20 percent in a single week. Record-low rainfall has sent rivers, lakes and water reservoirs to their lowest levels in decades — threatening the water supply of many cities. The unusually dry conditions have increased the risk of wildfires, which have already ravaged parts of the state — most recently an area near Yosemite National Park.
But the drought’s biggest victim could be California’s Central Valley, the source of fully half the nation’s fruits and vegetables, where panicked farmers are taking extraordinary steps to survive a drought that could drive them out of business. In Kern County, one farmer recently drilled five new wells at 2,500-feet deep apiece — twice the height of the Empire State Building — in a desperate attempt to tap into new water sources below.
“You look around, and you feel sick. It’s hard to believe we are so dry out here when other parts of the country are so damn wet,” Taylor said. “I think about what my mother and dad went through, how hard that time was… You see what’s happening to the land [now], and you can’t help but worry. How bad is this beating going to be?”
A recent University of California, Davis, study found the state’s agriculture industry stands to lose at least $1.5 billion this year alone due to the drought — losses that threaten to devastate a region where virtually everything is tied to farming. Already, small towns, like Mendota, Calif., where the population is made up primarily of farm laborers, are warning unemployment rates could hit 50 percent in coming months because there will be no crops to harvest.
That’s terrible news for an area already stricken by some of the highest poverty rates in the nation and where many cities still haven’t fully recovered from the Great Recession.
“What we’re dealing with is a multiplier effect: No crops means people can’t work. Prices for produce go up, and people can’t afford to eat,” said Cindy Pollard, president of the Greater Bakersfield Chamber of Commerce. “People here are tough, they are problem solvers. They don’t sit around saying ‘woe is me.’ They work to rise above the obstacles, but there’s only so much you can deal with.”
On a windy afternoon this past March, Shawn Stevenson drove his truck out to one of his family’s orange groves along Highway 168 in Clovis, Calif., east of Fresno. It had been an unusually warm winter, and though the hundreds of acres of trees on his land had already lost their blooms, the air still faintly smelled of the sweet orange blossoms that magically perfume this part of the Central Valley every spring as millions of citrus trees come to life.
It’s that unmistakable fragrance, the literal smell of trees flowering anew, that usually makes spring a happy time on the farm. But Stevenson, the third generation of his family to work the land, could feel only anguish.
Like many farmers in the Central Valley this year, he was running out of water. And in coming weeks, he would be forced to do the unthinkable: bulldoze hundreds of acres of thirsty but still relatively healthy orange trees because he didn’t have the moisture to keep them alive through the worst drought people here have ever seen.
But Stevenson wasn’t sure what was worse: issuing a premature death sentence to hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of trees that still had years of life in them or the sick feeling of abandonment he felt. Like others here, he had a growing sense that nobody outside the Central Valley really understood the far-reaching implications of the drought, how it was putting a main source of the nation’s food supply at serious risk, threatened to disrupt an entire industry and ruin people’s lives. Even worse, he worried people simply did not care.
It was the anguish that compelled him to the orange grove that day, the frustration he felt that led him to scale a water tank on the far edge of his property closest to the road and, in the blustery wind, unfurl a plastic banner he’d had made that summed up the crisis in the most concise way he knew how. “NO WATER. NO TREES. NO JOBS. NO FOOD,” the sign read, a basic message that he hoped, in its simplicity, would communicate exactly what the drought was putting at stake.
By then, the region had already become a pit stop for politicians claiming to feel the Central Valley’s pain. California Gov. Jerry Brown, House Speaker John Boehner and even President Barack Obama had made high-profile visits to the valley in the weeks prior, each making his own separate trek through the shockingly arid farmland and offering vague promises of help before moving on to seemingly more urgent crises.
“The truth of the matter is that this is going to be a very challenging situation this year, and frankly, the trend lines are such where it’s going to be a challenging situation for some time to come,” Obama declared during a three-hour visit in February, a side trip to a West Coast fundraising swing.
So, too, came media attention from all over the world, reporters and photographers chronicling the desperate times of struggling farmers before they, too, moved on.
To Stevenson and others, nothing seemed to change. There was no sense of anxiety or alarm — not even in California, where Brown had issued a drought emergency in January and urged residents across the state to voluntarily conserve water. But a recent study found that some parts of the state — including many cities in Southern California — have been using more water than they did a year ago. That recently prompted the state to issue mandatory water restrictions across California — increasing fines for those caught wasting water by watering their lawns or washing their cars. But some wonder if it will even make a difference at this point.
In some ways, the lack of urgency isn’t surprising. A drought does not have the immediacy or frenzied excitement of tornadoes, hurricanes or other natural disasters. But a prolonged lack of rain has the potential to be every bit as destructive, if not more so, as devastating storms. In many ways, a drought is a disaster in slow motion, with an impact so gradual that the true scope of its devastation often goes undetected until it's too late.
“What is happening right now has the potential to be our Hurricane Katrina or our Hurricane Sandy or the wildfire that destroys everything. It’s just going to take a lot longer to unfold,” Stevenson said.
His plastic sign is still hanging along Highway 168 — an even starker message now against the backdrop of a dusty moonscape of a field on a farm where the drought is claiming more victims by the day. A few days ago, Stevenson bulldozed another few hundred acres of trees — Valencia orange specimens that should have lived years more, dead because there isn’t enough water. His daughter Caroline, home from college, blinked back tears, but Stevenson could only steel himself and move on, knowing in the back of his mind that things are likely to get much worse before they get better.
“I guess that’s why farmers are unique, being faced with a bad situation and continuing to press on somehow,” he said afterward. “It’s all you can do.”
In all, Stevenson has lost about 500 acres of citrus trees this year — nearly half of his crop — and more are at risk, kept alive with just the bare minimum of water in the prayer they can make it until next season.
The same story is happening all over the Central Valley. Thousands of acres of citrus and nut trees — legacy crops that normally would be expected to live years if not decades — are drying up or are dead already. Fields that would normally be dark green and flourishing with plants sprouting tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, strawberries, melons or the countless other varieties of fruits and vegetables grown in the region are nothing but barren plots of earth.
The scene repeats itself again and again from south of Bakersfield heading up north toward Modesto, as an estimated 500,000 acres (about 10 percent of the farmland) have gone unplanted this season — left empty by drought-stricken farmers who didn’t have enough water to sustain a crop this year. The setting is eerily reminiscent of the ravaged land depicted in some of Lange’s most iconic images of Texas and Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl era.
People here had been hopeful about predictions of a possible El Nino weather pattern this fall — rains fueled by warmer-than-usual ocean temperatures. But the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center recently downplayed the impact, suggesting the El Nino effect would be moderate to weak, at best, and not provide the moisture the state desperately needs.
It was more bad news for a region that has struggled with the question of whether what they are going through is simply bad luck or, as Obama and others have suggested, a symptom of warming temperatures brought on by climate change.
Stevenson, who is 54, has spent his entire life on the farm, learning the trade from his father and his grandfather before him. He hopes to pass on the farm to his daughter and nephew, who have been learning the family business so they can carry forward the legacy. But there are days when Stevenson wonders what the future will hold.
He has never seen his land so dry. The pond where he swam as a kid is empty, and the pasture, where he also raises cattle, has so little grass you can see the cracked earth below. All last winter, Stevenson knew things were going to be bad, and the thought of the hard decisions he knew he would have to make in order for the farm to survive kept him up at night, even as he held out hope that maybe it might rain and there could be some reprieve.
But there was no miracle, and according to Stevenson, he’s experienced some of the darkest days of his life trying to keep the farm going. It wasn’t just the gut-wrenching decision to sacrifice his trees, a devastating economic loss that will take years to recover from. The “worst day” so far, he says, was when he had to lay off four of his full-time workers — 40 percent of his regular staff. Some were men who had been with the farm for more than 30 years, people he’d grown up working with and was as close to as family. And the situation is only growing more dire. While he’ll make it through this season, Stevenson’s not sure about the next — which is a scenario facing many farmers in the Central Valley.
“If this goes on longer, you are talking about unimaginable economic devastation, farms going out of business, people losing their jobs, and a blight on the land that could take years to repair,” Stevenson said. “But sometimes you feel like no one cares. You drive through neighborhoods and see people watering their lawns, and you see that extra water running down into the gutter… When you are someone that knows pretty much down to the gallon how much you need to keep your crop alive, you wonder how some people can have their heads so deep in the sand.”
The delta smelt is a tiny sliver of a fish that resembles a sardine and, at barely two inches long, is no bigger than a guppy. It used to be just another obscure species in the vast catalog of California’s ecosystem, a bluish-silver native of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, east of San Francisco, a key source of water for the Central Valley cropland.
But it’s this minuscule fish, an endangered species in California, that has become an unlikely symbol of outrage among drought-stricken farmers, who point to it as proof that it’s not just Mother Nature responsible for the unfolding nightmare here.
Environmental regulations aimed at protecting the endangered smelt and fish habitats upstate years ago curbed the flow of river water through the delta from Northern California south into the parched Central Valley. But when some of that excess water was allowed to run into the Pacific Ocean earlier this year, farmers who have struggled to survive were stunned — infuriated at the idea of even one drop of water being wasted as their crops shrivel and die.
“They are fighting to save an endangered fish, but in the process, they are endangering us, the people that grow the food that is on your dinner plate,” said Greg Wegis, a citrus and nut farmer in Kern County. “How does that make any sense?”
The angst over the protection of a fish most people had never even heard of until recently is rooted deep in the complicated politics of water in California, a bitter debate that spans decades and has grown even more intense as the latest drought has slowly burned up the land.
California has been through dry times before — including a major drought in the 1970s that wiped out millions of dollars in crops. But it was “nothing like this,” recalled Bob Taylor, the Dust Bowl survivor who was farming back then.
A major difference was that farms in peril were able to rely on at least some help from the elaborate series of dams, canals and water reservoirs that are the lifeline of the agricultural industry here, rerouting water from rivers upstate and capturing runoff from the Sierra Nevada snowpack to feed the crops below.
But earlier this year, the state’s two largest water systems — the State Water Project and the Central Valley Project, which is operated by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation — announced for the first time in their history they would allocate no water to farmers in the Central Valley.
Those in charge blamed the extreme drought conditions — including record-low snow levels in the mountains, which depleted aquifers below. But shell-shocked farmers blamed onerous government regulations—seizing on the puny delta smelt as a symbol of misplaced priorities.
But it’s not just the fish. People are mad at Brown and other California lawmakers, who pledged $700 million in drought aid but have shown little appetite to tackle long-term problems like upgrading the state’s antiquated water system to improve storage facilities and develop technology that would encourage water recycling. Another sore point is the state’s reluctance to rethink outdated water rights rules, some inked more than 100 years ago, that gives some corporations, farmers and cities unlimited and unregulated access to water, even as others dry up.
“What we are dealing with is a natural drought, but it is also a political drought, complicated by this maze of rules . . . and an infrastructure that was not designed to serve a [state] population of 40 million people,” said Tom Wollenman, a longtime citrus farmer who manages LoBue Citrus in Lindsay, Calif., a tiny farming town in Tulare County.
In Lindsay, the main road into town — Highway 65 — is lined with barren fields and groves of orange trees that are dead or dying, some from the other natural disaster that hit the region this year: a major freeze. But the situation is even worse for cities to the south and to the east. Along the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in western Tulare County, it’s not just farmers who have run out of water, but residents, too, as wells have dried up and groundwater supplies have dwindled. Food banks in the region have reported record requests for help — mostly from temporary laborers who have lost their jobs and others who can’t afford to buy bottled water or food to eat.
Lately farms have raced to dig deeper wells that pump water from aquifers deep below—costly journeys to unprecedented depths in hopes of finding moisture to survive. Since the state does not put limits on groundwater pumping, the new wells have fueled concerns about what could happen when that source is drained. “It’s like having a glass of water with 15 straws in it,” Wollenman said. “It’s just not sustainable.”
In Terra Bella, where the main water source has been the Central Valley Project, desperate farmers have scrambled to save an estimated 7,000 acres in orange trees valued at more than $100 million from drying up. Some there have anted up big money to buy water from farmers who decided it was more valuable to sell the water they had stockpiled last year to guard against the drought than to raise a crop. And that’s set off a wild frenzy in the valley, where water is being auctioned off at the cost $1,200 to $2,500 an acre-foot (the amount it takes to cover one acre of ground the depth of one foot). That’s at least six times the price of what water was going for last year, fueling charges of price gouging. But many desperate farmers just trying to keep their crops alive feel they have no choice — an economic hit some fear could send the region into further financial peril.
“It’s just not profitable to pay that much for water, but when you’ve already invested so much, the thought of watching something die is unbearable,” said Ryan Jacobsen, head of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. “The instinct is to beg and borrow and do anything you can to survive.”
But for the farmers of the Central Valley, the trauma of the drought is about so much more than economics. It’s about identity, heritage and a powerful connection to the land.
Some of the happiest moments of Joe Del Bosque’s life have been the days he’s spent simply wandering through his fields, getting lost for hours admiring the incremental changes in his crops that might not be so obvious to other people — the colors of the leaves, the size of the fruit, the texture of its skin. Nothing ever looks or feels the same.
At 65, Del Bosque, who has been working the land all of his life, is still amazed by essential miracle of farming — the idea that a tiny seed smaller than a fingertip can, with the right love and care, birth a cantaloupe larger than the human head. But it is the love and care that matters — a lesson instilled in him as a child by his father, a Mexican immigrant who came to the Central Valley during the Dust Bowl and spent his life tending cantaloupe fields.
“You don’t just plant things,” said Del Bosque, who farms 2,000 acres of melons, asparagus and almond trees in western Fresno County. “You water it and nurture it and manage it… I was always taught that you treat the land with love and respect, and it responds.”
And that’s what has made the last few months so hard. In the spring, Del Bosque was forced to allow roughly 600 acres — about 25 percent of his farm — to go barren, fields that would have normally been flush with several hundred thousand cantaloupes this summer. But even though he’d stockpiled extra water last year, in anticipation that the drought would only get worse, it wasn’t enough to keep the entire farm alive. While he knew it was the right thing to do to survive, there has never been a moment when Del Bosque didn’t see those fallow fields — not on his walks through the farm, not even when he gave a tour to Obama, who used his barren land as a backdrop to his visit to the Central Valley in February — that he didn’t feel as though some part of himself had been lost.
“You put so much of yourself into the land, understanding the soil and how crops respond to the most sensitive things, like moisture and the air… It’s very intense. [The land] becomes a part of you, and to see it fallow, it just kills you,” Del Bosque said.
Del Bosque and so many other California farmers have had to succumb to extreme measures to survive the drought. Now as they await the coming season they can only hope — or pray — for the return of the bounty that until now had always sustained a nation. But in a way the deeper question, as it was during the time of the Dust Bowl, is whether through all of the adversity and hardship they will be able to sustain their spirit or if that’s one more thing the drought will take, too.