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White House

California's Farmworkers Are Going to Have a Terrible Summer


President Obama is heading to California’s Central Valley this afternoon to assess the state’s historic drought and offer up a new aid package to provide relief to farmers and ranchers. While much of the drought coverage has focused on the economic damage that will ripple out as the country’s most productive agricultural region runs dry, Obama’s efforts highlight another looming reality: A lot of farmhands won’t have work come harvest season.

One of the biggest pieces of Obama’s aid package will go to feed unemployed workers. The White House committed $60 million to California food banks through an existing program that buys packaged food in bulk and ships it to organizations that feed the needy. The White House also promised to set up 600 summer “meal sites” to feed kids during periods when school isn’t in session. (During the school year, poor kids are assured a free lunch on campus.)

At this time last year, the state had 323,000 agricultural workers, about half of whom worked in the San Joaquin Valley. That region is now the most parched part of California, representing the almost 10 percent of the state that’s officially designated as being in an “exceptional,” once-in-50-years drought. (Check out our recent charts to see just how bad the situation is.) Without enough water, farmers are already letting thousands of acres lie fallow, meaning this summer there won’t be as much need to hire farmworkers. Bloomberg News reports that some towns are bracing for unemployment as high as 50 percent.

The emphasis on food aid also reflects a recognition that, while the White House can propose measures that ease some water demands, overall there’s not all that much Obama can do in the short term to reverse the effects of the drought, except joining farmworkers in praying for rain.

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Weise is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @kyweise.


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