color photograph of a farmworker wearing a grey sweatshirt and jeans standing between rows of grape plants. they are leaning over with one arm stretched down towards a wheelbarrow filled with green grapes
A farmworker picks grapes on Oct. 4, 2021, in the Kern County town of Lamont, California, where record heat has fueled drought and wildfires. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Since the mid-20th century, the Central Valley, a 450-mile swath of farmland that stretches from Shasta County to the southern edge of the Tulare Basin, has fed the country. The region has changed significantly since the start of the state’s agricultural era in the 20th century, and now 400,000-800,000 farmworkers maintain and harvest produce, often by hand, and begin their days before the sun comes up. 

The work requires skill and expediency, as farmworkers are paid by the unit harvested. But those who ready more than 250 crops on 35,000 farms to provide the country with 40% of its fruits, nuts, and other table foods face unrelenting challenges when accessing shelter, food, and other resources. And now, in the face of cascading impacts of climate change, one of which is the worst drought the state has seen in 1,200 years, farmworkers are once again being left in the lurch. 

A bill proposed in the most recent California legislative session would have addressed the precarious position farmworkers are placed in: one where the compounding impacts of climate change force farmers to adapt their crops, where farmworkers have to decide if it’s worth it to labor during extreme and potentially deadly heat days, and where heat standards are often under- or unenforced. All of these pressures exacerbate the existing challenges, such as low wages, a lack of health insurance, prohibitively high housing costs, and a lack of access to food. 

But California Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the California Farmworkers Drought Resilience Pilot Project, which would have offered farmworkers, many of whom have lost work hours due to the drought, $1,000 a month of supplemental pay from 2023 through 2026. And unlike all other social safety net programs, there would be no immigration status or eligibility requirements, meaning that undocumented farmworkers, who account for an estimated 50% of farmworkers, could receive funds. 

“I applaud the author’s consideration of how to best ensure farmworkers have access to resources sufficient to provide for basic needs,” the governor wrote in his veto. “However, this proposal would require millions of dollars more to implement and funds were not included in the budget for this purpose.” The governor also wrote that state funding was already approved for a pilot guaranteed income program. The veto letter did not acknowledge the drought conditions that motivated the bill’s proposal.

Arnulfo Bedolla-López is a 69-year-old farmworker who has been working at various farms in California since 1973 as a seasonal worker, meaning that he lives in his hometown in Guanajuato, Mexico, for half the year and in the Central Valley for half the year. Most years he’s able to clear $25,000 in a season, but this year his take-home pay was about $20,000, which he said is not nearly enough to cover the rising costs of gas and food. 

The difference between previous years and this year was that, in addition to farm owners hiring more farmworkers to get around a new overtime pay law, farmers planted fewer crops because of the drought. Fewer crops mean less work.

“I think the governor has been one of the biggest advocates of fighting climate change, [but] when we talk about climate change, we really fail to talk about why we’re trying to tackle it and how it’s impacting us now,” said state Sen. Melissa Hurtado, who drafted and introduced the drought resilience pilot legislation. “The way that it’s impacting us the most right now is it’s impacting our food supply.” Most importantly, she said, “there is no food without the worker.”

With that veto on the books, farmworkers, farmworker advocates, and agricultural experts have no choice but to rely on existing safety nets to help support farmworkers and craft their own solutions to move forward.

“For me, it’s about not leaving farmworkers behind, plain and simple”

While California’s climate has fluctuated for centuries, with drought being just one normal component of California’s ecosystems, the severity of the droughts and their associated risks have dramatically increased in recent years. For the most part, drought is a product of the planet’s rising temperature, subsequent changes to ecosystems, overuse of land, and the advent of industrialized agriculture. The state actually uses 20% of the country’s groundwater to irrigate Central Valley farms; in the region’s more southern San Joaquin Valley, agriculture accounts for 89% of the area’s water consumption. 

With drought comes other changes to the ecosystems that grow our food. Less snowpack in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range due to more precipitation falling as rain rather than snow means the loss of a natural water storage space. Fewer days of fog mean less productive nut trees and orchards, and sweltering days can rot food before it can be harvested. Farmers are then tasked with responding to conditions by shifting to crops that require less water, planting produce that’s more resilient to dry seasons and wildfire, or investing in crops that can be harvested with machines.

“Farmworkers are very much on the frontlines of climate change,” said Antonio de Loera-Brust, the communications director for United Farm Workers. 

The state has begun to take some action on the consequences of California’s rapidly changing ecosystems and declining species, but not enough to get to the root causes of climate change, advocates note, with the more ambitious legislation failing to get approval. Still, the state will ban new fracking leases starting in 2024 and ban the sale of new gasoline-powered cars starting in 2035. The state is proposing opening up a $100 million fund for Native tribes to buy back their land for conservation, and in 2015, it launched a program for farmers to heal soil to facilitate carbon sequestration. 

During COVID times, the state has continued to offer payments to lower-earning families, though the requirements for getting these checks state that the recipient must have documentation. So even while some legislation has tried to address the systemic policy failures that allowed for ecological destruction and persistent impoverishment, Band-Aid solutions or solutions that will be enacted in the future don’t address the current realities of farmworkers. Scientists say that we’ll need a lot more than a car or a fracking ban to lower overall emissions and mitigate things like drought. 

“We need to do everything that we can to reduce carbon emissions,” Hurtado said. “But at the same time, we need to really focus on how climate change is impacting people. For me, it’s about not leaving farmworkers behind, plain and simple.”

Farmworkers don’t have to be frontline workers 

Most of the state’s—and a significant portion of the country’s—food is picked by hand. And farmworkers feel the impacts of heat. Between 1961 and 1990, temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley increased 1 degree, and they are projected to increase 4-5 degrees by 2050, which will also increase the number of extreme heat days from the four-to-five experienced now to as many as 28, according to a report co-authored by Angel Santiago Fernandez-Bou, a researcher at University of California, Merced. 

The possibility of a month of extreme heat will only exacerbate the already deadly conditions farmworkers face. With de Loera-Brust translating, Bedolla-López said that it’s often up to farmers to decide if they offer clean water, frequent breaks, and shade. Bedolla-López said that he has worked in 116-degree heat.

According to Fernandez-Bou, farmworkers bear 35 times more risk of heat-related death than any outdoor worker in the U.S. Farmworkers spend long days in the sun, and legal requirements mandating rest, water, and shade often go unenforced, advocates note. 

Even while on the frontlines, farmworkers, 92% of whom are Latino, earn an average annual income of $14,000. For comparison, the agricultural industry reached nearly $50 billion in sales in 2020. Statewide, 40% of California’s water—which comes from public sources like the Sierra Nevada Mountains—goes to agricultural use

Large-scale farms, especially almond farms, consume an enormous amount of water, chronically overextend water reserves, and have lobbied for the creation of dams, which are catastrophic to whole ecological systems and a threat to Native sovereignty. Industrial agriculture didn’t initiate climate change, but its ongoing practices aren’t stopping its wheels from turning, and de Loera-Brust said that the state needs to entertain solutions that recognize both of these systems—farms and current treatment of farmworkers—as unsustainable. 

Farmworkers don’t have to be on the frontlines of climate change or pandemics, but current socioeconomic structures are making what’s invaluable work into frontline work. For de Loera-Brust, people will always need food and people to harvest that food by hand, so, as he sees it, the question is how to recognize farm work for what it is and should be: a skilled job that should lead to a middle-class life.  

Farmworkers need power

As the crises of climate change and job security stretch toward one another, new solutions are emerging to address old and existing challenges, such as how to make sure that those who grow the country’s food have enough for their own families. 

Betzabel Estudillo, a senior advocate at Nourish California, an organization that is working on expanding CalFresh, the state’s SNAP program, to include undocumented residents, said that a family’s access to food has an outsized impact on a child’s education, well-being, and overall development. But according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, 45% of undocumented Californians struggle with food insecurity, and the rate reaches 64% for undocumented children. 

It’s difficult to say how many undocumented people in the state are farmworkers, but the fact remains that there’s a significant overlap of undocumented people who are farmworkers struggling against the lack of supportive policies to serve those without papers and those who work low-wage jobs. The Central Valley is rural, and Estudillo said that many low-income farm-working families are forced to decide between purchasing water and food because of contaminated water systems. 

While water allocations support farm operations, nearly 1 million people lack access to safe water, which may lead to liver and kidney damage and increased risk of cancer. The majority of households without safe water are located in Central Valley counties.  

If reelected, Hurtado said she plans on reintroducing the legislation in the next term. In the meantime, and instead of waiting on the state to provide benefits or address climate change fully, de Loera-Brust said that strengthening farmworker union power is a way to negotiate contracts for fair wages and benefits and fill in the gaps left by state policies. A big piece of this, he said, “is really empowering farmworkers to improve their own conditions, whether that’s safety conditions at work, whether that’s wages.”

Bedolla-López’s daughter, Miriam Bedolla, who began working as a farmworker during the COVID-19 pandemic, said that she wants those who work in offices, schools, and government buildings to have more empathy and compassion for people who work in the state’s produce fields. 

“It’s an important, dignified role that should actually be treated with an enormous amount of respect and gratitude,” de Loera-Brust said. “I really think that long term what farmworkers need in California isn’t charity, it’s power.”

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.