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California farmers brace for drought, unemployment

Officials at Mendota's City Hall aren't the only uneasy ones. Steve Malanca, general manager at Thomason Tractor in Firebaugh, said farmers have already told him that digging deeper wells and buying irrigation water are higher priorities in 2014 than investing in new farm equipment from him. With reduced work in the fields, Malanca said it's clear he will have to lay off some of his 49 employees.

The ripple effect of drought extends to the trucking companies that haul crops, tire companies that outfit the big rigs and fuel suppliers who provide diesel, he said. Employees at John Deere world headquarters in Moline, Ill., will feel repercussions from drought in California, the biggest agricultural producer, he said. So will the businesses that make cardboard boxes to hold cantaloupes and the wooden pallets for stacking the boxes, Malanca said. The list goes on.

"When you make a hay bale, you've got to tie that bale with string," he said. "The supplier who made that string, he's going to be out of work, too."

A 2012 study by the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California, Davis, found that farming and food processing industries created nearly 38 percent of all Central Valley jobs. Every 100 farm and processing jobs create work for another 92 people, said the report, which measured agriculture's impact on the state's economy.

Fresno County led the nation in farming in 2012, generating nearly $6.6 billion in economic activity, said Ryan Jacobsen, executive director of the Fresno County Farm Bureau. With no surface water for farmers, he anticipates that up to 25 percent of irrigated field and orchards in the county will lay unplanted.

This time of year, farmers start to plant tomatoes for use as paste and spaghetti sauce. Next come onions, garlic and cotton, which are among some 400 variety of crops grown in Fresno County. Farmers may have no choice but to rip out permanent crops, such as almond orchards and vineyards that take years to mature, or let them dry up with no irrigation.

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