Strawberry pickers in Watsonville, Calif. Many farmworkers in the state are out of work because of the severe drought. Those who do have a job are often working harder for less money. (Lesley McClurg/For NPR)
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More than 21,000 people are out of work this year from California's drought, according to a study from the University of California, Davis. The majority are in agriculture. Those farmworkers lucky enough to have a job are often working harder for less money.
Leaning forward and crouching from the waist, Anastacio picks strawberries from plants about as tall as his knees. We're not using his last name because Anastacio and his family are undocumented.
He's working in an organic field in Watsonville, near Santa Cruz. This year, he's averaging about half as many boxes of berries as he usually does.
"We are earning less money because we are done with work early, and there is less fruit," he says in Spanish. A steady stream of sweat pours off his brow.
He and his family illegally crossed the border from Mexico about six years ago. When he arrived, his average workday was about 11 hours; now it's seven.
"We take longer to fill up the box because the strawberries are smaller," he says. "When the strawberries are bigger, you fill up the box faster."
He gently places the glistening fruit in yellow baskets. He's paid by the box, but his supervisor will refuse the fruit if it's blemished.
His wife, Dominga, is out of work. She strained her back from picking berries.
"We don't have enough for food," she says in Spanish. "For example, right now we have to pay rent, and bills and they're expensive."
Dominga and her husband have four children. The family lives in a tiny apartment paying $1,600 a month in rent.
The story is similar at a nearby migrant camp. Aracelli Fernandez and her children dig through donated piles of clothes strewn out on a dusty lawn.
"In past years here, the grass was so green that we would come out and lay out during our breaks," Fernandez tells us in Spanish. "If you take a look now, everything is dried up."
In 24 years of picking, she says, she's never seen such wilted plants.
"We could be making 50 boxes in a day," she says. "Right now we are only making 25 to 30 boxes per day."
Michael McCann, the executive director of Proteus, an organization that offers services to agricultural workers, says the drought is exacerbating living conditions that are already bad.
"These people live in poverty normally," he says. "So when you cut their hours, or cut their ability to work, it just makes a poor situation worse."
Proteus is based in Visalia, near Fresno. It's ground zero for drought devastation. McCann says workers paid piecemeal are struggling the most. Smaller fruit hurt earnings. And these days, he says, they are a given.
"Smaller fruit is an absolute. There's no question. It's easily seen. An orange which is normally a little larger than a baseball is now a little smaller than baseball," he says.
It's a hydration issue: Cells in the fruit won't enlarge if they don't have enough water.
McCann says some farmers will pay laborers a higher wage to make up for smaller fruit, but not all do.
Around 576,000 acres are not being planted this year — that's costing California's agriculture industry about $1.8 billion, according the UC Davis study.
Workers at the bottom have been hit hardest. To see the effect, McCann says, just visit a food pantry or other group offering food-aid service.
"The lines are blocks long," McCann says, "and yet the supermarket is empty. So that's a pretty simple visual example of the effect economically."
Fernandez says the stress is taking its toll. "Right now I have a migraine," she says. "I've suffered from migraines for five years. But I have to show up to work regardless of the pain, because if I don't work, there isn't food in the house."
She places her hand on her lower back and points to a large knot. She lifts up her pant leg and reveals swollen knees. But, she says, she feels lucky to have a job.