On a just transition for farmworker communities and farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley

San Joaquin Valley communities are on the front lines of massive land fallowing due to drought and soil and groundwater salinization. Satellite imaging shows almost a million acres of land on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley and in the Tulare Lake region that is either moderately or severely impaired by salinity. In droughts, growers fallow the marginal land, sometimes permanently. Small rural communities are left to deal with blowing dust and the loss of local jobs.Root zone salinity in the San Joaquin Valley (Scudiero et. al.)

There has been a great deal of wishful thinking that the San Joaquin Valley Water Blueprint and the CV Salts program will halt massive land retirements due to the Sustainable Groundwater Management Act and soil salinization. But there is no financially viable way to deal with the salt problem, and major investments in bringing water to land that is going out of production due to salinity make little sense.

AB 252, the Multibenefit Land Repurposing Incentive Program, will begin to address land retirement by setting up a grant program through the California Department of Conservation to convert fallowed farmland to other purposes, including wildlife habitat, grazing, and wetlands.

But more needs to be done to provide support to communities on the front lines of land retirement. Priority for habitat restoration jobs should be given to local residents. Local schools on the west side need state funding to make up for the diminished tax base.

Green jobs

The UC Berkeley Labor Center reported that construction of Renewable Energy Portfolio projects created 88,000 jobs in the San Joaquin Valley between 2002 and 2015, with an economic benefit of $11.6 billion. Energy efficiency projects created another 17,400 jobs, with an economic impact of $1.18 billion. A 2017 study found that entry level jobs on 27 solar projects in Kern County were largely filled by workers from disadvantaged communities. Of 1,862 entry-level workers, 43 percent lived in disadvantaged communities, and 47 percent lived in communities with unemployment rates of at least 13 percent. The San Joaquin River Restoration Program was projected to create 14.1 jobs for every $1 million invested.

California should incentivize training and hiring residents of communities impacted by land retirement for the growing “green jobs” industry in the San Joaquin Valley.

Farmworker safety

California also needs to do more for farmworker safety. Heat waves are an ever-increasing risk for San Joaquin Valley farmworkers. As UC Davis researchers noted, piece rate pay “makes self-care decisions difficult and expensive for farmworkers” [Lopez, 2021.] Wildfire smoke puts farmworkers at risk for respiratory illness. Farmworkers have historically had a high rate of chronic lung disease from exposure to pesticides and fine organic dusts.

Farmworkers have also consistently had the highest rates of injuries and fatalities on the job of any occupation. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in the US in 2018, almost 21,200 crop production workers were injured (5.3 per 100 full-time workers.) Fruit and tree nut farming had the highest rate of injuries (6.2 per 100 full-time workers), which is a concern in California because of the enormous growth in orchard crops. Crop production injury rates in the US in 2018 were 2.4 times higher than mining, 1.6 times higher than logging, and 1.8 times higher than construction. According to the Center for Disease Control, in 2017, 416 farmworkers died from their injuries on the job.


Bureau of Labor Statistics Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Table SNR10.

Chari, Ramya et al. “Injury and Illness Surveillance of U.S. Agricultural Workers: Assessment of Recommendations and Actions.” Rand health quarterly vol. 8,2 10. 11 Oct. 2018.

Des Jardins, D. Groundwater depletion and salt-impaired lands in the San Joaquin Valley, California Water Research, April 22, 2019.

Des Jardins, D. Mendota: evidence that soil and groundwater salinization is the predominant cause of land fallowing, California Water Research, June 1, 2011.

Greskevitch M, Kullman G, Bang KM, Mazurek JM. Respiratory disease in agricultural workers: mortality and morbidity statistics. J Agromedicine. 2007;12(3):5-10.

Gulati, M., Cullen, M., Lung Diseases, Occupational, in International Encyclopedia of Public Health (Second Edition), Quahl, S. Editor, 2017.

Jones, B. Duncan, K., Elkind, E. and Hanson, M. The Economic Impacts of California’s Major Climate Programs on the San Joaquin Valley, UC Berkeley Labor Center, January 19, 2017.

Langer, Chelsea Eastman PhD, MPH; Mitchell, Diane C. PhD; Armitage, Tracey L. MS; Moyce, Sally C. PhD; Tancredi, Daniel J. PhD; Castro, Javier BS; Vega-Arroyo, Alondra J. PhD; Bennett, Deborah H. PhD; Schenker, Marc B. MD, MPH Are Cal/OSHA Regulations Protecting Farmworkers in California From Heat-Related Illness?, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine: June 2021 – Volume 63 – Issue 6 – p 532-539

Lopez, N. California farmworkers face risks from heat, smoke. Regulations offer little protection, Fresno Bee, August 20, 2021.

Scudiero E, Corwin D, Anderson R, Yemoto K, Clary W, Wang Z, Skaggs T. 2017. Remote sensing is a viable tool for mapping soil salinity in agricultural lands. Calif Agr 71(4):231-238.

One thought on “On a just transition for farmworker communities and farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley

  1. I agree there should be a just transition for farm worker communities and farm workers in the San Joaquin Valley in the wake of changes that need to be made because of extremely poor management by west-side San Joaquin Valley agribusiness interests. I would support any state or federal legislation that would create such a just transition for farm worker communities and workers.

Leave a Reply