High Unemployment and Farming

The stories of the great depression still seem far away for most of us in North America, sure there are housing foreclosures, but breadlines?Rising alcoholism? Families sharing houses? Is this North America?

The Great DepressionLife in Mendota, Calif., where the jobless rate is 41 percent | McClatchy

“It’s reminiscent of the Depression,” said Silva, Mendota’s mayor. “In those days you had soup lines, now you have food lines. This is a disaster area.”

Signs of poverty and desperation are everywhere.

Many people in Mendota are turning to alcohol to battle depression, said Amador, the council member. And some single-family homes are occupied by two or three families, in what Amador described as “basically labor camps.”

“It’s a violation of city code, but you don’t want to put these families out on the streets,” he said.

Silva, the mayor, said the city is having more problems with unemployed men hanging out in alleyways next to minimarts “doing nothing but drink their sorrows away.”

This situation has precipitated from a drought that continues today after three years, with farmers laying fields fallow or switching out to less water intensive crops

Mike Wood, a farmer in the Westlands Water District, said he normally would hire about 25 workers during the harvest season. But this summer, he said, “will be the quintessential definition of a skeleton crew _ about two or three guys.”

If the water shortages continue, Wood says he and other farmers could soon be out of business. That means that west-side families who decide to stay may find fewer and fewer jobs.

We all take it for granted that if a business shuts down, the workers will be able to find somewhere to work – maybe at a lower pay, or further away from home. But in normal circumstances, we don’t expect that unemployment is going to drive families away or to absolute poverty.

Farming is in the front line, it always has been in drought and depression. California was irrigated with borrowed water and now the debts are being called. The North American expectation that we can totally rely on others to provide food for us in our cities is starting to show the cracks. These residents of Mendota, California are the very people we are relying on to feed us – they are out of work, they are struggling to make ends meet and their society is crumbling as a result.

This story doesn’t touch on the impact to the national food system, but it raises questions. The free market has done wonders for some things, but in times of social and civil emergency such as depression and drought, the free market does not provide for the worker or the continued supply of a product to people who have come to rely upon it for survival. I’m starting to sound like a socialist, but it is clear that unregulated capitalism has some of the blame in creating this situation. I’m concerned about the rest of the farmers in North America, as to whether they will be able to borrow the money they need to finance seed, pesticide, fertilizer and equipment purchases for the season ahead. Will there be further unemployment and food shortages as a result?

Published by Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada.

2 replies on “High Unemployment and Farming”

  1. Why would North America be immune to breadlines? Rising alcoholism? Families sharing houses? If these problems exist in any society why not ours?
    This false sense of wealth and entitlement is part of the denial that is bringing us all down.

    Sharing houses is not necessarily a problem. If we had planned for sharing it could be fine.

  2. @EmJ – Denial is certainly the flavour of the day in North America. Stories such as the one I quoted show just how far removed from reality most of society is, the communities we live in are not set up to provide the work or services required to function without significant external inputs, whether demand for products, or supply of products from outside.

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