Farmworkers leaving the Valley in search of jobs

Drought and economic desperation are driving farmworkers in small towns across the Valley to pull up decades-old roots and look for work elsewhere.

Some are trying to commute more than two hours to the Salinas Valley. But others are going all the way to Alaska, Washington and North Carolina.

While traveling from one job to another is a fact of life for migrant farmworkers, those in the Valley typically have been able to find enough work nearby to establish permanent homes.

That's not so easy anymore, said farmworker Guadalupe Alvarez. She has lived in Mendota for more than 30 years and never thought she would leave the dusty, rural town dubbed the Cantaloupe Center of the World.

For now she is packing melons. But she knows she is unlikely to find other work as usual when the melon season is over. By late September, she plans to move to North Carolina, where she has relatives.

"You feel bad about it because you've been here so long," Alvarez, 48, said in Spanish. "Now we are going somewhere else to suffer."

Several factors have contributed to the lack of work. Dry weather, water-pumping cutbacks and the closure of processing plants have led to fewer farmworker jobs as growers abandon fields. And the housing bust has flooded farms with new workers.

It's impossible to know exactly how many people are leaving, but the evidence of their departure is clear.

The Mendota Food Center, a grocery store in the heart of the town, looks nearly empty, although it's usually busy with shoppers this time of year, said Mayor Robert Silva. Nearby in the city of Firebaugh, a string of mom-and-pop stores closed this summer. And there are lots of empty apartments.

School enrollment in Firebaugh has been declining by dozens of students each year in the past three years. St. Joseph's School, a parochial school for preschool to eighth grade, closed in July.

Mendota and Firebaugh officials believe that hundreds of people have left this year from each of their towns. Mendota has about 8,000 people, and Firebaugh has about 7,000.

"There's less people in the area," Silva said. "They are moving up north to Washington to pick apples. Normally they'd be here working in the tomatoes, corn and bell pepper crops. Normally they would stay here until autumn."

So far, farmworkers are not returning to their home countries in large numbers.

Among 1.2 million Mexican nationals living in eight Central Valley counties served by the Mexican Consulate in Fresno, 28 families notified consular officials that they were moving back to Mexico this year, said Deputy Consul Selene Barceló.

"There is an economic crisis, but not at the point they are leaving the United States in droves," Barceló said in Spanish. "They are migrating. ... They normally would have temporary or full-time work here, but it's possibly changed."

Nationwide, immigrant workers are on the move as they try to deal with the economic downturn and increased immigration enforcement. One group from the Valley -- about 200 workers -- traveled to Washington for work, then sought jobs in Canada, said Manuel Cunha Jr., president of Nisei Farmers League in Fresno.

"The west side got hit the hardest, but it's happening all over," he said.

Liz Hudson, spokeswoman for the Fresno County Farm Bureau, said jobs in agriculture are out there, but there's not a high demand for workers.

"This year there appears to be no shortage of workers with the slowdown of the housing construction and with the uncertainty of the water situation," Hudson said. "There is an ample work force. We've had no reports by farmers that there's no workers."