The San Joaquin Valley is the agricultural powerhouse of the United States and California. California accounts for an eighth of U.S. farm sales, largely because it produces high value fruit and nut, vegetable and melon, and horticultural specialty (FVH) crops such as nursery products and flowers. Over three-fourths of the state's $37 billion in farm sales in 2010 were crop commodities, and almost 90 percent of the $28 billion in California crop sales represented labor-intensive FVH commodities.

About half of California's farm sales and farm employment are produced in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley with four million residents that stretches from Stockton in the north to Bakersfield in the south. The leading U.S. farm county is Fresno, which had farm sales of almost $6 billion in 2010.

California water update

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The 2015-16 water year was close to normal; the state's 154 major reservoirs held almost 22 million acre-feet of water on April 1, 2016, more than 85 percent of normal. Federal and state farm water contractors are likely to get half or more of the water that they want. Each water district contracts for a specific share of the surface water available to the federal Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, and CVP and SWP managers provide a percentage of each district's contracted water based on availability.

The California water system accumulates water as snow in northern California mountains and moves the water south via the Sacramento-San Joaquin river delta as the snow melts in summer. However, pumping water from the delta into the aqueduct that moves water south is often restricted to preserve juvenile fish that can be sucked into the pumps.

Most climate-change models project warmer winters less favorable to California's current water storage and transport system. If more precipitation falls as rain rather than snow during the winter months, the capacity of dams and reservoirs to store water for summer irrigation is reduced. Agriculture could cope by changing seeds and farming practices to use less water, but such changes could lower yields and increase labor costs. Alternatively, lower-value forage crops such as alfalfa for dairy cows could be grown outside California, freeing up water for higher-value crops.

Water has traditionally been priced by the cost of the infrastructure needed to store and deliver it, not by the value of the water to the user. The limited water sales that have occurred suggest that farmers are willing to pay $1,000 or more per acre foot of water to keep trees alive, three times what urban water agencies usually pay to obtain water for households. Wonderful Orchards (ex-Paramount Farming) in April 2016 announced that it was removing 10,000 of its 50,000 acres of almonds because of "limited water resources and market factors" in Kern County.

The San Joaquin Valley usually has double-digit unemployment; Fresno county's average annual rate peaked at almost 17 percent in 2010. However San Joaquin Valley unemployment rates then fell despite the drought, to 15 percent in 2012 in Fresno, 13 percent in 2013, 12 percent in 2014, and 10 percent in 2015. In May 2016, Fresno county's rate was 8.5 percent, the lowest rate for May since 2007. California's unemployment rate in May 2016 was 5.2 percent, and the U.S. rate was 4.7 percent.

This post was an excerpt of the most recent Rural Migration News published in July 2016.


Rural Migration News summarizes the most important migration-related issues affecting agriculture and rural America. Topics are grouped by category: Rural America, Farm Workers, Immigration, Other and Resources.


There are two editions of Rural Migration News. The paper edition has about 10,000 words and the email version about 20,000 words.


Distribution is by email. If you wish to subscribe, send your email address to ruralmigrationnews-subscribe [at} Current and back issues may be accessed at


The paper edition is available by mail for $30 domestic and $50 foreign for one year and $55 and $95 for a two-year subscription. Make checks payable to Migration Dialogue and send to: Philip Martin, Department of Ag and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, California 95616 USA.

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Philip Martin is Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California- Davis, chair of the University of California's Comparative Immigration and Integration Program, and editor of the monthly Migration News and the quarterly Rural Migration News.


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