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The sun sets at the southern end of the parched San Joaquin Valley: America's salad bowl no longer. (David McNew/2009 Getty Images)
The sun sets at the southern end of the parched San Joaquin Valley: America's salad bowl no longer. (David McNew/2009 Getty Images)

Sonia Verma

How green was my valley: California's drought Add to ...

For a perfect view of California's economic ruin, Todd Allen's front porch is a pretty good place to stand.

At first, you would never guess it. Mr. Allen, 46, is a blond, bright-eyed farmer, just like his father and grandfather before him.

When a stranger drives to his homestead, nestled neatly in Fresno County, Mr. Allen doesn't dictate directions by distance. He punctuates them with references to things like American flags, the sweet smell of oleander and the point at which a gravel road disintegrates into dirt.

Ask Mr. Allen what he noticed when he drove along the back roads this sunny Friday morning, and his answer comes in a collage of images attesting to America's new hard times.

The lineup at the makeshift food bank by the old rodeo grounds is almost a kilometre long.

Tent cities for the homeless have sprung up on H Street in Fresno.

The last bank, Westamerica, in the nearby town of Mendota has a new sign in the window saying it will close for good.

In California, authorities have begun to issue IOUs instead of cash.

Unemployment stands at 11.6 per cent and 180 cities are set to sue the state over a budget that proposes to close a $26.3-billion shortfall by taking $4.7-billion from their coffers.

In all of this, Fresno County, where Mr. Allen was born and raised, has the unenviable distinction of being the hardest-hit county in the state.

Its jobless rate reaches 40 per cent in some towns. America's housing crisis was its most pronounced here, with prices almost triple a home's value. Nearly half of all sales these days involve foreclosure.

On paper, the numbers are staggering. For the rest of California, Fresno County stands as a cautionary tale of consequences to come.

GONE, GONE, GONE

However, as the state struggles to pull itself out of an epic economic mess, proposing a budget settlement this week that taps into local government funds and cuts health care, welfare and education, Fresno is emerging as a new battleground for the compromises created in the crucible of dire straits.

Which brings us back to Mr. Allen's front porch. Because, for all the signposts of despair that he passed on his morning drive, what kills him, what absolutely kills him, is the moment that he pulls his beige Ford pickup truck into his own fields: 240 hectares of the most productive farmland on Earth, bought by his father to bequeath to his sons.

The fields of wheat, cotton and cantaloupe that sustained his family for three generations are gone. The land is a mess of fallow fields, cracked earth and swirling dust.

However, his particular scene of devastation, Mr. Allen argues, has nothing to do with the credit crisis, the housing crash or the downturn that has California in a vice grip.

It has to do with a seven-centimetre-long, semi-translucent, steel blue fish known as the Delta smelt.

This is not a story about fish. Rather, it is a story about how efforts to save the fish through a court-ordered water shortage have pushed a region already brought to the brink by recession over the edge.

It is also a story about how farmers are fighting back, using almost unimaginable stories of economic hardship to argue for a reversal of environmental rules that could see their farms thrive once again, but also endanger wildlife that may never come back.

As Washington promises stimulus money and their local governments beg for emergency aid to pay for more food banks and shelters, these farmers say an easier answer literally lies beneath their feet.

Their farms, with water, could provide California some of the spark it so badly needs to fuel a more widespread economic recovery.

Central Valley, a semi-arid, 650-kilometre stretch of land is the heart of California's $37-billion agricultural industry. Half of the country's vegetables are grown here. It also ranks as the world's largest agricultural area.

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