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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 ...

Back at the farm, Mr. Allen sits in his office - there is no work to be done in the fields.

On his desk is a picture of his two young daughters. In the drawer are the blood-pressure pills he began to take in April, when he wrote off most of his crops.

A doctored picture on the wall shows a smiling President Barack Obama. He is standing next to a sun-scorched farmer, who is giving him the finger.

With virtually no water this year, Mr. Allen has managed to irrigate and harvest just 16 hectares of winter white wheat, now a key crop here because it can thrive with minimal water.

Since bringing in the wheat last month, Mr. Allen spends most days at his desk, fending off phone calls from telemarketers and the bank.

His farm, a million-dollar operation in good times, is 70-per-cent financed. He also owes money on three tractors, a $140,000 drip system, which is useless to him now, and his house.

"I've never been in a predicament like this … so, if I can survive this year, I can survive anything," he says, blinking back tears.

When he began to farm full-time 20 years ago, he had a consistent water supply. He also had 10 employees and started with 600 hectares of cantaloupe, cotton and wheat.

This year, he has laid everyone off and is doing what little labour is left himself.

"You know, I am really scared for my family. I have two daughters and I thought I had a future going out here, and now I can't even sell this land because, without water, it is worthless," he says.

"It seems like in this economy the government would look for quick fixes instead of throwing money at everything. All they have to do is turn the pumps on. The water is there."

Last month, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger asked Mr. Obama to declare Fresno County a disaster area to boost federal aid.

But when California lawmakers agreed on their budget this week, Fresno's fate seemed sealed.

With the state siphoning off its revenue, the county is laying off 700 workers and seeing its $20-million debt grow to $30-million. Programs ranging from in-home support for the elderly to food stamps will be slashed.

"Without water, we have no way of fighting back," says Phil Larsen, who sits on Fresno County's board of supervisors.

"In the Central Valley regional area, we've got 40,000 unemployed people. General Motors had 30,000 and got a government bailout. We're getting nothing."

But most farmers here say they don't want a handout. At a town hall meeting in Fresno a few weeks ago, tempers flared as farmers flustered Interior Department officials by shouting: "We don't want welfare, we want water."

UNEMPLOYMENT 41 PER CENT

The City of Fresno has a half-million people, but the suffering in the small towns surrounding it seems somehow amplified. Most of these places simply wouldn't exist without the agricultural industry, and these days it looks like they may literally fall off the map.

Mendota, population 10,000, was once famous as the "cantaloupe capital of the world." Today, it is the jobless capital of America, with an unemployment rate of 41 per cent.

Mayor Robert Silva came to Mendota from Mexico more than 30 years ago as a farm worker, like most people who live in his town. "What's happening here is a disaster," he says. "When Hurricane Katrina happened, the government gave away housing, food, medicine, but this is just as bad."

Today, Mendota is a place where mothers wash disposable diapers so they can use them again, and rhyme off 10 ways to cook rice and beans from the food bank so that their kids don't complain about being fed the same meal every night.

It's a place where workers with no work cluster on corners, or pile high in pickups, combing back roads for ways to make a few dollars.

Linda Boustos is 37 years old and has just had a baby. Her husband used to work in the fields. Now, he scrounges around for a chance to make a few dollars by driving a truck.

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