While some urban dwellers and businesses might see a simple solution to the drought – simply take water from agriculture – those who labor in the massive food supply chain, all the way from farm to fork, likely have a different opinion: that taking water or pricing it in a way that squelches profitability, is already hurting or threatening tens of thousands of urban workers across Los Angeles.

City businesses and farmers remain closely linked by a common, critical challenge: economic well-being. Farms feed the cities. But more than that, agriculture supports urban jobs and economic prosperity, provides local food sources that communities prefer, preserves open space and offers environmental benefits.

How many jobs are at stake if agriculture shrinks? Southern California’s farm gross revenue exceeds $9 billion annually, in the top 10 among all states. Agricultural industries – including farming, support activities, food processing, wholesale distribution, retail markets and foodservice – produced $48 billion in sales and directly employed 160,000 workers in 2010, according to a recent study from the University of California Agricultural Issues Center at Davis.

This Southern California bounty is dominated by fruit crops, with strawberries (nearly $1 billion) and avocados ($400 million) leading the way. Dozens of other crops exceed $200 million. According to the study, farming alone produced $9 billion in sales and employed 40,000 people. “Accounting for the ripple effect,” the study indicates, “agricultural industries generate about 450,000 jobs, $25 billion in labor income and $42 billion in value added” in the region. 

Here are some other important questions: What if the drought continues indefinitely? What if California’s troubled water-delivery system continues to restrict traditional flows to Southern California? What if water rates to farmers keep escalating until they reach an unsustainable level that causes farms to shut down?

These are not merely hypothetical questions. Ivan Munoz is sales and import manager at Cal Pacific Growers near the Wholesale Produce Market in downtown Los Angeles. He sees the problem expanding as growers “stump” trees because of a lack of water. “When that happens,” Munoz said, “there is less fruit coming to Los Angeles. When previously we may have added staff to handle the volume, that won’t be happening this year.”

Munoz sees a drop especially among smaller mom-and-pop businesses: “There are two or three dozen core companies at the produce market that are finding ways to weather the changes. But smaller businesses – those that often stay open late on Saturday and open on Sunday, get less produce because they have less buying power.”

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