With little rain, California farmers brace for drought, unemployment, sending ripples far

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Jacobsen said the three months left in the rainy season are not likely to rescue the year from drought. "We're right on the front edge of it," he said. "It's going to worsen, worsen, worsen."

In a good year, Chuck Herrin, owner of Sunrise Farm Labor, based in Huron, puts between 1,000 to 3,500 people to work. He said he will be lucky to hire 600 at the season's peak, installing drip irrigation systems, planting and harvesting crops.

Workers he can't put on the payroll will be forced to stand in food lines to feed themselves and their families, Herrin said. "By August, September, October, this will be a very tragic looking place," he said.

His worry is echoed at the Los Banos Salvation Army, where residents gather each weekday for a spiritual devotion before waiting to hear their names called to collect a bag of donated food. Felicia Grant, a lieutenant at the Salvation Army, fears that the drought will be so severe that middle class families will need free food along with the farm workers. She hopes that they're not afraid to ask for help when the time comes.

Rick Palermo of Community Food Bank in Fresno recently drove to Mendota, Firebaugh and other rural communities in the Central Valley, scouting places to hand out food. He's been on the phone with state officials gearing up for the high unemployment expected from drought-related job losses. In 2009, the last bad year, his food bank, located in a massive warehouse in an industrial area of Fresno, provided families with 10 million pounds of food.

While praying for a miracle, he's trying to estimate how much will be needed to feed masses of unemployed farm workers this time around.

"We're all doing our rain dance, hoping it doesn't come to that," he said. "Hopefully, the water comes, but if it doesn't, we'll be ready."

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