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Sheep in melon field.  Firebaugh, California. 1995.

Sheep dash from their corrals at dawn to feed in a field recently harvested of melons in Firebaugh, California.

PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK

Eve Conant

for National Geographic

Published June 14, 2014

Photographer Matt Black isn't just covering a story when he's capturing the lives and landscapes of California's historic drought. He's showing us how modern farming and natural forces are irrevocably altering his own childhood home.

Black grew up just outside Visalia in California's Central Valley, the rural agricultural area that is the increasingly dry heart of not just California, but also the nation's productive farmland. Back then, the region was rich in water resources for farming. "When I was a child, I'd walk outside and it would feel humid," recalls Black.

But now California is in an official drought "state of emergency" and is facing severe water shortages after three consecutive years of below average rainfall. Last year marked the driest year in nearly 120 years of record-keeping in California, and 100 percent of the state is now categorized as being in a "severe drought" or worse.

Many fields lie fallow as water resources have dwindled. "What was this kingdom of food is becoming a kingdom of dust," Black says.

Taken over the past 20 years, all of these photographs were shot in rural Tulare County, within a 100-mile radius of his childhood home and the small town where he lives now.

"Black Okies"

Boy with an old farm truck. Teviston, California. 2001.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 2001

Farmers from Oklahoma and Texas fled to California to escape the Dust Bowl misery of the 1930s, "but there is an untold chapter of that whole migration," says Black. Migrants from the south known as "Black Okies" were also flocking to the promised land of California. A third-generation descendant of one of those migrants takes a break to check the car engine during a family visit to Teviston, once a thriving town where his forebears lived. Says Black: "What he's visiting is now a vanished community. There are only a handful of 'Black Okies' left."

Next Generations

Weeding cotton.  Allensworth, California. 2001.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 2001

The father of the woman at left was a "Black Okie" who came west from Oklahoma with dreams of a better life for his children. "The dream was to get out of the fields, to move up in life," says Black. "But here she is doing the work her father did."

The migration lasted nearly 20 years and was eventually slowed by the widespread use of the mechanical cotton picker in the 1950s. Cotton must still be weeded by hand, however, and this woman is working in Allensworth, California, alongside two men who represent the more recent wave of migration—Mexican immigrants.

Airborne

Dust storm rips off a roof.  Avenal, California. 2009.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 2009

An early summer dust storm tears through the small town of Avenal, California. "This was during the last drought of '08, '09, and again there were lots of fallowed fields and dry land," says Black. He saw the storm from a distance and followed it in his car, shooting this photograph of a metal shed exploding behind a home the moment it was hit.

As for his home region, which was once rich in crops, Black says, "It never felt like the desert it truly is...until recently."

Last Man Standing

Texas migrant at his home.  Allensworth, California. 2001.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 2001

This man was 76 years old when this photo was taken, and turned 89 this year. He came to the Central Valley from Texas in the 1940s as part of the "Black Okie" migration pattern that spanned nearly two decades. He started as a cotton picker and in later years worked as a tractor driver. Here he is sitting on a car hood in front of his home, which had no electricity or running water, in Allensworth.

"That kind of poverty—you can't imagine it still exists in California," says Black. The man's home has since burned down.

The Bandit's Town

Empty field after a flood.  Three Rocks, California. 1995.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 1995

A flood from the nearby foothills left the town of Three Rocks, California, still encased in cracked mud months later. The town is named after three rocks in the hills above that marked the hiding place of Gold Rush-era bandit Joaquin Murrieta, nicknamed the "Mexican Robin Hood." The town has since fallen on harder times but holds on to its infamous history. "Every year the town holds a festival in Murrieta's honor," says Black.

The Bathers

Homeless men at an irrigation canal.  Mendota, California. 2009.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 2009

"When fields don't get planted, the unemployment rate skyrockets around here," says Black. These men live a nearly homeless existence, occupying plywood shanties near this irrigation canal where the man to the right lathers soap to prepare to bathe. These two men are from El Salvador. If not for drought, says Black, "they would be busy picking cantaloupes."

The Irrigators

Watering a tomato field.  Huron, California. 2010.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 2010

It's one of the toughest jobs in agriculture, that of the irrigator. Irrigators work 12-hour shifts to monitor and maneuver giant sprinkler systems. Black has watched them toil through the fields, moving massive pipes hundreds of feet long every few hours. "It's one of the most difficult jobs out there, and when they make the initial connection they get soaked."

This man is "pre-irrigating" a field in Huron, California, to get the ground ready for planting tomatoes, and is trying to get out of the water's spray as best he can.

Tumbleweeds

A farmworker clears tumbleweeds. Lamont, California. 2010.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 2010

Tumbleweeds grow all summer long, but in the fall must be scraped off the earth and burned "before they dry and start to tumble," says Black.

Here a man is burning a ten-acre field of tumbleweeds in Lamont, California, before they can cause any damage ahead of planting season. The heat and smoke make the work nearly unbearable. "It's hot as heck out there when the fires get going," says Black.

But at least this field will be planted. This past year hundreds of thousands of acres in the Central Valley were out of production and lying fallow because of the drought.

Ghost Town

Deserted storefronts.  McFarland, California. 2010.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 2010

Deserted storefronts have long since been forgotten in the town of McFarland, California. It's just one of many towns that were supposed to support workers and their families as the agricultural region developed. But as modern farms grew larger and natural forces such as drought limited options for workers, the towns have fallen into disrepair.

"This is no longer the environment for a Mayberry kind of existence," says Black, referring to the fictional small-town communities of American television shows in the 1960s. "All of these towns in the [Central] Valley started with such ambition."

Circle of Despair

Clearing a wheat field.  Mendota, California. 2009.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MATT BLACK, 2009

A shepherd, originally from Peru, is weeding inside a circle of what had recently been a corral of sheep in Mendota, California. After this field was harvested of wheat, sheep fed on the remaining stubble of the plants. "Ten years ago this field would have been wall to wall cotton or green vegetables," says Black.

This land was retired in 2002 because of water cutbacks and salinity in the soil, and can now only be used for crops that feed off rain. "You can't compare the value of vegetable crops to that of growing wheat or running sheep," says Black. "This area is regressing back to one of environmental scarcity. California's agricultural empire is crumbling."

26 comments
jim miller
jim miller

First of all, McFarland, California is not a ghost town and still supports many businesses.

Second, Avenal, California is not a "small town" as it has a rather large California State prison.

Third, McFarland, Lamont, Three Rocks, and Avenal are not in Tulare County.

I will not argue that California is in a severe drought, but facts are facts, and this article has many incorrect facts. Great pictures however.

Karen Graham
Karen Graham

I must commend the photographer, Mr. Black. It was like looking at the photos of the "Dust Bowl" era, and the migration that took place during that time. Poignant, yet telling a story,the pictures are a book unto themselves.

Charlotte Niel
Charlotte Niel

The issues in California regarding water and resources are very nuanced and complex. I would not just want to blame agriculture for waste.  Knowing we are in a drought today, how many of us are changing our daily habits regarding water use; collecting water in buckets as your shower water warms and recycling it?  Has anyone done much to meet the requirements of the 20% voluntary cutback in water use?  What would happen if you could not easily shop for fresh vegetables and fruits?  By the way, many of us are living in  this arid state as if it were an oasis. 

Rae Fackler
Rae Fackler

So much water is wasted by spraying it into the air to evaporate half of it in the heat before it hits the ground.  Farming should forget automation and go back to humanpower; irrigation ditches are much easier to work with and God knows we have enough humans out of work.  

Climate change and our wasteful, greedy ways have destroyed much of this country's beautiful farmland, not just CA.  I'm sorry for all those who are watching their livlihood blow away, but we are a country that learns nothing from our history.  We should have allowed hemp as a crop, it replenishes the soil it grows in and uses no chemical fertilizers or pesticides.

Chris Lund
Chris Lund

California has always been a Coastal Desert and even it's nick-name of the Golden State was from the grasses turning a Golden Brown each spring. Without irrigation, you should stick to growing cactus.

Liz R
Liz R

Hmm. Is there an elephant in the room?

Michael J. Baughman Sr.
Michael J. Baughman Sr.

We have the ability to solve this problem. Small Nuclear generators, about the size of the common tool shed, can be used to power reverse osmosis desalination plants all along the California coast line. That's more water than all of humanity could use in a million years. 

pull your head out people!

KENNETH LANE
KENNETH LANE

A majority of the American West is arrid.  It does not support much life without human interventions.  Flying over America one clearly sees the demarcation line of livable land and desert.  Humans are often fooled and nature kicks sense back into them from time to time.  California was pushed into agriculture by many factors and low cost illegal labor was a major one.  Now the dog bites back ---

Don Bell
Don Bell

Are they ever going build a desaliniazation plant ? The one in Aruba produces excellent water .

Mark Fergerson
Mark Fergerson

On the one hand, it's a large-scale economic, and individual-scale human, disaster. On the other hand it's an instance of human interference with Nature (bringing in water to irrigate central California) being undone, leaving the land to return to its natural state. What to do, what to do...

dave powelson
dave powelson

Formerly irrigated land that is left fallow becomes a source of weeds or turns to dust.  There has got to be a way to protect the soil in this situation by establishing a stop-gap vegetative cover.  Maybe part of crop-insurance payments can be used to employ people to make this happen.

Rae Fackler
Rae Fackler

@Michael J. Baughman Sr. Yes!  The way we fight anything new, puts the lie to our inovative reputation.  Too bad that wouldn't be useful for war, we'd have it by next year.

joseph yechout
joseph yechout

@Mark Fergerson  Need more El Nino  conditions like

that is predicted to come around again in the near future. 

This brings  wet conditions  to the west and  can help

reverse  this situation. But, conservation,  ignoring the 

smelt and other non-producing  denizins of the area.

Justin Bullard
Justin Bullard

@Mark Fergerson If San Fransisco and Los Angles would stop taking the central valley's water the valley would be a lush green place. Kern County used to be swap land and meadows. 

Rae Fackler
Rae Fackler

@dave powelson That crop should be hemp.  It replenishes the ground naturally without chemical fertilizers or pesticides.  It doesn't even have to be rotated.  It can be used to make paper, building materials etc, thereby saving timber and allowing the growth of forests.  It can be used in place of oil, and plastics for construction, fuel, auto bodies, furniture etc.  The Constitution of the USA was written on hemp for a reason.

Kendall Gelner
Kendall Gelner

@dave powelson "Weeds" of course being the plants that would naturally grow there anyway... I can see trying to stop a field becoming dust but if something will grow there, let it grow until you can make use of the land again.

Rae Fackler
Rae Fackler

@Justin Bullard  Yes, this is the story in the Owens River Valley area as well.  Years ago LA came a bought up our water rights.  Only very expensive court battles have enabled us to maintain enough water for those of us who live here.  Everything is possible with small scale human living, it's when human population gathers in one place and over uses the resources available that the system crashes.  We're going to have to embrace local eating to restabilize the land.  It will change the migration pattern back to the mid west and give the coasts a break.  Of course, climate change plays a part as well.

Mike Field
Mike Field

@Justin Bullard @Mark Fergerson This is not quite an accurate view in the aggregate. In a given local area ownership of water rights can cause local water to be not available locally. Overall, however, municipal use pales before the amount of water it is possible for irrigated agriculture to use. 

The goal of the environmental movement is to deprive both agriculture and urban users of water. This is a tremendous feat in that agriculture uses so much water compared to cities. Take away agriculture's water and there is enough water in California to support an urban population of 130 million. Double that if the water system could be built up to its maximum and urban use was more controlled.

People cannot be told that they just plain cannot have the water, so uses for it that deprive both the rural and urban communities of water have to be invented. Largely, these can only be environmental uses. So endangered species are invented and water quality goals set up based on nothing that ever existed in nature. Water quality itself is a loaded term. The word "quality" connoted the idea of good and bad. But what water quality really means is what characteristics.

Under nature's regime, before any dams were built able to regulate the flow of the Sacramento-San Joaquin river system, seasonally the Sacramento Delta could be salt water all the way to the cities of Sacramento and Stockton. The environmentalists want fresh water all the way to the Carquinez Strait twelve months a year. This is not only an unnatural condition, but might require all of the available water in the state of California to maintain.

The ultimate motives are political, not environmental. What you have here is an unholy alliance between California's hereditary wealth which forms the core of the Sierra Club and leftists who want to establish total state control of the individual within California. California, of course, is the political left's "laboratory of the future". What they do in California, they want to do everywhere, but California is where they want to develop and prove their concepts.

Gary S.
Gary S.

@Justin Bullard @Mark Fergerson


You need to get some facts straight,

studies show the following usage of water in California:

52% agricultural, 14% urban and 33% for environmental use.

Don't blame it all on SF and LA  

Mike Field
Mike Field

@Kendall Gelner @dave powelson In nature, usually when there is bare ground or non-viable vegetation established a succession of plants occurs terminating in a "climax" condition, as in Climax forest, in those areas where forestation is possible. What we call "weeds" are the first to come in, followed by others.


Another definition of "weed" is 'any plant a human being does not like'.

Wayne Holden
Wayne Holden

@Gary S. @Justin Bullard @Mark Fergerson I think the point is that the urban percentage is going up and that means the agricultural percentage is going down. Every decrease in water to agriculture means that many more acres will be dry. Increases in water to urban areas are to water grass for lawns, a totally useless exercise. Most of the water brought in via pipeline or irrigation ditch was for growing produce, NOT growing yard grass or filling swimming pools and now they are trying to cut down the farmers allotment because someones yard is turning brown.

Mike C.
Mike C.

@Gary S. @Justin Bullard @Mark Fergerson 


which studies? and if 54% goes to agriculture and there isn't enough water for that to happen, what happens next? the urban environments are still getting their 14%?


what was the snow pack for the year? why isn't there water in the Kings River? 


the west side of the valley is dying because of the reluctance to turn on the pumps in the San Joaquin River, because it might harm an invasive species of fish? is that right?


if you are going to ask someone to get their facts straight, bring some facts with you.... 

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