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Photographer Captures Drought Turning California Farms Into Kingdom of Dust

A photographer chronicles the drought-ridden decline of the Central Valley.

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

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.

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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."

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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"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."

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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."