To the tens of thousands of people streaming out of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, California's San Joaquin Valley was, as one of them said recently, "the land of sunshine and plenty."
Now, in the second straight year of blistering drought, many fear they are facing something they had thought impossible: two Dust Bowls in one lifetime.
To Jim Price, a fieldhand in these parts for 40 years, the drought brings back memories of his boyhood in Oklahoma. Laid off last week in drought-caused cutbacks at the 18,000-acre Berrenda Mesa ranch here, Price fears the mean times of the 1930s are returning in his old age.
"Now that bad pattern is showing up again, just like the Dust Bowl," Price, 61, said. "Here I am on my own with my home and I'm thrown out of work just like my daddy was. If I don't get my livelihood back soon I'm gonna lose my home. I'm gonna be on the move again."
Price remembers vividly the great drought that hit the nation's midsection in the late '20s and '30s. The land dried up and and howling winds carried off the parched soil, ruining his father and thousands of other farmers.
More than 180,000 of these destitute people - like the families in John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" - migrated to California, most of then setting in the rich but largely undeveloped San Joaquin Valley.
They were known as Okies to the native Californians but they came from Texas, Missouri and Arkansas as well as Oklahoma. These migrants laid the water pipelines that brought life to the valley's rich but dry soil and ran the tractors during the harvest. The Okies prospered with the land and many now own their homes and farms.
Until this year's drought, California and the San Joaquin Valley seemed like a safe refuge to the Okies. "This always been the land of sunshine and plenty," Price said. "But now with this drought, it's like a sickening situation. It brings back all those bad memories. I can't believe that at my age I find myself going through the same darn thing twice in a lifetime."
Managers at the Berrenda Mesa ranch said Price's job was eliminated because they didn't have enough water to grow much of this year's crop. Because of shrinking water supplies from the high mountains 300 miles north of here, allotments to farms in this section of Kern County have been cut to 58 per cent of last year's level.
They key is not local rainfall. In the best of times, the San Joaquin Valley is a virtual desert. The valley's prosperity is the product of a vast irrigation system that brings water down from the high mountains.
Before 1960, this remote district 150 miles northeast of Los Angeles was mostly dry, open range. Today, thanks to California's feather River Water Project, a series of dams and canals along the valleys' western edge, 13 farms covering nearly 46,000 acres are in operation here.
But the drought has cut the snowpack to one-third of normal, depleting the state's huge reservoirs. "Nothing we can do down here can help," said George Ribble, an engineer for the Kern County water agency. "It's what is going on up in the mountains that matters."
Berrenda Mesa farmers' president Herb Benham said the state-ordered water cutbacks have forced him to lay off half of his 300 full-time employees. Nearly 5,000 acres of cotton, garlic, onions and alfalfa have been abandoned so available water can be used to keep his 13,000 acres of fruit trees from dying in the scorching summer-like sun.
Benham and most other farmers here resent the state-ordered water outbacks, which threaten the solvency of their farms. "We feel like we've been totally betrayed," Benham said. "The state encourages us to develop an economy based on a firm, uninterrupted supply of water. Then we're left holding the goddam bag."
Brought up on a dirt farm in nearby Resno, Benham, 51, remembers the days before irrigation. Dust storms threatened crops and travelers alike then, and now, with thousands of unplanted, unprotected acres, Benham fears the soil will blow through the valley again.
Official at the agriculture Department's soil conservation agency in Bakersfield are worrying about possible massive dust storms in the valley this year. Gibbons Moore, resource planner at the agency, projects as much as 50 per cent increase in dust storms by this summer.
"We'll see a lot more damage from blowing dust. It'll carry a lot of the soil away," he said. "I've never seen in this bad before. I could be as bad as the Dust Bowl if it keeps up like this."
Even without the clouds of blowing soil, the economic impact from the drought is expected to be severe. The state unemployment office in Bakesfield, the Kern County seat, already reports a 20 per cent increase in filings in the last four weeks because of the drought. Officials at the county's water agency project that as much as $300 million could be lost to the county's economy this year.
While large, corporate operations such as Berrenda Mesa are likely to survive this year's disaster, many smaller farmers are close to bankruptcy. Loans to get through this summer could become virtually impossible to secure because of uncertainty over future water supplies.
"You'll start seeing a lot of bankruptcies this summer," predicted Stan Perisich, general manager of the Bakersfield branch of the Federal Land Bank. "The small farmers" operation can't even meet his interest payments. They'll probably be selling out."
Like many of these smaller farmers, 75-year-old Roy Henson already lost a family farm, during the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. This year's drought has forced him to cut production at least in half on his 1,500-acre farm and he wonders if he will be able to meet his bills this summer.
"There's no ground in the world that'll produce better than this land," he said. "But if we don't get more water, we'll go broke, damn right. At least back in Oklahoma you could go out and pick wild berries if you're starving. But where could you go here - it's a darn desert."
Despite the possibility of bankruptcy, Hensen refuses to let the circumstances get him down. "I don't let it worry me none. Maybe it's like they say back East - that Okie ain't smart enough to worry," he said, smiling. "Well, I don't think I'd have made it to '75 if I'd worried, with all the troubles that I've had."