Growers and farmworkers face long recovery process following Pajaro floods

More than 400 people came to Friday's goods distribution by Center for Farmworker Families.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

It’s been just over a week since a levee along the Pajaro River failed, flooding the town of Pajaro and much of the nearby farmland in north Monterey County, just over the river from Santa Cruz County. Though the full picture of damage sustained is unclear at this point, farmers and workers alike face short-term uncertainty and a long-term recovery.

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Dick Peixoto, owner of Lakeside Organic Gardens, was out in his fields with some of the farm’s staff in the days after a breach of the Pajaro River levee flooded the town of Pajaro and acres of neighboring fields. Their boots were caked in mud almost immediately. They passed by some of their land, 20 acres of which already had flowering broccoli.

Before the flood, those crops were nearly a foot tall. By late last week, the heads of broccoli had withered so much that they were only about 3 inches tall. All 20 acres of broccoli is now lost due to the flooding.

“It’s looking pretty ugly right now,” Peixoto said.

A seemingly endless series of heavy rainstorms this winter has pounded farms across the Central Coast and caused the swollen waters of the Pajaro River to tear a nearly 400-foot rupture in the river’s levee near the small agricultural community of Pajaro in the early hours of March 11. The flood has displaced nearly 2,000 of the community’s residents, many of whom work in local fields planting and harvesting crops of berries and vegetables.

While it’s still too early to assess the full extent of the damage to the region’s agricultural land, it’s likely that no farm has emerged unscathed, said Peixoto. Even those that avoided the floods will still have to test their fields for contamination, given the amount of debris and runoff in the area. That will certainly delay planting and harvesting seasons this year.

Santa Cruz County Farm Bureau Executive Director Jess Brown recalled that after the Pajaro levee failed in 1995, agricultural lands were covered in a layer of silt, which needed to be removed before the land could be farmable. “We don’t know if that’s going to happen again,” he said.

Peixoto estimates that 200 acres of Lakeside Organic Gardens fields was flooded. The Watsonville company farms a large variety of organic vegetables across the Pajaro Valley and the Central Coast.

His land is still too wet for Peixoto to assess the impact of the floods for at least another few weeks. Even once that water dries up, there’s much more to do before Peixoto can even think about planting or harvesting. The floodwaters covered the land with debris such as wood and tires, which will first have to be removed.

The breach of the Pajaro River levee that flooded the town of Pajaro.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“It’ll be at least a month before anything can be planted,” he said. Lettuce, for instance, would typically be harvested within the next week or two, but that, too, will be delayed at least another month.

Another 1,000 acres of local strawberry fields was also flooded. Strawberries are planted annually in November, and those farms are now likely out of business for the year, said Peixoto.

Effects on farm workers are also far-reaching. Peixoto expects about 2,000 farmworkers to be out of work for up to two months, aside from some possible opportunities to do cleanup work. Some of them have been unable to work since January due to the storms.

Brown said he was hopeful that workers typically employed on the farms ravaged by floodwaters will be able to find an opportunity to work elsewhere while recovery is underway. But Peixoto thinks that will be difficult because of how the floods have delayed the planting and harvesting season.

Some workers have begun to pick up whatever work they can. Jaime Calderon and his wife both work in berry fields that were flooded in Pajaro after the breach. Both farms canceled work because of the flooding, cutting off their incomes. Calderon worries about rent and how to support his four children.

“It’s been difficult,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “We don’t know what we’re going to do.” Calderon works in strawberry fields for Lucky Ag Inc. and his wife works in raspberry fields for Royal Oaks Farms.

In the meantime, Calderon has been able to get some work by removing water from Lucky Ag’s fields to try to save the plants. Still, he said the income isn’t enough, and his wife hasn’t been able to work.

On Friday, Calderon spent several hours alongside about five other workers all using field hoes to direct water off the strawberries. After working at the Lucky Ag field, he said they were scheduled to remove water from another nearby field. “It’s demanding work,” he said, speaking from the field.

A Second Harvest Food Bank truck at Friday's goods distribution by the Center for Farmworker Families.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

At a Friday goods-distribution event run by the Center for Farmworker Families, boxes of bottled water and fresh produce lined the sides of a Watsonville alleyway. Piles of donated clothes sat a few feet away as children and adults perused the options. Toiletries and diapers were available, too, and families walked the area with rolling baskets, filling them with anything they needed.

Mother Araceli Hernandez holds her 1-year-old son, Aydam Hernandez.
Mother Araceli Hernandez holds her 1-year-old son, Aydam Hernandez, at Friday’s goods distribution by the Center for Farmworker Families.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

“You can feel the desperation,” said Center for Farmworker Families Executive Director Ann Lopez, who runs the distribution event the second Friday of every month. She said that more than 400 people had come for supplies, and called the inadequate levee yet another example of what she believes is farmworker mistreatment, on top of pesticide exposure and poor working conditions in the summer heat.

“This shouldn’t have happened. Why does Pajaro have the worst levees in the state? I’ve never heard of Los Gatos flooding because of a Lexington Reservoir breach,” she said. “Farmworkers always get thrown under the bus — this is a form of slavery.”

The Farm Bureau’s Brown said that in more than 30 years in the area, he’s never seen flooding of this magnitude. The situation speaks volumes about the dire need to fortify the Pajaro levee, he said.

A $400 million project to replace the outdated levee was scheduled to begin in 2025. “Hopefully this new system will strengthen it to help prevent this in the future,” Brown said. “Something has to happen because the levee system is definitely broken.”

Peixoto is looking ahead to the coming seasons with the hope that dry weather can get farmers’ and workers’ feet back on the ground. By summer, he hopes his farm can continue on its usual schedule of planting crops every day and prepare for a fall harvest. But even if the farm gets back on track relatively soon, the storm impacts might have forever altered the local farms and their workers’ situation.

“Lots of farmworkers have flooded houses, and some might have to move,” he said. “It’s hard to live here with a job, much less without one. A lot of things will change in this valley.”

Hillary Ojeda contributed to this report.