This is one of two field packing sheds we use to pack our fruit. They were originally designed and used in the 1960s. Mike’s dad packed fruit in them and now Mike is carrying on the family tradition.
As far as we know, we are the only farmers still doing this type of field packing of fruit. We are able to get the fruit from tree to bucket to lug box in minutes.
The lug boxes are stacked on a trailer and moved to the pole barn until they are loaded on the truck with a forklift.
From there Mike drives the truck 10 miles to Reedley where it is put in cold storage until shipped to the consumers.
We know whoever takes over our farming operation in the future will not be using these packing sheds. Perhaps we will donate them to a museum to preserve this part of farming history. Do you think it belongs in a museum?
The average age of American farmers is nearly 60 years old. For every one farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older, according to Agriculture Department statistics (see Huffington Post). This presents a dilemma for the owners of single family farms, particularly if there is not a younger family member interested in continuing the family tradition. Another conundrum is the fact that family farmers rely on the sale of their land to finance their retirement. Most young people do not have the financial resources to purchase land, much less to modernize the equipment. Some older farmers depend upon their own skills to make repairs and their equipment may be quite antiquated.
Thankfully, there is growing interest by the federal government and various other organizations in helping younger farmers overcome these hurdles (Young Farmers Coalition). We recently attended the 2015 Eco Farm Conference and were encouraged by what we heard. There are small grants and training opportunities available to help young people get started in farming (see here). There are also programs to help veterans find connections and resources to begin farming (Farmer Veteran Coalition).
We are in the unenviable position of needing to make the transition to a less-intensive lifestyle otherwise known as retirement. Unenviable because we do not want to do the easy thing and sell our land to a large corporate farming operation like several of our neighbors have recently done (see post). The alfalfa field and small dairy across the road to the west that belonged to our long-time neighbors and friends was sold and is being prepared for planting Almonds. The family farm to the east of us across the ditch was sold and the nectarine and plum trees were removed. At least they are planting more fruit trees – Apricots.
You may be wondering if there’s anything you can do to help. We suggest donating to organizations such as those mentioned above that are dedicated to preserving single family farms and farmland. The American Farmland Trust is another organization you might look into supporting. They are in the beginning stages of helping farmers such as us make the transition to a less-intensive lifestyle. We love what we do, but need to scale-back so that we can enjoy other of life’s pursuits while we still are able to do so.
Those who have been following us through the year know that water, or the lack there of, has been the major topic of 2014. The drought here in California and the southwestern states has made headlines across the nation. The recent rains and flooding have also made the news. Thankfully we have not seen flooding in our area and even more wonderful is the sight of snow on the Sierra Nevada Mountains near our farm.
As 2014 comes to a close, seeing the snow brings us hope for 2015. We know we need many more storms to even make a dent in the drought, but we are hopeful that the snow is just the beginning of a wet winter and spring. We are glad we were able to drill a new well and, as silly as it sounds, we hope we won’t have to use it next year. The unusually warm winter last year that brought an early bloom to our fruit trees may be repeated. Perhaps this is the new normal. We had a good growing season and our U-pick business tripled this year. Our farm stay also saw an increase in guests. All of this means we will be farming for another year.
We end this final post of the year with this picture postcard view from our house.
May your New Year be filled with peace, love, and hope.
Mike & Nori Naylor
For years organic farmers ran small-scale operations because of the intense amount of attention and time involved in growing organic produce. Recently, say in the past 10 years, there have been great strides in research on pest control and more efficient organic farming practices (See post Organic is More than What You Eat). This has made it possible for the big guys to get into the market. This has also resulted in lowering the prices of organic produce due to supply and demand.
This creates a conundrum for supporters of small family farms. How so? The big guys can sell their produce for less since they have such large quantities. They can glut the market and bring down prices for all organic farmers. They are less vulnerable to such market changes since they usually grow large acreage of conventional produce as well. The small- to mid-sized family organic farmers cannot weather the price wars so easily.
The larger corporate farms can purchase materials in bulk for less. Small farmers have to pay full price. Add to that the price of labor. Last year there was a labor shortage in our area. The large packinghouses increased their wages to attract workers. For the first time in our 38 years of farming, we could not get enough help. So, we had to raise our wages so as not to lose the employees we had. This was great for the farm laborers, but tough for the smaller farmers.
Food safety is another conundrum. Who can argue with the need for a safe food supply? The large guys have lawyers and can hire special personnel just to handle the paperwork and training necessary to comply with the new federal food safety regulations (FSMA). Us little guys have to do all the paperwork ourselves which takes us away from the fields which means we can’t keep as close a watch on our crops which means the quality may suffer. Thankfully there are two of us to shoulder the work load. Some small farmers are single, though, and this new legislation has caused many to quit farming altogether.
Consumers and growers of organic produce often also support food justice issues. Low cost organic food is essential to helping underprivileged communities gain access to nutritious and safe food. On the other hand, small- to mid-sized family farms, like any business, cannot continue unless the sales price exceeds the cost of putting it in the box. That is why a recent survey found that the majority of small farmers do not have farming as their only source of income. Many work an off farm job just to keep farming.
Here is a list of costs and expenses for us to grow, pick and pack our fruit. Think about what your family spends on some of these items and multiply that by 100 (approximately how many acres of trees we have).
Water is used nearly year-round to irrigate the trees and we are charged both by use and number of acres.
Electricity is used to run the pumps to get the water to irrigate the trees.
Fuel is used for tractors, trucks and forklifts as well as weed eaters.
Labor: We pay 20 workers $9.00 per hour for 10 hours per day 7 days a week during harvest plus overtime.
Farming materials: Compost, other organic soil and tree supplements, organic pest control materials
Farm upkeep: Planting new trees, leveling the fields, spreading compost, removal and grinding of old trees
Maintenance: Oil changes, parts for fixing equipment, labor for fixing equipment, cleaning equipment
Packing materials: boxes, pads, fruit trays, pallets, stickers and sticker guns
Portable Restrooms and maintenance, shade tents and water jugs
Food Safety: Minimum of $200 per hour for annual inspections that take up to 8 hours to complete
Insurance for workers, farm vehicles and liability
The prices on most of these expenses has increased steadily over the years.
Approximate cost (taking the above expenses into consideration) to put fruit in the box: $16.00 per box
Income: Average of $28.00 per 2 layer lug box (average 56 pieces of fruit per box)
Approximate net income: $12.00 per box
Now consider we have the usual household expenses as well.
Farmers are experts at pinching pennies. Our pennies are getting pretty thin.
It is an incredibly windy day today (April 22, 2014). Yesterday it was nearly 90 degrees and sunny. The high is expected to be in the 70s. No rain was expected this far south and certainly no hail, but the neighbor’s hail cannons are going off intermittently. The unpredictable weather makes me think of how quickly farming can change as well. In one day crops can change from smooth and beautiful to battered and full of scars from the wind. Not so quickly, farmers change from strong and youthful to stooped and marked with scars. The years of hard work take their toll. Yet resilience is the core of nature and the nature of farmers.
We have been watching the small family-owned farms disappear in our area over the past 15 years. The next generation has decided not to follow in their fathers’ and mothers’ footsteps. They are building their lives around other pursuits, which is fine, but it is also sad. The loss of small family farms means the loss of a way of life that cannot be replicated, nor will it be resurrected in the future. Why? Because there is only so much land available for farming in the U.S.
Similar to the way the economy is shrinking the middle class, farming is changing into either very small permaculture type farms or very large operations.
Father Time keeps showing up and we cannot turn back the clock. This is why it is so important to remember that nothing is permanent and our lives are but a moment in the light of eternity. Our hope is to keep farming as long as we are able. We would love to pass our legacy on to a young, strong person or family who would love the land as we do and be willing to carry on the way of life we so enjoy. Wendell Barry said it best.
“Why do farmers farm, given their economic adversities on top of the many frustrations and difficulties normal to farming? And always the answer is: “Love. They must do it for love.” Farmers farm for the love of farming. They love to watch and nurture the growth of plants. They love to live in the presence of animals. They love to work outdoors. They love the weather, maybe even when it is making them miserable. They love to live where they work and to work where they live. If the scale of their farming is small enough, they like to work in the company of their children and with the help of their children. They love the measure of independence that farm life can still provide. I have an idea that a lot of farmers have gone to a lot of trouble merely to be self-employed to live at least a part of their lives without a boss.”
― Wendell Berry, Bringing it to the Table: Writings on Farming and Food
We sell most of our fruit wholesale to retailers who increase the price to suit their profit margin. Our asking price per box is based upon how much it costs to produce a quality box of fruit. This means the cost of production including maintaining and repairing our equipment, organic materials to help prevent pests from ruining our crops, electricity for pumping irrigation water, mortgage payments, labor, packing boxes and supplies, fuel for deliveries, etc. Labor went up $1.00 per hour this year around here due to the labor shortage. Also, the Alta Irrigation District will begin charging farmers for water usage in the near future.
On top of all this, the Obama administration has decided to do something that has never been done before in the United States. Farmers will now be required to have their farms inspected to ensure they are following good agricultural practices (GAPs). The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was signed into law in 2011 by President Obama to address, in a proactive way, the occurrences of food-borne illness outbreaks to quell consumers’ concerns. Unfortunately, all policies have unintended consequences. Those who drafted FSMA must have had large farms or corporate farms in mind because the paperwork required to comply with the regulations is enormous, at least it seems so for mid- to small-sized independent farmers like us. Also, it costs a great deal to implement the changes required. Large farmers who have accountants or lawyers to do the paperwork are only out the expense. But, as the old saying goes, “time is money,” too.
Some old fart farmers are blessed with sons and/or daughters that are following in their footsteps and can handle some of the paperwork. We are blessed with an awesome crew that works hard and does an amazing job, but the two of us do most all the maintenance, deliveries, agricultural inputs, irrigating, (mostly Mike) and paperwork (mostly Nori) ourselves. The food safety requirements have increased the paperwork exponentially in the past two years. I worked from 6:00 AM to 9:00 PM on our GAPs policy alone yesterday. And FSMA has not even been finalized, yet. The comment period has been extended to September 16th.
There are some food safety advocates that are upset that it is taking so long to get FSMA passed. These same advocates tend to be supporters of local food and small farmers. What they don’t realize is that many mid- to small-sized farmers are finding FSMA a nightmare. FSMA determines the size of farm by the gross income, not amount of land. Since we sell our fruit commercially, the stores who purchase our fruit are requiring us to be 3rd part certified already, regardless. This means that we have to pay a private company or the USDA to audit our food safety plan. The minimum cost is $199.00 per hour and the audit usually takes 3 to 4 hours.
The bottom line is, we have ripe fruit ready to pick and few companies to sell it to unless we are certified ~ even though we are certified organic and have never experienced a food-borne illness outbreak from our farm. For us, this means a huge loss unless the companies will give us more time (and, of course, they will not likely pay us any more for our fruit).
For the consumer, this will mean fewer choices at the market. As I say in my blog post What Do Consumers Want? consumers can’t have it all. Buying local does not help rural farmers like us who are in the agricultural belt of California where Fresno is the largest local market. We depend upon consumers in other cities and states to purchase our fruit in order to make ends meet.
This year, the consumer will likely not notice much difference in the stores because there was a good set for stone fruit. Last year there was a shortage due to weather-related issues. The fluctuation in the availability of fruit from year-to-year means the real impact of FSMA may not be felt until several years after its implementation. The FDA and Cornell University are working together to bring farmers and those who advise farmers up to speed on FSMA. They attempt to quell farmers’ concerns by saying they are there to help them negotiate the process. That is all well and good, but for farmers like us, time and money are two commodities that they cannot supply and are what we need the most to implement the regulations and keep farming.
P.S. A neighbor and long-time fellow farmer just stopped by and told us this will be his last year farming. He has done farmer’s markets for years. The increase in wages is the nail in the coffin for him. His son will likely buy his farm, so it will remain in the family which is wonderful, but this is another example of how tough it is for small farmers right now.
P.S.S. Another neighbor and long-time farmer just sold his farm to a corporate farming operation. That means there is now only one other small family farmer in our vicinity.
Our dog, Penney, is very afraid of strange (to her) noises. We first noticed it when she was just a puppy and we took her with us to San Luis Obispo where our son lived at the time. In the morning, the sanitation truck came by and she reacted by shivering and running around looking for a safe place to hide. Mike’s hopes of training her to retrieve dove and quail were dashed by her fear of the sound of gun shots. She is very sensitive to discipline, also. The trainer we took her to thought she might be a good show dog, but he found she could not handle the usual discipline that accompanies the training. She is a wonderful companion dog and loves people, though. Everyone who meets her soon falls in love with her as well. Even people who are afraid of dogs.
Thunderstorms are the Worst
The night before Easter Sunday there was a doosey. It lasted for a couple hours. The parting lightning strike was close and the thunder rumbled on for several seconds. I remember thinking that Penney must be trembling in her pen. Mike slept through the whole thing except the last big boom. We overslept for Easter Sunrise Service, so we quickly got ready and dashed out the door so we wouldn’t be too late. After the service we went out to eat breakfast at Perko’s. Then, we returned home to change clothes and pick up the snacks I had made for coffee hour. After worship, I helped serve the snacks and cleaned up. We didn’t get home until almost noon. My parents were coming over for lunch, so I got busy in the kitchen. Mike went out to let Penney out of the pen.
I Lost My Dog
When Mike came back in the house, his face was pale. He said, “I lost my dog.” “What do you mean?” I asked. He told me that the pen was open and Penney was gone. He rode a bike around the farm calling and looking for her. Then he got in his Suzuki and combed the roads within a few miles’ radius. No Penney. She has a collar that says she needs medicine and has our phone number, but that phone has been disconnected. She also has a microchip with our contact information and address, also outdated we learned. I got busy making Lost Dog posters and spreading the word for people to pray for Penney’s safe return.
Penney is Found!
Another storm came in Sunday evening. We shed a few tears before getting ready for bed wondering where Penney was and if she was alright. At 9:00 pm the phone rang. It was the pet tracking company. Someone had picked Penney up and had her chip read. They gave us the number of the person and Mike immediately called. He arranged to pick her up from the rescuer right away.
The woman who had picked Penney up found her 3/4 mile from home due west of our farm. She works as a dog rescuer. She asked Mike if we had two missing dogs. She had seen two red dogs running across the yard. She called and Penney came to her. The other dog disappeared. We’ve never seen another red dog around. We do have many coyotes, though. I like to think that God sent an angel, in the form of a red dog, to protect our precious Penney.
Happy Groundhog Day!
These are our early nectarines showing off their colors. Thankfully we have had a good cold winter so the trees can go dormant. This usually means a good set for the fruit. Just after I took these photos, Mike disked the field to prepare for frost. The ground is now a rich brown color beneath the trees.
We’re Open for Business
This is a view of our farm stay from behind the house. We are open from February to August. Check out our website here. These young trees are for our U-pick. We have apricots, peaches, plums, and nectarines for your picking pleasure beginning in late May.
Not bad for the first year of our blog. Thank you to all our followers and may 2013 be a fruitful one for us all.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can carry about 250 passengers. This blog was viewed about 1,100 times in 2012. If it were a Dreamliner, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.