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
Driving around the Central San Joaquin Valley of California this time of year you see farms waking up from their winter slumber. Some apricot, nectarine, peach, plum, and almond trees are already in bloom.
This means the sound of spray rigs fills the air day and night. There is a window of time when the delicate blossoms that will one day turn into delicious fruits and nuts need protection from disease and insects. So, farmers and/or farm employees must apply the various precautionary chemicals or organic compounds so that the future crop will be productive and profitable.
This is also the time when you can see the difference between organic and conventional farming practices. Never fear, this is not intended to be one of those blogs bashing “those” farmers. This is simply an observation of what is happening this time of year here in California, long before there is anything edible on the trees.
The reader can take this information and, hopefully, add it to their pool of knowledge regarding the differences between conventional and organic farming practices.
One of the most obvious differences can be seen in the condition of the ground or soil. Ask any organic farmer and they will tell you one of the most difficult challenges is weed control. Weeds use up water and can choke other plants by taking away their light or competing for nutrients from the soil. On the other hand, cover crops (the right kind of weeds) can actually add nutrients to the soil and can prevent the ground from drying out as quickly, thus saving water.
Another problem with weeds is they can be skin irritants such as stinging nettle. Yet, nettle can also be harvested and dried to make tea that may have some health benefits.
In orchards with stone fruit, the weeds harbor beneficial insects that provide integrated predatory pest management (IPPM) in the summertime. That means good bugs eat bad bugs. They also provide cover for wildlife such as the California Quail that inhabit our farm. Quail are a favorite food of Red-tailed hawks and other birds of prey. So, we see them on the farm, too. Great Egrets have even taken a stroll in the orchards.
Regardless of whether organic fruits and nuts are proven more nutritional and safe for eating, organic farming practices have been proven to increase biodiversity on the farm and to enrich the soil so that it will continue to be productive in the long-run. So, organic is more than what you eat. Which orchard would you rather take a stroll in?
The most frequent question we hear on our farm is, “Why do you do this?” The question might refer to our farming methods such as how we pick and pack our fruit or in regards to our organic agricultural practices. We also get that question whenever people hear about our farm stay. Invariably, our guests ask why we decided to open, not only our farm, but our own home to strangers. This blog post offers an explanation.
Agritourism looms large on the radar screen of tour companies worldwide and convention and visitor’s bureaus of rural counties nowadays. Everyone assumes this is because of the power of the almighty dollar. Why else would someone give up the privacy of their idyllic, rural lifestyle and invite perfect strangers onto their farms? SCRREEEK!!! (I hear the screech of chalk across a chalkboard or, for you younger folks, the sound of a microphone when it’s too hot.) Point number one: Farms do not always match up to the mythic image of jolly farmers who whistle while they work and rosy-cheeked farm wives who spend hours slaving over the stove preparing meals and putting up colorful jars of fruits and vegetables to help feed their families through the winter months. We want people to experience what it’s really like on a farm today.
Having said that; we do expect our guests to enjoy their time with us as much as possible. Which brings us to point two: We hope our guests will be able to get away from their busy lives and relax or “get off the treadmill” as a recent guest described it. While farming is not the mythic lifestyle people imagine, it is also very different than the bustling, hectic urban lifestyle many experience today. Also, farms differ from each other depending upon the crops grown, animals raised and the region of the country. Farm stays offer people the chance to experience life on various farms. Farm stays differ, too. Not all, in fact very few in the U.S., have guest rooms in the same house as the farmers like ours does. In California, the regulations stipulate that an “agricultural homestay,” as the code calls them, are to be located on a farm and are limited to 15 total guests. We have two rooms available for guests with a maximum occupancy of 4 people each. This means we can give our guests as much individual attention as possible. In fact, we want each one to feel pampered and well cared for.
Recent studies have concluded that the majority of people in the U.S. today are two or three generations away from the farm and many have never stepped foot on a farm in their lives. In other words, they have never actually seen a cow in a pasture, or a peach tree, or lettuce growing in the field. This disconnect between people and the land and farmers that grow their food has led to many misconceptions about what farmers do to produce their food and the effort and expense that goes into producing it. This brings us to our third point as to why we do this, and the last to be mentioned here. We do this so that parents who may or may not have been on a farm themselves, will have a place to bring their children and show them a real farm and and introduce them to a real farmer. Perhaps this experience will create lasting memories and a deeper appreciation for why we farmers do this.
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.
Last year we lost our early bloomers to the frost and hail. (See Living with Uncertainty post) This year we hope to avoid that disaster by irrigating during the frost. The well water is warmer than the air, so fog is created. The fog rises and raises the air temperature a degree or two as it cools which can make the difference between damaged blossoms or not. Damage on blooms starts at 27 degrees.
The loose soil is compressed with a till and pack piece of equipment in order to retain heat in the ground. Fluffy ground is actually 3 to 4 degrees colder than bare, firm, moist ground. Ideally, there would be no foliage on the burms under the trees, but we need the cover crops on our organic farm to harbor beneficial insects.
Every acre of trees is important and requires constant monitoring especially in the Spring. Each of those beautiful blossoms has the potential to be a delicious piece of organic fruit.
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.
December 20, 2012 Freeze
We woke up this morning to a winter wonderland, but not of snow. We rarely get snow in the central San Joaquin Valley. Frost, on the other hand, is not uncommon this time of year. About every three to five years we get a hard frost (low 20s to high teens F.). This is NOT good. Tulare County, where we live, is a large citrus growing area with over 111,ooo acres of trees. A hard frost can cause severe damage, not only to the fruit, but to the local economy as well.
We only have a few trees in our family orchard in the front of the house. We set up a sprinkler to protect the orange, lemon, and pummelo trees.
Young stone fruit trees are also susceptible to frost damage. According to our thermometer, it got down to 28 degrees last night. This could be a problem. Potential damage also depends upon how long it stays cold, however. Kind of like frostbite in humans. The longer it stays below freezing, the greater the chance of damage.
Some larger growers have wind machines to protect the fruit. Others run irrigation water or sprinklers. The purpose of the wind is to create turbulence that mixes warm from higher in the air with cold air so that the air around the tree stays warmer. The water or sprinklers create a freezing fog or ice covering so that the temperature stays at 32 degrees. Lemon trees are more delicate than orange trees. The problem with using sprinklers is that sometimes the limbs break because of the weight of the ice.
The fruit damage may not show up right away, though. What causes damage is when the little juice cells freeze, they expand, like ice cubes, and the tiny walls or membranes break down. This makes them dry out so that the citrus is not as juicy, and, thus not as sweet. Learn more about frost protection for citrus here. See more of Jack Frost’s Handiwork here.
What’s the weather like in your neck of the woods?
We had the opportunity to give a farm tour to some young farmers the other day. This passionate group is developing community gardens in under-served communities otherwise known as “food deserts.” They also glean fruit from farms and backyard trees to help supply the local food banks.
They were full of questions about organic farming and Mike shared his wisdom and expertise with them. Our dog, Penney, enjoyed all the attention, too. It is great to know that there are young people interested in using their own time and resources to meet the needs of others. This next generation has many more tools when it comes to networking and finding resources than the previous one. They can use technology to farm more efficiently and research topics to gain knowledge. Still, it’s nice to know us old farts have something to contribute, too.
Mike loves sharing the knowledge he’s gained in his 33 years of farming with others, young and old. Some things about farming will never change, though. For one, it is just plain hard work. It’s hot and dirty, too, especially here in the central San Joaquin Valley. Also, it is unpredictable as I wrote about in another post. No matter how much technology or science you have, the weather cannot be controlled. There is an element of faith needed to farm.
Us old fart farmers are doers. This new generation are doers and thinkers. When things go south on the farm, we tighten our belts, pull up our bootstraps and work even harder the next year. Young farmers may do all this, but they also reach out to each other for support and look for remedies beyond the farm. They do not isolate themselves which can lead to discouragement. Rather they seek solutions so that they can continually improve their practices and products in the future.
Having said that, we, too, are always looking for ways to improve and we do reach out to others, but we sometimes lack the energy and abilities of youth to implement our ideas. Kudos to young farmers! By the way, our door is always open, if you have any questions you think us old fart farmers can help you with.