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
In case you hadn’t heard, California is experiencing extreme drought conditions. Our three wells made it through the summer, but we cannot depend upon a wet winter to replenish the groundwater, so, we are drilling a new well now. We will go down about 400 feet to ensure we reach the water table and then some. The San Joaquin Valley water table is like a bowl with cracks in it, so drilling does not guarantee water in some areas. We know of one farmer who tried four locations and came up dry. Farmers to the south and east of us have hit salt water from the ancient seabed that once covered this area. We are fortunate to be situated in a spot where the water table is still relatively accessible and has clean water. The increased pumping of water from the aquifer is having negative consequences on the land as well. So, no matter where you live, please don’t take having fresh, clean water for granted and practice water conservation because we don’t know what next year may bring much less tomorrow.
Once the area around the well dries, they will make a concrete base for the pump and then the pump will be installed. This will take around a month to complete. Photos will be added. Come back to see the progress.
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
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 drought in California has been persisting for three years. This is what the orchard by our house looked like last year around this time. Notice how much green there is in the orchard. Those are weeds. Weeds take up water.
Here is what that same orchard looks like this year. We had to irrigate the trees in January for the first time in our 35 years of farming. Early spring on the Farm
The green is mostly nettle which seems rather drought tolerant. This year we are flaming the weeds instead of disking them. Here is the contraption Mike uses to flame the weeds.
Thankfully we had a few inches of rain recently, but the warm weather has returned and the trees are already blooming. This means that the fruit may be 3-4 weeks early this year. Last year we started picking in early May.
Farmers are continually adapting to the weather conditions. We have to adjust our farming methods and practices the best we can to continue to do what we love. However, water is essential and it is becoming increasingly challenging to farm here in California due to the drought. We are wondering where the water has gone. This summer consumers may be wondering were the produce has gone.
We made a stop at Juicy’s River Cafe in Needles, CA on our way home. Great food and service.
Of course there’s no place like home.