Some California farmers prosper, while other struggle

WATSONVILLE — Flanked by rows of strawberry beds, Apolinar Yerena stood in the center of his 11-acre Watsonville farm, reflecting on the pandemic threatening its future. “I’ve been farming for 40 years,” said the 68-year-old owner of Yerena Farms. “This is the worst thing that has happened.”

At farmers markets, “places where we used to sell like 80 cases of strawberries we’re only selling like 26, 28,” he said. Restaurants struggling to survive aren’t buying much either. And because demand is so low, only half of the farm’s ripe strawberries are being picked. The rest are left to rot in the fields. Yerena isn’t sure how long he’ll be able to keep up with his lease payments and labor costs.

But just a few miles away at Live Earth Farm, business is booming. The 60-acre Watsonville farm sells dozens of crops directly to consumers in boxes delivered weekly. In the past few weeks, owner Tom Broz has received so many requests for his fresh fruits and vegetables that he’s had to put some people on a waiting list. “It’s been a struggle just to keep up,” he said.

Yerena and Broz represent opposite poles of the pandemic’s effect on agriculture in the greater Bay Area.

The pandemic has left virtually all California farmers staring into the unknown.

For Gilroy farmer Paul Mirassou, the uncertainty has led him to till 30 acres of lettuce he could no longer sell. Another 100 acres he had planned to plant will be bare until at least June, said Mirassou, president of the Santa Clara County Farm Bureau.

He and many of his neighbors sell their crops to packing houses, which package the produce and, in turn, supply restaurants, cafeterias and grocery stores. But as schools have closed and restaurants have been restricted to takeout and delivery, many packing houses are buying less and telling farmers to plant fewer acres.

“The market is so terrible” that packing houses are afraid of losing money on produce that won’t sell, “so they cut back on the acres for not just one grower, but all the growers,” Mirassou said.

Lakeside Organic Gardens, which grows about 50 organic crops on 2,000 acres in the Pajaro Valley, has remained largely insulated from the industry’s downturn. The farm sells directly to grocery stores, which owner Dick Peixoto says have seen an increase in demand for organic produce. Complying with social-distancing guidelines in the field has decreased productivity, but he’s bringing on more workers to help make up the difference.

But not all of his neighbors have been so lucky. Some, Peixoto said, have seen their income drop by 85%. “You can’t really run the farm on 15% of the income you had before.”

As thousands of farmers scramble to sell their crops, millions of unemployed Californians are straining the state’s food banks.

Suzanne Willis, development and marketing officer for Santa Cruz County’s Second Harvest Food Bank, says twice as many people have been visiting its food distribution centers than they normally do in the spring.

To help both farmers and food banks, Newsom on April 29 announced the expansion of the Farm to Family Program. A partnership between the California Department of Food and Agriculture and the California Association of Food Banks, the program gives money to farmers to pick, pack and deliver fresh produce to local food banks.

The state has set aside $2.8 million and gathered $775,000 in private donations to expand the program through the end of May. The state hopes to raise a total of $15 million to fund the program by the end of the year.

“It might help some people,” Mirassou said, but I can’t imagine” farmers will be able to sell all of their excess crops.

Juan Gonzalez, Lakeside’s operations manager, fears the money may not come quickly enough for farmers whose crops are ready to be harvested. “It’s perishable,” he said. “It’s got a short shelf life. So the system’s not working as fast as we need it to.”

Since the pandemic hit home, Second Harvest’s Willis said, increased donations from local farms have kept the food bank flush with produce. It’s the pantry staples like beans and rice that are in short supply.

Food banks usually source these items by “rescuing” unsold stock from grocery stores, either for free or at a steep discount. But “right now groceries don’t have a lot of food that needs to be rescued,” Willis said.

That means the food bank is forced to buy goods on the open market at much higher prices.

As California begins to loosen restrictions on businesses, several Bay Area counties have allowed food trucks to reopen, and city and county officials are working with the governor’s office to create updated regulations for restaurants.

Yerena, the Watsonville berry farmer, is cautiously optimistic. He says he sold slightly more boxes of strawberries at a recent farmers market and set up signs near Highway 1 to entice people to buy directly from his farm.

“Hopefully,” he said, “by the end of the year, we’ll be smiling again.”

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Originally posted on The Mercury News on May 11, 2020. You can read the original article here


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