Community Supporting Agriculture

April 14, 2006

The anticipation that seasonal eaters feel in early spring has turned into more of an ache this year as farmers forecast smaller harvests on later dates for our favorite foods. But the ache we feel is trifling compared to the devastating losses for those whose livelihoods depend on California’s fertile soil and sunshine. Storm after storm has discouraged pollinators, muddied fields and rotted flowers and berries; many farmers are struggling through the wettest season they’ve seen in at least twenty years.

Strawberry growers are among the hardest hit. Vanessa Bogenholm of VB Farms in Watsonville has harvested just two or three percent of the amount of berries she typically picks and sells by mid-April. The farm has lost six weeks of production to the rain, a significant portion of the normal season. Many strawberry growers are incurring debt as they pay workers to remove rotten flowers and berries from the sodden fields, with little or no yield to sell.

On top of that, none of Vanessa’s normal row crops – squash, broccoli, and cauliflower – have even been planted. Workers can’t get into fields to turn under the cover crop planted in fields that lie fallow in the winter, a job that requires machinery that will get stuck in the mud. The wet weather has forced many Ferry Plaza Farmers Market vegetable growers to be about a month late – and counting – in planting their crops out in the fields. Acres worth of plant starts sit in the rain-sheltered greenhouses of farms; left unplanted for too long, they become root-bound or go to seed and will have to be sacrificed to the compost pile.

Though Louis Iacopi of Iacopi Farm planted his English peas on the farm’s best-drained land, they are growing slowly, and producing unmarketable pods. Too much water can also limit the amount of oxygen available to plants and cause membrane damage to roots, limiting their ability to uptake water. By this point in the season, Louis expected to be bringing many bags of the sweet spring crop to market, but harvests have been miniscule. Heartier vegetables like artichokes and leeks can withstand the rain, but are also slow growing and difficult to pick in their mucky rows.

Victor Martino of Bella Viva Orchards in Denair is worried about fungal diseases. Brown rot and shot hole are two of the potentially harmful diseases that thrive in wet weather. In addition, many of Victor’s young apricots were severely damaged in a recent hail storm, and though they will still taste good, consumers often won’t buy blemished produce. The jury still seems to be out on cherries and peaches – a gradual warming and no more rain are the ideal circumstances in which a decent or even abundant crop might still develop.

One of the most damaging outcomes of the rain for the Martinos, and for all the farmers and small businesses who depend on farmers’ market shoppers for their income, is slow sales on rainy days. Farms that have Community Supported Agriculture programs (CSAs) are getting some financial relief. Though CSAs will undoubtedly lose a few members in this time of scarcity, the programs are designed to be mutually beneficial. CSA members pay for shares of a farm’s harvest at the beginning of the season or the month, thus guaranteeing some farm income and taking on some of the risk that the farm confronts. Some years, this means sharing an amazing abundance of food as warm weather encourages tomato prolificity; other years, it means kale – lots of it. CSA members have a personal connection to their farm and a commitment to seeing it thrive in all weather. That stake in its production and the relationship with the land and the growers are among the primary reasons that many people find CSAs so rewarding.

The principles of Community Supported Agriculture can apply to farmers’ markets, too. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market feeds our community year-round, rain or shine. Here are some of the things we can do as a community to support our local farms and farmers through hard times:

Be an all-weather shopper– The farmers who are making it to the market with produce to sell right now have likely spent hours slogging away in mud and getting soaked to the bone. They can get pretty discouraged when, after all that effort, few shoppers show up. Spend one hour, umbrella in hand, doing your shopping for the week – you won’t regret it when you sit down to a bowl of creamy nettle soup or a warm frittata.

Get creative – As California cooks, nature rarely forces us to be creative. Our year-round growing season and mild climate are the envy of still-thawing parts of the country. Challenge yourself to find new ways to use what is available at the market. Check out CUESA’s recipe archive for ideas.

Understand higher prices, and pay them – Don’t be surprised if the prices for your favorite fruits and vegetables are higher this year. Many farmers will have to charge more simply to stay in business. Lower yields and slower growth don’t lower labor costs. If the price for a basket of your favorite berries goes up, ask the farmer why before you walk away.

Be patient – One of the most wonderful things about eating seasonally is expectation. When the first sunny days of the year come along, our mouths water with want for cherries and apricots. Although nice-looking summer fruits may be available year-round at national chain stores, perhaps even at a cheap price, ask yourself: is it worth it? Consider the hidden costs of purchasing fruit shipped in from thousands of miles away (not to mention the disappointing flavor). If you have patience, the pleasure you experience when you finally bite into your first stone fruit of the season will be that much greater – especially when it is tree-ripened and delectably ready to eat.

See you at the market!