Farmers Adapt to High Gas Prices

July 25, 2008

truck You could call it a labor of love. Each Saturday, either Tory or Rebecca Torosian of Tory Farms will drive the farm’s grapes and stone fruit 212 miles to the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. The two-way trip, which would have cost them 80 dollars a year ago, now costs around 140 dollars.

California might be the best state in the union for growing food, but transporting it here is another story. As of July 21, the average price* for regular gas in California was $4.46 per gallon, considerably higher than the national $4.06 per gallon average.

Farmers like the Torosians are feeling the pinch and taking steps to stay afloat. Rebecca says that in years past Tory Farms used a gas card that allowed them to fill up at any hour of the day for an extra surcharge. Now they pay solely in cash to avoid the surcharge. The shift has meant the farmers need to plan ahead, but they say it’s “a lot better than waiting for that huge bill at the end of the month.” The farmers have also had to raise the price of their fruit, but not by much. “We know the consumer isn’t getting a raise, either,” Rebecca adds.

Higher gas prices may also encourage some farmers to seek out gas-free and other low-carbon alternatives. Those who already have are reaping the benefits. Take Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farm. He fuels his truck with recycled vegetable oil he picks up from two San Francisco restaurants that are on his weekly delivery route. Read more about the truck in the Eatwell blog.

David Winsberg of Happy Quail Farms is another example. On Tuesdays, and during the early and late months of the season when his load is smaller, he transports his specialty peppers and other veggies to the market in a rare electric Ford pickup truck. The vehicle was an investment, but one that has made a lot of financial sense for the comparatively short 34-mile drive from Palo Alto. David pays a hefty downtown rate to park in a nearby garage where several of the spots are equipped with electric vehicle plug-ins. But even with that cost, he says he spends about 30% less than the cost of a gas-fueled round trip because the electricity itself only puts him out $1.50 each way.

“I don’t think there will be a silver bullet any time soon,” he said recently, from behind a busy stall at the Tuesday market. “There’s enough technology out there that we could all be doing a little more to lessen our footprints.”

Kirsten Olson of Hunter Orchards says that she anticipates a day when she and her husband might have to stop making the 300-mile-each-way commute from their farm near the Oregon border, but it’s not a day they’re looking forward to. For them the draw is not just the sales but the cultural exchange.

“For us it’s a delight—to come to this market, to interact, to see the other growers,” says Olsen, who has cut her time in the market to a few weeks per year. “We get to take all of this energy back to dinky Siskiyou county with its six signal lights and share with the farmers there. It has to do with the migration of ideas.”

* Prices courtesy of the US Energy Information Administration