News Bites: California Fires, Signs of El Niño, and More

September 18, 2015

Here are some of the latest headlines, presented in a bite-sized, easy-to-digest format.

Drought Fuels Massive Fires in California

As California endures its most severe drought on record, the agricultural sector has suffered losses of $1.84 billion and 10,000 jobs, with 542,000 acres lying fallow. This season the state has yet another natural disaster to contend with: heat waves combined with parched landscapes have helped to fuel some of the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history.

The Valley, Butte, and Rough fires of the last week have burned over 280,000 acres, devastating rural communities. Hundreds of homes and ranches have been destroyed, and thousands of people have been displaced. Fleeing residents have had to abandon their livestock, tolling unknown personal and financial losses.

At CUESA, we have been especially concerned about Norman (shown above in a photo from The Sacramento Bee), Aimee, and Ian Gunsell of Mountain Ranch Organically Grown, who are known in our Ferry Plaza Farmers Market community for bringing their organic pasture-raised poultry to the Saturday market. The family lives in Mountain Ranch, a town surrounded by the Butte fire. We’ve been unable to make contact with the Gunsells, who have been without electricity and phone service, but we’ve heard through their friends and family on Facebook that they are safe, though they had to bring their 2,000 chickens to the slaughterhouse early. The Gunsells are in our thoughts, and we’ll keep you posted as we learn more.

For those looking to help the victims of the fires, The Sacramento Bee has a list of agencies accepting donations for those in need.

El Niño Winter on the Horizon

NOAA researchers predict a 95% chance that a “Godzilla” El Niño weather system will bring much-needed rains drought-stricken California in the coming months, though it probably will not fully restore the deficit from the state’s four-year drought. Much depends on how and where that precipitation lands: as snowfall in the mountains, where it is needed most, so that it can slowly melt into the waterways; or as rain down south, where it is more likely to flood rivers and run off into the ocean. A drought followed by heavy rains could also spell trouble for heat-baked and drought-ravaged lands, leading to severe floods, mudslides, and loss of topsoil. Read more at The Washington Post »

Farmers Face Labor Shortages

Beyond the drought, farmers have another growing challenge this year: fewer workers. Stricter immigration enforcement and improvements in the US and economy have created opportunities for higher-paying and less strenuous work. One report estimates that the decline farm labor has reduced fruit and vegetable production by 9.5%, amounting to losses of $3.1 billion a year. Some farmers are looking for ways to mechanize harvests, but many fruits and vegetables still require a skilled human touch. Apples, peppers, asparagus, and cherries are just a few of the crops that require harvest labor, and without enough workers, crops are being left to rot in the fields. Read more at NPR »

The USDA Targets Food Waste

Americans waste upwards 30 percent (approximately 133 billion pounds) of the food in our food supply, from the farm to retail and restaurants to the consumer. Earlier this week, the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency recognized food waste’s impact on food security, resource conservation, and climate change, and announced the United States’ first-ever national food waste reduction goal to cut the country’s food waste by 50 percent by 2030. The effort will include a consumer education campaign, and work with private businesses, institutions, and nonprofits to tackle food waste from all angles. Read more at NPR »

Niman Ranch Sold to Perdue

Last week Perdue, the large-scale poultry producer, announced its acquisition of Niman Ranch, known for its antibiotic-free and humanely raised meats. No longer owed by rancher Bill Niman, the company has grown into a national brand, bringing sustainably raised meats to the mainstream and supplying to restaurant chains like Chipotle. The purchase has some consumers and food advocates worried that Perdue will dilute Niman’s production and welfare protocols. Others are “cautiously optimistic” that the sale may lead to more sustainably raised meat for more people, and create greater opportunities more mid-sized ranchers. Read more at Civil Eats »

Mark Bittman Leaves The Times

In a move that surprised many in the food world, food columnist Mark Bittman announced that he was leaving The New York Times to take on a central role at an unnamed food startup. A powerful voice in the national food conversation, Bittman says this decision was motivated by a desire “to do what I’ve been writing about these many years: to make it easier for people to eat more plants.” You can still catch his California Matters video series, produced in partnership with UC Berkeley, which explores food policy and sustainable agriculture. Read more at The New York Times »

Alice Waters Receives Presidential Honor

Proprietor of the famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse, cookbook author, and pioneering good food advocate Alice Waters was presented with a National Humanities Medal by President Obama last week for her work “celebrating the bond between the ethical and the edible.” A champion of local and organic food and edible education, Waters has sent waves throughout the country over the last 40 last years, transforming restaurant menus and inspiring school garden programs and federal school lunch reforms. Her work has even helped to influence First Lady Michelle Obama’s White House garden and Let’s Move program to end childhood obesity. Read more at SFGate »

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