On a Tuesday afternoon in South Berkeley, Betsy Prescott pitched her tents and arranged the produce for the weekly farmers market. As the market lead of Riverdog Farm, which is located in the Yolo County town of Guinda, Prescott drives the farm’s truck to various farmers market locations and oversees its produce stand. Her job has never been easy, but this year it feels even harder, she said, as farmers — still reeling from the pandemic — grapple with new pressures from all sides.
“I can’t remember if it was Marx or Lenin,” Prescott said, “but they basically couldn’t break down the psychology of a farmer because farmers just do it no matter what. And this is just the struggle of being a farmer; it’s really hard.”
California is facing its third straight year of drought, and so far, 2022 is the state’s driest year on record. The shortfall in water, which isn’t expected to end any time soon, has already pushed a number of small family farms out of business and has driven up overhead for operations that are forced to purchase water to sustain their crops.
Meanwhile, other costs for farmers are also on the rise, as inflation skyrockets and the price of supplies continues to increase. Even transporting crops to markets is increasingly expensive, as California’s average gas prices are up by as much as $2 per gallon compared to this time last year. But farmers “have no choice,” said farmers market vendor Lisa Kashiwase. “The gas is going up, we have to pay for the gas going up. What should we do? Come on! There’s nothing we can do, right?”
Like Riverdog Farm, many of the vendors at Berkeley’s farmers markets trek in from the Central Valley, the second-most-pumped aquifer system in the U.S. and the area responsible for as much as half of the nation’s produce. That massive output requires an equally massive amount of water to produce, prompting farms like Prescott’s to reduce what they grow.
“We’re just planting a lot less and then planting differently because we have to rely on well water,” Prescott said of Riverdog, which has typically grown a large variety of crops.
Water-intensive crops such as corn and tomatoes will see some of the most significant cutbacks: this year, Riverdog is only planting 250,000 tomato plants instead of their usual 600,000.
The corn you see at Riverdog’s stand this year will come from two small plantings, and most of the farm’s western fields are currently going through their last plantings and will not be replanted this year.
Solano Mushroom, a farm in the NorCal city of Vacaville, is experiencing the drought in a different way. The company, which was one of the first in the U.S. to cultivate shiitake and oyster mushrooms domestically, grows 85% of what it sells in greenhouses. That means the drought has less of an immediate impact on their business, Solano Mushroom staffer Soo Kim told Nosh.
That said, the company still sees the effects of the climate crisis on naturally occurring mushrooms across the state. A sizable portion of Solano Mushroom sales used to come from their their wild mushroom stock, which was foraged where legally permitted in California forests. We’re using the past tense because for over a year, Solano’s foragers have come back empty-handed due to the region’s dry conditions and frequent wildfires.
“We haven’t got a wild mushroom for a year and a half almost just cause of the drought,” Kim said. “That’s a long time. It was never like that.”
Frost isn’t anything new for vendors at Berkeley’s farmers markets, but the standard technique used to save crops from freezing temperatures has also been stymied by the drought and subsequent water shortfall.
“Normally, they would spray their plants to keep them from freezing, but they didn’t have water,” Daniel McChesney-Young said. He’s the been the Program Manager for Berkeley’s farmers markets since late 2021, and has seen how the climate crisis is hitting its vendors first hand. One example of a farm that was dealt a blow by recent low temperatures is Sierra Cascade Blueberry Farm, a family-owned organic berry farm located in the NorCal foothills near Chico.
According to a post on Sierra Cascade’s website, for the first time in its 34 year history, the farm lost its full crop on April 11 after “a few hours of sub-freezing temperatures.” The pond Sierra Cascade used to supply its overhead sprinklers had gone dry a few months before, “after several years of drought and 3 months of no rainfall,” they wrote.
That meant that when it got cold in April, “we simply did not have the water we needed to run our frost protection system.” “It’s an entire year’s worth of blueberries that they lost,” McChesney-Young said. (For those who are interested, trade publication Fruit Growers News has a helpful explanation on how spraying fruit crops saves them from freezing weather. )
Other Berkeley farmers market vendors also faced losses due to the frost. Kashiwase Farms, a stone fruit and nut farm from the Merced County town of Winton, lost about 80% of its early varieties of peaches and nectarines during a recent cold snap, co-owner Lisa Kashiwase said. Judy Reynolds, from Fresno’s Triple Delight Blueberries, said their farm lost 60% of their blueberry crop during a freeze earlier this year.
Pain at the pump
As if years of drought isn’t enough, this year farmers must also pay more than ever to transport their goods to markets like Berkeley’s.
Here’s an example that’s likely familiar to anyone who’s driven this summer: Last year, it cost Reynolds $50 to fill up the tank of her truck to transport Triple Delight’s blueberries to Berkeley. This year, her cost at the pump more than doubled, to $130 for the trip.
That uptick in gas prices takes a big bite out of potential profits at markets like Berkeley’s. Some vendors have struggled to meet the increase in overhead while still keeping goods affordable for buyers. Kashiwase has increased the price of its peaches and nectarines to $4.85 a pound: Five years ago, the price was $4, so that uptick makes the gentlest of dents in their gas costs. Similarly, Kim said that Solano Mushroom has increased its prices by $1-2 in an effort to reflect the current climb in inflation.
Riverdog Farm tried to get out of the gas game completely, but it was easier said than done. According to Prescott, after diesel gas prices went through the roof, the farm’s owner tried to convert the operation to biofuels, which are manufactured using oils and grease. However, the alternative fuel broke down the farm’s tractors and trucks, making them unusuable.
The biofuels “would just eat up the plastic hosing and that kind of stuff,” Prescott said. The farm’s owner “wanted to do it, but it just wasn’t cost efficient.” Riverdog eventually had to switch back to diesel after costs tripled when replacing the corroded equipment.
All these challenges add up to a situation that might prompt some farm owners to sell their land off and get out of the business — but most vendors at Berkeley’s markets say they’re ready to dig in, stay resilient and continue farming.
“The reality is that you can’t really dwell on it, and all you got to do is roll with the punches,” Prescott said. “And then hope that our lawmakers and politicians can figure out a way to help.”