As farm delivery boxes rise in popularity, the industry faces new struggles

‘This is a hotter, drier future we’re facing’

By Jessica Wolfrom

Examiner staff writer

Last week, the water sustaining Janet Brown’s tomato, cucumber and pepper field in Petaluma trickled to a stop. The well that had supplied water to her farm for the past decade had nearly run dry.

But for Brown, her water-starved crops were the latest in a string of events that fundamentally changed the way she operates her family-run farm, Allstar Organics.

When the pandemic hit, the 74-year-old who has been farming in California since the mid-90s was forced to pivot. Instead of selling directly to San Francisco consumers at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market or to restaurants including Flour and Water, she suddenly found herself fearful of the virus, and without customers for her crops and herbs.

She partnered with the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) and Farmers Exchange of Earthly Delights (F.E.E.D.) Sonoma, a farmer co-operative, contributing her crops to weekly produce boxes for Bay Area customers. In many ways, the boxes saved her business. Demand for local produce never seemed so high. Then, Brown’s Petaluma water supply ran dry.

Farmers have also found support in reaching consumers directly at farmers markets in The City through partnering with organizations like CUESA, which runs the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and promotes California farms that focus on sustainable practices. (Courtesy CUESA/Ferry Plaza Farmers Market)

Farmers have also found support in reaching consumers directly at farmers markets in The City through partnering with organizations like CUESA, which runs the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and promotes California farms that focus on sustainable practices. (Courtesy CUESA/Ferry Plaza Farmers Market)

Over the course of the pandemic, demand for Community Supported Agriculture, or CSAs, boomed as Bay Area residents traded the grocery aisle for weekly farm boxes. But as heat waves, wildfires and a historic drought ravage the state, small-scale farmers have found themselves struggling to keep up with demand while confronting extreme weather.

The state’s historic drought has hit farmers particularly hard. In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a drought emergency for Mendocino and Sonoma counties and called on the state’s water board to modify reservoir releases and curtail diversions as water levels reached record lows. Since then, Newsom has twice expanded the declaration, which now includes 50 of the state’s 58 counties.

Such restrictions cut off Tommy Otey’s access to the Russian River, severing him from the lifeblood that hydrates his Healdsburg farm for the first time. As general manager of Front Porch Farm, Otey, 36, had no choice but to cancel the farm’s 2021 CSA and pull the farm from the remainder of the season’s markets.

And it didn’t end there — with his water rights curtailed, Otey was forced to lay off most of his seasonal staff and sell or donate the next season’s starts — including the vegetables and flowers that he supplies to The City’s restaurants and shops including Bi-Rite Market.

“Agriculture is always a gamble,” said Evan Wiig, director of membership and communications at the Community Alliance with Family Farmers, “but obviously, it’s a gamble that’s especially tenuous given the pandemic going in and out and in and out, and changes in the economy reopening, and, of course, now the drought and wildfires.”

In April, the state Senate advanced a $3 billion drought relief package proposal to address intensifying drought conditions statewide. But Wiig, whose organization advocates for small family farms, was quick to point out that the measure leaves few resources for small-scale operations.

Longtime farmer Judith Redmond, who co-owns Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley, has conserved her way through droughts before. But this year, she watched fish go belly up in the creek near her home as the waters ran dry.

A farm worker brings in boxes of harvested zucchini at Full Belly Farms in northern California’s Capay Valley. (Courtesy Judith Redmond)

A farm worker brings in boxes of harvested zucchini at Full Belly Farms in northern California’s Capay Valley. (Courtesy Judith Redmond)

“It’s a very sad and very distressing and a kind of horrible situation, having lived on the creek for all this time,” she said. Compounding the problem is that increased development in the region has put further strain on the available groundwater, she said.

With the exception of the emergency orders, the state’s groundwater is, for the most part, being pumped with very few statewide limits, Wigg said, resulting in an unequal battle between small farms with shallow wells and tight budgets and large industrial farms with state-of-the-art machinery.

“Everyone’s putting their straws down in the ground,” he said, “and whoever’s got the longest straw is getting the water.”

Still, Redmond’s business remains strong. Even during the pandemic, Redmond, 64, never missed a farmers’ market. Demand for Full Belly’s CSA was so intense that, at one point, Redmond had to implement a wait list. But she sees trouble ahead.

“This is a hotter, drier future that we’re facing,” she said. “We’re going to have to start thinking about that, I think, soon. And it’s not something we really deeply anticipated at this point.”

More trouble may come from changing consumer habits. Tim Page, 53, co-founder of F.E.E.D. Sonoma, which launched its farm box in March of 2020, said the demand for farm boxes and CSAs is beginning to dwindle as restaurants, bars and offices reopen and people return to their pre-pandemic lives.

But Janet Brown, of Allstar Organics, said the challenges of the past 18 months have ushered in a new awareness and appreciation for the Bay Area’s food culture. Consumers, stuck at home during the lockdowns, had to think more deeply about where their food comes from. Farmers, struggling to find new avenues for their crops, formed deeper bonds.

“It’s not a poke in the eye with a sharp stick eating locally,” she said. “It’s really a chance to literally eat your values. Take everything you say you care about: sustainable, local, organic, chances for women and indigenous people, people of color, and chances for all kinds of farmers everywhere…here’s a chance — simple — to eat your values, and we can all one mouthful at a time build the food system that’s sustainable and equitable and financially viable.”

jwolfram@sfexaminer.com

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