Harvest · Walnuts

Farming During a Pandemic

Still Farming:

We are still working hard and #stillfarming My thoughts on this pandemic are so wide that I will do my best to narrow them just to the farm itself, even though, it is all very interconnected.

The first thoughts that come to me when I think of farming during a pandemic is “grateful”. I think of so many who are stuck to a box each and every day weather with family or alone. I wander off to the farm; Step outside and I can walk and get exercise, and continue to work without the fear of being around others that the pandemic makes me feel. Being on the farm really is like an oasis where I can recharge and keep my mind occupied when everything on the outside is falling apart. Here in Northern California we are struggling with more than just a pandemic, we are also the epicenter of forest fires. (worst first on record)

Natural Disasters have always been something that happens somewhere else. Hurricanes happen on the east coast, tornados happen in the mid west or central plains, Earthquakes happen in southern California or even San Francisco, but here in the Sacramento valley we are largely shielded from pretty much everything, that was until our first mass evacuation from the Oroville Dam followed by the absolute devastation that was the Camp Fire which took down several towns including the largest which is Paradise.

Even though our orchard or town was not on fire, it was literally right next door. We did not drive through a wall of flames, but we know many who did, and I personally try and be there for them. We were however directly affected by the smoke.

Smoke and dust combined.

It is now 2020 and we are in the midst of a pandemic that is hurting so many people in so many ways, but here on the farm, we are surrounded by flames and smoke with fires on all sides. It is insane. I would love to say I can enjoy work and the normally fresh air, but that has not been the case at all. With fires burning to the north, south, east and west, the Sacramento Valley is literally inundated with smoke and has been for well over a month. Farming must go on my friends.

I remember watching the news about how migrants are forced to work in these conditions. Yes, I am grateful for the work they do, but it is not just migrants that work in these conditions. All farmers work in these conditions, and lets not forget that most farms in the United States including California are run by small farmers. We roll up our sleeves, or roll them down depending on the day…and work alongside the rest of our fellow farmers because yes, we have to. The harvest does not wait, the work does not disappear, and we still have to keep our farm alive.

So I put on my N95 mask provided by our agriculture department and keep working. My eyes are sore, my skin is dry and irritated, but I work. Yet I am again grateful that I can work when many others have lost their jobs, and sometimes even their worth.

Out trying to keep the trees alive. We still had to mow, irrigate and clean orchard in preparation for harvest.

I know I am verging a bit from the pandemic, but again, how do you separate one travesty from another. That being said, the smoke has really had an affect on our trees. This is not a science backed statement, just my observation. Every walnut orchard here in the Sacramento valley is harvesting 2-3 weeks earlier than normal. That’s crazy!! Sometimes we harvest a week earlier or a week later because of weather which is ALWAYS a factor, but 2-3 weeks is unheard of. As of October 1st about half the orchards have their harvest in already. Normally by October 1st we are just getting started here in Butte County. Does that mean the quality of our nuts are less? As far as I can tell, they are pretty much the same.

Walnuts cracking early because of smoke and possibly the heat. This was at the end of August.

What has also had a big impact on our nuts this year has been the heat. With rising temperatures and again braking records for the most 100 days in a year, the trees have most definitely been hit. The hotter it becomes, the more pests like huskfly, scale, mites, and so many more pop up in our trees. This ruins the quality of the nuts and can even kill the trees. This means, as a farmer we have to make a decision. Do we want to risk losing our whole crop to pests and hope for a better year next year? Do we want to risk losing more and more trees? Or do we up the Chemical sprays and be proactive? It’s not a hard choice when it comes down to possibly losing my whole orchard. It does however become a harder choice when the price of walnuts is cut in half.

Also, with more record breaking heat days, we have to water more. As we all know, water is never free. We are spending more on water, spending more on chemicals out of necessity, yet our income has been cut in half. You do the math. Why not just do something else? I get this question a lot. Easy answer, because I am a farmer. I love this land that has been passed down to me after several generations. And one day it will be good again, just not any time soon. And let me ask you this, what if farmers just quit when the going got tough (not who we are) then where would your food come from?

A lot of branches without leaves because of mite damage. Leaves fall early and cause harvest issues.

Speaking of spray, let’s bounce back and forth between the pandemic and the economy. Just like everyone else, farmers have been hit HARD by the pandemic when it comes to out pocket books. First we where hit with loss in sales do to tariffs from Trump and confrontations with China, then the Pandemic hit. Initially lots of people went out and purchased nuts for their stay at home adventures, but then, people saw this as a long term issue. More and more people are starting to bypass what is not a necessity, and go for the basics like eggs and rice and flour. I am one of those people. I get it! However, that again leaves the price of walnuts in the dumps. We are set to have another record year for walnuts here in California. yet the price of nuts has never been worse, yet, we continue to work. Because in farming, we expect up and downs, even though this is one big DOWN. We continue to work because our trees have to stay alive, we continue to work to play a vital part in our food system, and we continue to work because it is not just a job, it is who we are. We are farmers.

More mite damage

Challenges-always there will be challenges as a farmer, even during good years. Some past challenges have been lack of water, too much water, too much heat, pest control, sales/exports, lack of workers, and on and on all the way to PANDEMICS. This Pandemic has had an unexpected challenge for me on the farm, something other parents will absolutely get. Not only am I a farmer, I am also a mother of two young kids 7 and 8. School has started and we are “comfortably” learning from home. This means that I have to stay with them from 8-2:30 every day. This is time I would usually be on the farm getting stuff done. Now I have to find creative ways to work on the farm and do things that still need to get done. If that is not a challenge then I don’t know what is? Basically, sometimes things just don’t get done and that is that. This is where I have to forgive myself and move forward for the sake of my family and for myself.

We farmers continue to work. Some make it out the other side and continue to farm their land, while others lose everything. In all honesty, I have made just enough to cover the cost of the trees in the last 3 years. This means 3 years of no income. NO INCOME. But like many small farmers we are a family with two jobs. My husband has been keeping us fed so to speak. This is no different in many other small family farms. Every now and then I bring in an income and can save it for a bad year. I look forward to that time, but until then I will hold on tight and do the best I can in 2020, a time like no other in history.

Getting It Done!

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