Sunday, April 26, 2015

From field to fork: What a small organic grower copes with

Jim Eldon stands at his farm with a head of lettuce destined for a farmers’ market the next day. Courtesy photo

From page A5 | May 08, 2013 |

The year is 1999, and the date is April 27.

Jim Eldon, whose life happens daily at Fiddlers’ Green Farm, remembers it well. That date and what happened came to mind several days ago as we stood amid flats of squash and cucumber seedlings.

Back then he had 15,000 tomato seedlings ready for planting. He had a crew hired for the busy season. “The temperature had been in the 80s. Frost was the furthest thing from my mind,” he recalls. It should be said that these were the days before the ready-at-hand weather monitoring and projections available using today’s technology.

At 6 a.m. on that memorable morning, he awoke to find the temperature was 27 degrees. His tomato seedlings were toast.

He laid off half his crew and opted for a crop of late greens, which might salvage some cash. Then in June a storm passed through Capay Valley and dropped hail “the size of garbanzo beans.” That crop was ruined, too.

Eldon, who is married to Julie Rose, an educator, shut down the farming operation for that summer and retreated to a friend’s backwoods cabin in Northern Ontario, Canada. He remembers enjoying the time with his two children. Know when to hold ‘em, as Kenny Rogers used to sing, and know when to fold ‘em.

It’s not easy being a farmer.

I had approached Jim back in the winter and asked if I might visit him at his 37-acre farm, which is just past the Cache Creek Casino in Brooks, population 90. He owns the farm with a partner, but he’s the day-to-day farmer, and has been since 1991. My intent, I explained, was to write a column that would make real to readers the challenges facing the small operators whose produce, meat and other products are so enticing at a farmers’ market.

I wanted people to realize what’s behind the pricing in particular. Why is that head of lettuce, pound of asparagus, or meat more expensive than the supermarket most of the time?

Certain people like to know the provenance of what they eat. They want to look the grower in the eye, have a relationship, and experience the satisfaction that comes from supporting an individual. But again, price does matter.

In fact, a grower’s higher prices are not exploitation in most settings. The growers are trying to run a business, given all the vagaries of weather, pests, a blizzard of government regulations, challenges hiring field workers and so much more. For small operators, those factors are disproportionately challenging.

Fiddlers’ Green farm sells about 85 percent of its produce direct to the public at farmers markets: in Davis on Saturdays, and in Marin on Thursdays and Sundays. (Eldon is also an active participant in his industry, serving on both boards.) His remaining produce goes primarily to restaurants, with a bit into wholesale distribution.

It’s necessary to sell direct. Wholesale buyers pay about 60 percent on average of the price a grower receives at a farmers’ market. For smaller operations like Fiddlers’ Green, direct sales bring in the profit margins needed for a viable business. In Eldon’s case, customers on a good day scarf up his extensive varieties of greens, multi-colored carrots that he wintered over, and asparagus.

Two workers were weeding rows of onions on the day I was there. With the dry weather, watering had been necessary, and of course the weeds were overjoyed and willing to flourish. Some of his crew were laboriously working their way down the rows, which costs money.

While he has regularly grown tomatoes — other years have been kinder to his heirloom tomato plants than 1991 — none were visible.

It turns out that symphylans, commonly known as garden centipedes, have been too abundant in the fields. They’re white (but not centipedes, really), a third of an inch and feed on the roots of seedlings. They impacted last year’s tomato crop.

Because Fiddlers’ Green is an organic farm, Eldon has limited options for field management. There is a fungicide suitable for certified organic growers, but Eldon finds it prohibitively expensive, so he’ll grow other crops for 2013.

This is a perfect example of how “organic” becomes a factor for a farmer. His scientific knowledge was impressive as he went deep on the history of fungicides and pest management, but that doesn’t change the hard reality: no tomatoes this year.

Instead, let’s go behind the curtain to consider a popular crop this month.

Asparagus is a high-end crop for direct sellers, and Eldon has both purple and green varieties, typically for $5 per pound, a common price at a farmers’ market. But the backstory on the pound of asparagus one buys at farmers’ markets, supermarkets or farm stands reflects a competitive international marketplace.

California’s overall asparagus crop has been in sharp decline. The California Asparagus Commission reports a drop from 41,000 acres of asparagus fields in 2001 to just 11,500 acres in 2011. Mexican and Peruvian farmers can bring devastatingly low labor costs to bear, and labor costs are the name of the game for asparagus, which has primarily been grown in the San Joaquin area.

This is where you would expect me to mention that foreign quality is awful. It’s often the case. But a Mexican package of asparagus, sold at Costco back in March, prompted me to write this story. At $3.99 per kilo, that’s less than $2 per pound. In the past, I’ve found foreign asparagus rather flavorless, visibly striated or past its prime, but there was good quality on this occasion. (Checking two weeks later, a similar package was visibly over the hill.) No wonder the California commercial crop is in decline.

But wait, there’s another story to be told. The organic asparagus crop out of Capay Valley has been on the upswing, with increasing acreage under cultivation. That, of course, leads to micro-competition regionally, driving down prices. Eldon had been supplying a cooperative at $100 per case in the past, but with all the competition, he watched the wholesale price drop to $84 per case before he stopped following it. The farmers’ market price to consumers works out to $140 per case, a past standard. That’s where he’s selling.

Some of the organic farms in our region are getting large: River Dog, Full Belly, Durst and Capay Organic come readily to mind. It’s part of a national movement to larger operations that makes organic produce more widely available and more of a commodity. Fiddlers’ Green isn’t moving in that direction.

A lot of people want to know the farmer, and Jim Eldon likes being that person. So do many other direct sellers like him; they enjoy the personal interchange. In his case, he makes clear that it’s part of a life’s journey. He cites quality of life and ecological issues, and becomes reflective when he says that life is ultimately about “love and understanding.”

There’s a bit of dissonance hearing those words from a guy in farm clothes, but he also recalled with enthusiasm reading D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts in his 20s, when these leading lights of Zen philosophy were high in the sky.

All the better, no? And so the bills get paid, nature has its ways (scant rain until this week and big winds recently) and a mindful life is lived.

— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]





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