News From the Farm | January 23, 2017

The sun has broken through this Sunday afternoon after a powerful storm blasted through the valley at about 3:00 this morning. We have had our world soaked and saturated with rainfall that started around the first of the year and has scarcely let up. Cache Creek, the river that we use for summer irrigation and swimming, will peak today at 14,000 cubic feet per second. The high this year has been 25,000 cubic feet per second—a raging brown torrent.  To date compared to last year, Clear Lake and Indian Valley Reservoir have 175,000 acre-feet of increased water storage. This is water that will be saved and released for summer irrigation. 

The farm is high, yet hardly dry, and looking forward to a few days of sunshine. We have a full crew that has been slogging boxes out of the fields. They work rain or shine—mostly in rain this month. Our stalwart crew has been picking carrots or potatoes in flat-out downpours and need some time to wring out. So far this year we have been Wringing in 2017!

The water and snowpack has changed the outlook for California farms. There should be enough water for farmers to plant up every acre of San Joaquin Valley farmland that can possibly be planted. When given the resources farmers show little restraint for expanding farmed acreage. This has me a bit worried. For the trends in agriculture aren’t positive at this point.  I fear that a good deal of the drought-idled acreage in the central valley will be enrolled as organic acreage and prices will tumble. Vegetable and melon receipts were already down by 7% this year. 

Farmers can quite literally expand production to their own ruin. 2016 was a year when mid-western farmers were once again the victims of their own success. Corn and soybean prices have tumbled and net cash farm income was projected to drop by 17%.

In California, where almonds have attracted institutional investors like TIAA-CREF, hedge funds and even Oprah Winfrey, acreage and harvests of almonds has doubled since 2003, and prices have fallen to a place where some are projecting that farmland may be overvalued by 70 billion dollars, largely driven by the almond boom.  History has shown that when the rush for the door starts, as returns fall and institutional investors flinch, momentum to be the first one out becomes disastrous.  Added to the potential for a Trump trade war with China, almond prospects seem shaky at best. 

In this past year we have seen increased competition among grocers and the corresponding drive among wholesalers to buy our farm products more cheaply. Often, prices offered for our fresh fruits and vegetables were the same as those we received 10 years ago. This is part of what has been a trend of food price deflation as grocers try to outcompete one another.  In the end, that competition, makes it hard to remain viable as a farm.  It is reported that nearly 20 % of US farms are in financial distress.

We are entering our 34th year of farming here in the Capay Valley at Full Belly. We would like to think that our market mix and cultivated relationships have insulated us somewhat from the dropping prices in the marketplace. But when we add the justifiable increase in the minimum wage, and new overtime rules for farm workers, I am anticipating a squeeze that may challenge us to adapt and modify our expectations about the coming season.

Don’t worry, Full Belly is doing fine, but the need to think critically about the state of the marketplace requires adaptability. We will not compromise on our commitment to a healthy farm system and organic production. We will remain committed to an open and transparent farm, welcoming visitors and farm patrons to walk the farm and see what we are up to. We will create a healthy work environment for out employees, many of who have been with us for nearly 25 years. We will remain committed to growing food and crops with flavor that are healthy and wholesome. And we will tighten our belts and become more efficient in everything that we do. 

It is an old story for farmers and a cycle that shows itself with regularity. Granted, I am speculating here, but in tying this back to rainfall, farmers would be best served if restrained from planting each and every acre that can receive the plenty of this year’s rain and snow pack.  Restoring the San Joaquin River, or healthy salmon fisheries in our California rivers and balancing production with a better overall environmental story might serve them best. They may be best served by regulations that target the few ‘bad actors’ who look to cut costs while harming the overall environment. Why not argue for rewards for practices that enhance the overall health of land, water, and the wildlife that lives above, in and around a farm?

So on this afternoon, when the sun has found its way to warm the soggy lands of the farm, I hope that my mood wasn’t too rainy. I have been a part of a farm nearly all of my life, and honor those who farm as a wonderful and resilient lot who are clever and smart if they have survived to this point. Yet farmers are repeatedly caught in their own drive to produce great yields that lead to surplus and low prices, caught in forces that are larger than themselves and that they have no power to control. This may only change when success is measured by more than cheap food. It will change when value, mindfulness and fairness are central to the responsibility that each of us has to create the world that we want to live in.

— Paul Muller