By Nora Becker
On most any Saturday, throngs of people gather by 10am at the Berkeley Farmers’ Market: families with young children pushing carts, elderly folks in masks and light down jackets, groups of friends standing in circles huddled over warm crêpes and espresso drinks. Weekenders move casually, taking many laps to peruse the produce and people-watch. Other customers arrive still running on the energy of their work week, walking purposefully to their regular spots to wait in line, order, and fill their bags before bustling off to other weekend tasks.
Farmers and other vendors travel here from near and far—some for many hours—to fill tents along Center Street with fresh food and produce. In early spring, there are plenty of roots, greens, citrus, and asparagus, and soon, the eagerly anticipated strawberries will emerge like superstars.
Pressures on Farmers: Drought, Fire, Flood, Inflation
The farmers take everything in stride, attending to the lines that build up quickly as they answer questions from shoppers. Roberto Gonzalez, owner of Golden Rule Organics based out of San Benito County, made a little time to talk about his concerns for the future of his farm as he arranged his produce.
In response to the dire water situation through so many recent growing seasons, San Benito County issued regulations that require costly changes to the farm operations at Golden Rule. Gonzalez was specifically worried about the money it will take to build a well and respond to water cost hikes and charges on water usage past a certain metered amount. To make up for the increased costs, Gonzalez considered raising prices at the farmers’ market, but there was pushback from customers already experiencing price hikes elsewhere. He said that a 10 percent price increase might be alright, but anything more, and he might lose the farmers’ market business he relies on.
Worries about inflation and cost increases were prevalent among many vendors. Nina Haroskiewicz, who has worked for Brokaw Ranch Company for about a decade now, said that gas prices are a big problem. It takes about five-and-a-half hours to drive to Berkeley from Brokaw’s Santa Paula ranch in Ventura County and a little over two hours from their farm in Soledad. On top of that, environmental factors have had a major impact. Fires near the Santa Paula ranch destroyed many of the avocado trees; Nina said that “the hot ground boiled the roots, essentially.” Heat waves and surprise frosts, too, have hurt crop yields. On top of all that, avocado prices are tied to global availability and supply chains. Brokaw Ranch raised prices earlier last year in response to a Mexican avocado shortage, and since then, Peruvian avocados have flooded the market, leading to a slight price reduction.
It has been a different challenge through the winter rains. According to Bridget Frederick, who alternates with Nina at the Brokaw stand, farmers at the Santa Paula ranch had to rush to repair fatigued drains, respond to mudslides, and protect crops from the inundation. Luckily, owner Will Brokaw remains extraordinarily dedicated to the art of growing this popular fruit. In addition to Hass and Gwen avocados, Brokaw Ranch produces passion fruit, kiwis, oranges, mandarins, lemons, kumquats, cherimoya, and guavas.
The Lifefood Gardens stand is lush year-round with trays of microgreens, sprouts, and juicing grasses. Katy Pomelov works the markets in addition to growing everything on display. Her growing practice is unique at this farmers’ market, since all her products are grown indoors and require very specific care. Pomelov constantly monitors temperatures, humidity, light intensity, and water with an array of tools and equipment. An environment that is too cold, too hot, or too humid could lead to the loss of her crop.
With all the recent rain (and snow where Pomelov operates in Lake County), the threat from power outages is significant. These cause major disruption in Pomelov’s carefully regulated indoor growing environment. In January, she lost power for a day and a half and was scrambling to repair generators and get her grow lights, dehumidifiers, fans, and fridges back in action. High reliance on power at Lifefood Gardens also entails high PG&E costs. In December, Pomelov says, her PG&E bill was $900, and while it was lower in January ($800), the utility costs are daunting. But her passion for what she grows is palpable, and she is optimistic about the seasons to come. In spring, she adds to her inventory with plant-starts for home gardeners, and in summer, shoppers will find boxes piled with summer squash and eggplant at her market booth.
Pleasures for Farmers: Blossoms and Stone Fruit
In February, customers stop at the Kashiwase Farms stand for organic almonds and almond butter and to check in on the upcoming stone fruit season, which starts with the cherries in May. For seller Erick Barajas, the cherries are indeed the most exciting of Kashiwase’s springtime crops, but with all the unpredictable weather the Central Valley farm has endured, it’s hard to say how successful their cherry crop will be. Barajas says, “in a really good year,” the cherry season might last six to eight weeks, but complications for the crop can mean no cherries at all. The farmers will not know whether the rain and wind have affected their cherries until the blossoms open in April.
Barajas has worked five markets a week on behalf of Kashiwase Farms for 15 years. Through it all, he has seen a lot of changes and watched many difficult decisions being made at the farm. He says that the past five years—with the drought and all that it has entailed—have been especially challenging. When one of their irrigation wells dried up, the new high-yield well they installed to replace it cost them almost $200,000, according to Barajas. It was a major investment, but one that was necessary for the survival of the farm.
In addition to the cherries, Barajas is looking forward to the peaches, which ripen right after the cherries, but he especially loves the short time in April when he gets to bring beautiful long branches of stone fruit blossoms to sell at the market. Those delicate, lightly sweet-smelling blossoms make just a brief appearance, but it’s a presence that is cherished by all who stroll the long aisle of the Berkeley Farmers’ Market. ♦
Nora Becker is a writer, freelance cookbook editor, and farmers’ market associate for Full Belly Farm.