Showing posts with label California farmers. Show all posts
Showing posts with label California farmers. Show all posts

Saturday, January 10, 2015

California Seeing Brown Where Green Used to Be

The Central Valley of California is home to many  farms that now lie unplanted, like this former tomato field near a chicken farm in Helm. CreditMatt Black for The New York Times 
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SELMA, Calif. — Fields that in any other year would be filled with broccoli, melons and onions are instead dusty patches of dirt. Farmers are calculating losses that add up with each arid day. Thousands of farm workers who rely on paychecks for tending the fields are expected to go unemployed this year.
“It’s as worse as I’ve ever seen it, I’ll tell you that right now,” said Bill Chandler, who runs a nearly 500-acre farm, growing raisin grapes, peaches and almonds.
For more than a century, Mr. Chandler’s family has watered crops from a canal near his ranch, which holds rainwater and runoff from the nearby Sierra mountain range. Last summer — and the summer before that — it was dry. This year, Mr. Chandler does not even expect to see a trickle of water through the cracked dirt. “People would like to think a few storms will solve our problems, but that’s not even going to get us close,” he said.
With California facing its worst drought in modern history, President Obama will visit Fresno on Friday with the state’s two senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who are promoting legislation that would offer $300 million in aid. The bill would also simplify the process of buying water from other areas and allow changes to try to divert more water from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta to farmers. 
Vincente Guerda, a worker at Chandler Farms, near Selma, Calif. Bill Chandler, who runs the 500-acre farm, said, “People would like to think a few storms will solve our problems, but that’s not even going to get us close.” CreditMatt Black for The New York Times 
But with Republicans in the House pushing instead for an overhaul of environmental protections of the delta, there are few immediate solutions in sight for the Central Valley, a massive stretch of land in the middle of the state that provides nearly half of the nation’s produce. State officials have already said that they will not be able to offer any water to the farmers through California’s vast network of canals. And federal officials are expected to announce that their web of reservoirs will not provide any water this year either, leaving thousands of farmers to rely exclusively on private wells.
“This is a real idling of land, and there is nothing positive about it,” said Daniel A. Sumner, an agriculture economist and the director of the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California, Davis. “It’s not fallowing — that implies a choice. This is not like North Dakota, where we know it’s going to get better. We’re talking either spending huge sums on bringing water in or thousands of acres lost.”
It is still too early to know whether the drought will create widespread food shortages or price increases, as farmers are still deciding what they will plant this spring. But by any measure, the outlook is grim.
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Joaquin River Delta
San Francisco
San Jose
Area of detail
Less than a month ago, Mr. Sumner and other experts estimated that 300,000 acres of rich farmland in the region would go unplanted. Now, he has nearly doubled that estimate.
“I haven’t learned anything yet that tells me it is less severe than we might have hoped,” he said.
The drought could translate into an $11 billion loss in annual state revenue from agriculture, according to the California Farm Water Coalition, an industry advocacy group. And in the Central Valley, where farming and food processing provide nearly 40 percent of all jobs, the most acute pain is most likely to be felt among low-level employees, who scrape by with seasonal work.
Jose Lopez, left, and Ronaldo Cetino installed sprinklers in a garlic field near Cantua Creek.CreditMatt Black for The New York Times 
The immense flatland west of the Sierra Nevada is maintained through extraordinary engineering efforts that send billions of gallons of water from the north to irrigate some three million acres of farmland. Here, farmers are insistent that jobs are tied directly to water, and they routinely protest environmental restrictions that limit their supply from the Sacramento delta. Signs like “Food grows where water flows” and “No water = no jobs,” dot the highways. These days, electric billboards usually reserved for traffic information flash this message: “Serious drought. Help save water.”
In previous droughts, unemployment in some towns climbed as high as 45 percent, a number many expect to see this year, according to the Westlands Water District, the largest federally controlled provider in the state.
“Even if we’re able to make it work, which is really still a question, there are going to be many people who really suffer tremendously and simply cannot put food on their tables,” said Sarah Clark Woolf, who helps run her family’s farming operation, Clark Brothers, in Five Points, southwest of Fresno. The farm is keeping about half of its 1,200 acres empty this year, which means fewer temporary workers and a smaller profit margin.
A road sign announces drought conditions in the Central Valley.CreditMatt Black for The New York Times 
Switching crops would have little impact, farmers say, because anything they plant would need water. Many farmers have traded vegetable row crops for trees growing almonds and pistachios, which are more profitable but require water year-round.
Like many farms here, Clark Brothers abandoned traditional flooding several years ago in favor of drip irrigation, which delivers a smaller and more concentrated amount of water to the crops. This year, Ms. Woolf’s farm will be forced to rely entirely on the ground wells it owns, pumping what they need to keep the existing crops healthy. But there is no way to know how much water is available underground — and with neighboring farmers doing the same, it is only a matter of time before the wells run dry.
“It’s like a bank account that is going to run out, and you don’t know when,” Ms. Woolf said, standing near her fields of garlic, where workers were laying rubber irrigation tubes under the murky cloudless skies. “With no rain, we’re not recharging what we’re taking. Nobody wants to do it this way, but you make the decision where to plant just based on where you can get the water to for as long as it lasts.”
Digging a new well can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and these days, even finding someone to do it can be impossible. With so many so constituencies desperate for water, companies that dig wells have yearlong waiting lists. And in some places, the water quality has already deteriorated so drastically that irrigating with well water would only hurt the crops.
When thousands of farmers gathered at the World Ag Expo in nearby Tulare this week, booths selling sophisticated products meant to measure every drop of water were crowded with would-be buyers. High-tech systems that once might have been dismissed as too costly were being examined by even some of the smallest operations.
“We have trees coming in that we already paid for, and we don’t know how to water them,” said Cameron Kaplan, who manages his grandfather’s citrus trees in Visalia, Calif. “I’m looking for anything I can find.”

But the most ubiquitous proposed solution was far simpler, emblazoned on T-shirts and used as a greeting: “Pray for rain.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

Pimiento de Padron

Andy Griffin
Mariquita Farm
The Ladybug Letter


Padron is a town in Spain north of Portugal in Galicia on the Atlantic coast.  I passed through Padron in 1993, and stopped for lunch, but I didn’t try their world-famous peppers. I was with Julia, and we were on our honeymoon. We shared a plate of sardines and a carafe of Albarino wine. I learned about the Pimiento de Padron the hard way, here in California in the fields, not on a cool, breezy restaurant patio by the Spanish seashore, and I lost money and burned my tongue off. If you’re a cook or gardener maybe I can help you to avoid making my mistakes.

padron peppersSpanish food is different than Mexican food and the Padron pepper is as instructive an example of the difference between the two cuisines as I can think of. When I finally figured out how to handle the Pimiento de Padron I took time to fry up a few platefuls in the classic Spanish tapas style for my Mexican workers so they’d understand how to pick and sort these peppers the way a Spaniard might. My workers smiled at my cooking demonstration and they ate the peppers willingly, but they assured they never did things this way back home in Michoacan.

When it comes to peppers, Mexican farm workers have the right to grin at the antics of Spanish chefs, or wanna-be Spanish chefs like me. Padron peppers, like all varieties of capsicum peppers, originally came from the New World, and a lot of them came from Mexico. Columbus promised his financial backers that he could sail across the Atlantic to India. When he made landfall he didn’t understand or accept that he’d encountered a new continent so the indigenous people he met were “Indians.” These “Indians” didn’t cultivate Piper nigrum which yields the familiar–and costly– black peppercorns that lured adventurers to the Indian coast, so the botanically unrelated, utterly dissimilar and wildly various pods of American Capsicum plants had to stand in as “peppers.” Pimienta means “pepper” in Spanish.

The town of Padron is on the banks of the Rio Ulla where it flows into the ocean. The citizens of Padron would have been among the first Europeans to see and experiment with these new “peppers” that the explorers brought back from overseas. Columbus’ ship, the Santa Maria, was even nicknamed Gallega, which means “the Galician.” As Spain’s new empire expanded across the Americas, Spanish sailors brought many different varieties of pimiento back home. Modern plant scientists have improved the pepper, but before Columbus was even born Native American farmers had already developed every basic form of pepper that we know today, from the large, sweet, and painless bell peppers to the tiny, incendiary chiltepin. The citizens of Padron adopted one particular variety out of all these newly arrived peppers to be their own “Pimiento de Padron.” Because Padron is near the sea and sailors were as common there as sand fleas, I think a waterfront bar tender had something to do with this.

The so-called “heat” in a hot pepper comes from a chemical called capsaicin. When a “hot” pepper is tiny and undeveloped its tender pod will contain little, if any capsaicin. Over time, as the pepper pod matures, capsaicin begins to concentrate in the developing seeds and internal ribbing membranes. One theory is that the pepper plant developed capsaicin as a deterrent to herbivores; if a deer or a squirrel eats a pepper they get a burning sensation in their mouth and remember to not to eat another one. Frankly, I don’t buy this notion; the pepper plant is smarter than that.

A pepper plant grows for quite a while before it flowers and fruits. The Padron peppers in your share box come from plants sown in the greenhouse in February and transplanted into the field in April. We’ve only just started the harvest, but already the plants are five months old and very few of the peppers pods are mature enough yet to have much heat at all. According to the “herbivore deterrence” theory these plants would be vulnerable for most of their lives and only develop their protective concentrations of capsaicin at the last minute. That’s stupid evolution. I think the pepper genus developed “heat” in order to provoke herbivores to eat them.

What “irritates” one person (or mouse) may excite another – and I have had many problems over the years with mice eating the dried chilies I’ve saved for seed. Humans save seeds for re-planting, and mice store seeds to eat that then get rained on and sprout, so by being “irritating” and getting eaten the pepper assures its propagation and survival. Of course not everyone likes spicy food, and hot peppers are not typical of Spanish cuisine.

Five years ago, when Chris Cosentino, the chef at Incanto, an Italian restaurant in the Noe Valley neighborhood of San Francisco, came back from a European trip, he brought me seeds of the Pimiento de Padron. “I can grow those,” I said. I remembered Padron. The weather in Padron is cool and temperate. The Gallegan landscape looks a lot like the Monterey Bay area, where I farm. “Any crop a Gallego can grow, I can grow better.”

My Padron peppers grew well. By September the plants were five feet tall and hung with gorgeous fire engine red peppers. I tried one. My eyes popped out of my skull and my tongue smoked. “You waited too long,” Chris said. “I can use a few of these to make dried pepper flakes, but that’s about it. Next year, pick them when they’re tiny.”

Gallegan farmers learned long before me that their favorite pepper gives a big yield of tender little peppers in early summer and that if you pick the plants clean, they’ll flower and set fruit again and again. Picking the peppers young and green creates early cash flow that allows a farmer to live until other crops are ready to harvest in August and September.

Gallegan cooks learned that the tiny, tender peppers are very flavorful, and rarely have much heat at all to them if they’re picked young enough. Only the older, firmer, heavier, waxier peppers are hot, and they learned to pick them out and set them aside. The cooks learned too that these new peppers could be cooked fast, in just a little more time than it takes to heat up a cast iron skillet. They’d get the pan hot, splash a little olive oil onto it, and when the oil was almost smoking hot, they’d toss on a handful of the tiny peppers. The peppers would hop and sizzle for a few seconds. When the peppers were blistered on one side, the cooks would shake the pan, toss the peppers, and let them blister on the other side. Then a quick sprinkle of sea salt, a deft sweep of the pan with a wooden fork, and the peppers were served, ready to eat, sweet, savory, salty, and piping hot.

But a Gallegan bartender’s is to sell drinks. They learned to put a little extra salt on the peppers. And Bartenders wouldn’t pick out the more mature peppers, either. A sailor bellies up to the bar, orders a bottle of cool Albarino wine, and grabs a handful of the fried peppers the bar maid had left within arm’s reach. The first ten or twelve peppers down the hatch are delicious; sweet, savory, salty, and piping hot. But the last one? “Hijo de la !@#$%,” it’s picante. So the sailor, his tongue burning, gulps his wine down and orders another bottle to extinguish the blaze. The bartender is happy to oblige.

True, a glass of cold milk works best to put out a pepper fire on the tongue, but what kind of self respecting sailor orders milk in a waterfront bar? Besides, even the spicy peppers taste great, especially after a couple of drinks. And so the reputation of these fried peppers spread out like a ship’s main sail and traveled the world. “You think your stale pretzels are good,” the sailors said to the bartenders of Boston, London, Lagos, and San Francisco. “You ought to cook up some pimientos like they do in Padron.”

copyright 2009 Andy Griffin || Gardeners who really like them should plant a few plants in their back yard. I get my seeds from Bill McKay at GrowItalian

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