It’s 7 a.m. on Wednesday, half an hour past sunrise. It should be sunny. Instead, it is still pitch black outside, with just a disturbing red-orange glow to east. Massive fires to the north have covered the Sacramento Valley with a giant high cloud of smoke, and a new fire is currently threatening communities around Oroville.
In the future, 2020 will certainly be remembered for the worst pandemic in modern memory. But it also may be remembered as the year that the human-caused Climate Crisis began in earnest. We’ve dealt with a lot of destructive weather in the past at Terra Firma: drought, flooding, extreme heat, comparatively extreme cold, and lots and lots of wind. But the last month has been one of the hardest periods we’ve gone through.
It began in early August with some of the hottest temperatures Northern California has ever seen. The coolest days we’ve had have been “average” temperatures. The hottest days we’ve had have set records, during a season where the record high temperatures are all right around 110 degrees. Then the fires started, and haven’t stopped since.
More than usual, all of us in Northern California are suffering together. The heatwaves and fires this summer have impacted the entire region. Climate change is threatening one of the central premises of life in the Golden State: if the weather where you live is unpleasant on a given day, you can just drive a few hours to find something more to your liking. As I write this, massive wildfires are also burning in Washington, Oregon, Colorado and other western states.
The heat, ash and smoke are taking their toll on our farm, as well as on agriculture in general. After a fairly bountiful early summer harvest, our crop yields have plummeted. Luckily for us, we were already winding down our real summer season when they started — other farmers are not so lucky. But some of the vegetables we count on to get us through the “shoulder season” of fall are being impacted. Green beans are not pollinating due to the extreme heat. Sweet Peppers have stopped ripening thanks to the artificially short days with limited sunlight, which has been measured locally as only 30% of normal. Thankfully, our Tomato field has somehow kept producing, but who knows how long it can hold on.
I would be remiss not to mention the impact of the situation on our employees. For outdoor workers, heat and smoke are far greater risks than Covid 19. For many years, we have sent people home when temperatures exceed 100 degrees. Now, we’ve adopted Air Quality Index limits, cutting the day short when it reaches 150. We’re keeping our staff safe, but it comes at the expense of their paychecks. We’ve added a certain amount of hazard pay, but our harvest and thus sales are down as well.
The fall and winter crops we plant in late summer are generally more impacted by the heat than our summer ones, so much so that I have been surprised some of them have survived the recent weather at all. But what we have learned this year is that the intense sunlight, which can heat the soil up to 150 degrees, is the real threat to cool season vegetables. The near-daily haze of late is much gentler on crops like carrots, which I have always considered the most at-risk vegetables during heatwaves. They have made it through the last month without significant losses.
What we don’t know — and what no one knows — is what the effect of continued smoke and/or above average temperatures will have on the crops that we’ve been planting and planning on harvesting for your boxes during the next six months. It’s reasonable to assume that it could cause a “premature fall”, resulting in decreased growth for our crops before the arrival of winter. This would have a seriously negative impact on our winter harvest.
We’re all hoping for an early arrival of real Autumn with cooler temperatures and soaking rains that would wash the smoke out of the air and put an end to fire season. But there’s hints of that in the forecast, but there’s no guarantee.
We at Terra Firma are recognizing that for the next month or so, we may not have enough fruits and vegetables available from our fields and orchards — and those of our friends and neighbors — to maintain the “full value” of your boxes. Depending on which size box you get in a given week, you may receive an email notifying you that your account is being charged less than our 2020 box prices.
As always, we appreciate your support and understanding during this historically unprecedented time.