Yesterday was my birthday, 57 to be exact. I wouldn’t normally mention that in the newsletter, but this year marks a full thirty years that I have been farming, all of them right here.
I moved from New York to California in September of 1992, and moved to Winters after spending six months in San Francisco. And while when I arrived here I had already lived 27 years, the reality is that almost the entirety of my adult life has been dedicated to — or swallowed up by — this farm.
Farming is not just a job, especially not the way that we have done it here and continue to do it. You can try to pretend it’s a job, setting boundaries for yourself and establishing a regular, sane schedule. But that fantasy gets crushed, regularly, by events that remind you that no matter how carefully you plan and prepare, you are not in control.
Of course there is the weather, which I write about here probably far too often. But there are also pests and diseases, plus the fact that plants never take a break from growing — except when they die unexpectedly. Any and all of these factors can totally ruin your day, your week, your month, or even a whole year. On the flip side, they can surprise you by doing the opposite of what you expect in a good way.
Sadly, you learn that other farmers’ disasters — flood, drought, well failure, tornado, etc — are often the reason for your success, causing demand and/or prices for your crops to rise. And when there are no disasters and everyone has a great crop, it is often a bad thing for both prices and demand. Other professions/industries don’t have this “Survivor” type of paradigm of success based on others’ failures.
The market and the economy exert an even more complicated influence over agriculture. Of course there is the job security that goes along with everyone needing to eat. But generally speaking, people spend a larger percentage of their income on food when the economy is doing poorly. The number of subscriptions to our CSA and CSAs in general tend to go up during recessions — and pandemics, apparently. But if you’re growing crops considered luxury items — winegrapes, nuts, fancy tomatoes or organic produce in general — the market is usually better when the overall economy is running hot.
And then there is the value of the dollar, which impacts international trade. Even farms that don’t export their crops (like Terra Firma) are impacted secondarily when the farms that do need to sell more of their produce domestically. And during those same periods, cheap imports flood into the U.S. as well. That is what is happening right now, particularly with organic produce from Mexico. While retail food prices for have risen with inflation, prices paid to producers are mostly the same as they were two years ago.
When I first moved here in 1993, agriculture was in a deep depression due to the hangover from the high interest rates of the 80s. Farmers in the area were still undergoing the painful transition away from apricot and almonds. There were abandoned orchards everywhere, and land for farming was easy to find — if you were willing to rip out dead trees from it first. That’s what I spent most of my first season here doing.
Now I feel myself with a strong sense of deja vu seeing thousands of acres of mature walnut trees, many of which I saw planted, being removed due to low prices resulting from exports drying up and interest rates skyrocketing. Thirty years ago I would have seen this as a golden opportunity to rent or buy more land and expand Terra Firma. And maybe if I were 27 again, I would. Instead, like many 57 year olds, I tend to see the storm clouds in the sky even if the sun is poking out from between them.
I have no complaints about the three decades I have spent farming. Unlike many if not most farmers, I entered agriculture purely by choice. Despite everything written here, I consider myself lucky and blessed to have been able to participate in building this farm into the enterprise that it is today. It has never been easy but nor has it been boring — although boring is starting to seem more appealing now than it was in 1993. I don’t expect to do it for another thirty years, but right now feeding people healthy, nutritious organic produce is what keeps me getting out of bed every day.