Dozens of fires and hundreds of thousands of acres have been burning in California the past three weeks and have created smoky conditions impacting the production and harvesting of organic vegetable crops throughout the state.
Peter Oszaczky of the Organic Harvest Network, Richmond, CA, said the poor air quality has made it difficult to harvest the crops. The proximity of the fires to the organic farms the company represents is not the problem, but the smoke makes for difficult harvesting conditions resulting in shorter workdays. He said the company was currently selling organic cherry tomatoes, hard-shell squash, peppers and leafy greens, and there were potential yield and quality issues on the crops causing concern for growers.
“It’s a difficult situation,” he said of the harvesting issues, noting that the current smoke is among the numerous challenges that have influenced production of organic crops this year. One can almost be forgiven for overlooking the coronavirus during this latest calamity.
Darrel Beyer, organic salesman for Boskovich Farms in Oxnard, CA, said the heat wave and high humidity in late August and early September have had a bigger impact than the smoky conditions in Ventura County (where Boskovich operates). Several crops just “stopped growing” when the temperature rose well above 100 degrees and stayed there for several days, he said.
Darrel Beyer, organic salesman, Boskovich Farms
“Right now, I’m selling a lot of kale and chard, and cilantro is doing well. Celery has been good, but it has come off a bit in the past few days. I’m still asking $20-$21 for my celery, but I know there are some others out there with cheaper stuff,” Beyer said. He also noted that organic romaine is high priced and hard to find.
This is traditionally the slow time of the year for Boskovich’s organic production as the company avoids competing against the many regional deals around the country that tend to dampen f.o.b. price for California growers during the summer months.
Beyer said the smoke and heat have not had a major impact on planting schedules, so he expects a return to normal volumes within several weeks. He is gearing to ramp up for fall/winter production beginning in early to mid-October.
Art Barrientos, vice president of harvest, Ocean Mist Farms
Art Barrientos, vice president of harvest at Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, CA, explained that the Brassicas (cauliflower and broccoli) and the leaf items (romaine, red leaf, and yellow leaf) are showing the greatest impact from the environmental events of the past month. The heat wave of August caused the Brassicas to develop hollow heart, which is defined by the lack of a tight core with the florets being more spread out. This influences the quality and the presentation in a negative way.
The leaf items were hurt by the heat, Barrientos said, which reduced yields, but they have also been impacted by the skies of the last two weeks that have featured smoke but no sun. That has slowed down growth and caused the heads to stretch as they search for natural light. Barrientos also said that ash can work its way down into the heart of open-headed vegetables like romaine and the leafy lettuces.
Barrientos said both organic and conventional vegetables are facing the same environmental challenges. “Mother Nature doesn’t know whether it’s a conventional or organic crop,” he quipped.
Joe Eisinger, organic produce buyer for Nathel & Nathel Inc., on New York’s Hunts Point Market, said there have been no reports of ash on West Coast product once it arrives at his New York dock, but there have been some quality issues with some items including leaf lettuces, broccoli, and cauliflower. He said vegetable supplies from the West Coast are normal, although romaine and romaine hearts were in short supply with high f.o.b. prices. He also mentioned that broccoli supplies were tight.
The USDA’s National Specialty Crop Organic Summary revealed that romaine and romaine hearts were in the $30-$34 range this week, while the f.o.b. prices on other organic leaf lettuces were in the low $20s, and organic broccoli crowns were in the high $30s.