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California Fires: Another Calamity Growers Work Through

August 27, 2020

4 Min Read
California Fires: Another Calamity Growers Work Through

David Weinstein, longtime organic produce veteran with Heath & Lejeune Inc. in Los Angeles, ticked off the seemingly insurmountable odds California organic producers have been up against this year. Starting with the on-going pandemic, continuing through an intense mid-summer heat wave, and now wild fires living up to their name from the Salinas Valley to the Napa Valley, he marveled that through it all, organic producers are filling the pipeline and seemingly not missing a beat.

“It’s unbelievable to me. It’s a pandemic, it’s very hot, the fires are out of control in the hills above Salinas and they are still harvesting the crops like nothing’s going on,” Weinstein said. “We get two loads of (organic) mushrooms a week: white and cremini, bulk and packaged, whole and sliced. No matter what’s going on consumers can still pick what they prefer. What kind of apocalypse is this?”

Brian Peixoto, sales manager, of Lakeside Organic Gardens in Watsonville, CA, made a similar point. “Our production has been rocking and rolling to get orders filled. We have no complaints. The heatwave impacted us more (than the fires) with items like tender leaf and stopping our crews during peak heat,” he said.

Peixoto said there has been an increase in market movement due to the heat wave, adding that Lakeside Organic’s production has been so good in the past few weeks that the company has increased the food donations it makes to help those front line workers and people impacted by the fires.

Though the tireless efforts of organic producers have apparently kept the supply moving, the Salinas River Fire was substantial. The fire began on August 16 and eight days later (Aug. 24) it had consumed about 50,000 acres of hillside vegetation and a handful of structures and was only about 30% contained. All week, the Salinas Valley below was filled with smoke and ash. But by the middle of this week, evacuees could return to their homes and firefighters were getting an upper hand on the area blazes.

Our production has been rocking and rolling to get orders filled. We have no complaints. The heatwave impacted us more (than the fires) with items like tender leaf and stopping our crews during peak heat" - Brian Peixoto

Weinstein said that on some of the tender green SKUs packed in the Salinas fields in the past week there was some ash in the cartons. He also noted that the berries – strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries – were affected by the August heat wave. “There are a lot of poor-quality strawberries out there,” he said. “But we have seen no effect on melons or the tree fruit.”

Robert Lichtenberg of Earl’s Organic Produce in San Francisco said there appears to be no scientific studies on the impact smoke and ash have on fresh fruits and vegetables. There have been studies pointing to “smoke taint” in wine after wine grapes have been exposed to heavy smoke in a fire region, but that connection is still being examined.

In fact, officials from Cultiva, a company that produces a food grade spray that offers crops protection against environmental stress such as rain, heat and smoke, noted that there should be much more data available after this year’s fire season as several conventional wine grape growers are utilizing the company’s applicable product, Parka, which is not yet registered for organic use.

Lichtenberg said Earl’s quality control department is closely inspecting its area shipments of organic produce looking for ash deposits deep in the core of the leafy green items. Northern California has dozens of fires creating smoky condition and ash is sprinkling over a wide swath of area.

“We reserve the right to kick any loads, but so far we haven’t had to,” Lichtenberg said earlier this week. He added that the heat wave earlier in August took its toll on tender greens, tomatoes and any crop that was not being protected by leaves.  As a result, he said there was a rising market for several organic items including romaine, romaine hearts, greens, and peppers. Strong markets on these are expected to continue through August. Typically, there is an increase in vegetable production in September when commercial growers anticipate increased demand because of the end of locally grown vegetable deals around the country.

On Tuesday, August 25, the USDA’s organic specialty crops report revealed that the f.o.b. price on romaine in Salinas was around $30 per carton, while most other lettuces and tender greens were in the low to mid-$20s.

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