Left Afield

Flooded strawberry fields in the Pajaro Valley as seen after the levee broke in March. Even after water recedes, damage and food safety concerns have lasting impact.

For grower Javier Zamora, this winter was an unprecedented procession of weather-related misfortune. January’s storms turned nearly half of the roughly 70 growable acres on his farm, JSM Organics in the Pajaro Valley, into “a lake overnight.” Weeks after the waters receded, March’s storms blew through, turning the fields into a lake again.

Even now, “parts of the fields are still wet,” Zamora says, hindering production of the berries that are his biggest cash crop, as well as the sugar peas, squash, broccoli and green beans that he also grows. Compounding his frustration is the fact that the disaster relief programs he applied to months ago, through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency, have been painfully slow to provide assistance.

“We’re hanging by a thread – it’s been really difficult,” says Zamora, who came from humble roots in Mexico and, over the past 11 years, grew a small family-run farm into a successful, mid-sized operation.

Still, he doesn’t know if he’ll have the resources to continue unless he receives help soon. “The USDA keeps saying they have emergency loans, but they’re going to come when – in August, September?” Zamora asks. “We’ll be lucky to stay in business.” In the meantime, he’s been left to borrow money from relatives, bargain for advances from his buyers and even set up a GoFundMe page for his workers – many of whom are undocumented and ineligible for government unemployment benefits.

The first three months of 2023 brought weather that devastated Monterey County’s agricultural sector, hurting growers of all sizes. Estimates of the damage vary; county and state officials pegged the toll as approaching $800 million, while the Monterey County Farm Bureau has predicted north of $1 billion.

While large growers have the balance sheets and crop insurance to withstand such pain, small and mid-sized farmers often do not, heightening the importance of government aid.

Monterey County’s USDA-FSA office says it has received some 350 requests for assistance this year in the tri-county area it serves; however, only around $1 million has been approved to date.

“Overall, it does take a long time for [government relief] money to get to farms,” says Reggie Knox, CEO of California FarmLink, a nonprofit agricultural lender that primarily provides funding to low-income growers of color. In addition to offering zero-interest disaster loans of up to $100,000, FarmLink is working to raise funds for grants of up to $10,000 for impacted farmers.

Similar grant programs are operated by nonprofits like Davis-based Community Alliance with Family Farmers and Santa Cruz-based California Certified Organic Farmers. Of the 193 people who have applied this year for $5,000 grants through CAFF’s Family Farmer Emergency Fund, 72 are in Monterey County.

CCOF is providing grants of up to $20,000 to qualifying organic producers. In lieu of slow-moving government aid, “nonprofits like ours are trying to fill in those gaps and provide quicker, more nimble support,” says Adrian Fischer of CCOF.

Zamora is applying for help, but admits a $5,000 grant would be “a little band-aid on a big wound.”

“We are a big part of the ag community,” he says of small farmers. “There’s hundreds of us, and if you put it all together, it becomes a big part of the food system.”

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