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Cloudy Skies Ahead for Future of Farming

HOLTVILLE — Holtville-area farmer Jack Vessey is among those growers still deciding whether it is even worth their while to plant for the fall season.

Rising produce prices and the uncertainty of industrial-scale contract farming are likely to be the next hurdle ahead for a country facing a marathon worth of woes brought on by the COVID pandemic.

“If we don’t plant before the demand goes up, then the supply will not be adequate, and prices will rise for the consumer. If we plant right now before the demand goes up, we might not be able to even harvest our crop,” Vessey said.

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The president of Vessey and Co. Inc. said the fall planting season regularly takes place in the months of September and October.

The biggest changes that have affected Vessey’s business have come from the food service sector because it is the largest consumer of leafy greens.

“Restaurants and cruise lines are a big segment of our business, and they have been wiped out. We are trying to figure out how to adjust acreage to get back to normal. Commodities involved in salad bar items are about 50 percent down,” he explained.

Projecting the demand retailers will have to fill contracts in the future is the most difficult challenge facing local farmers when deciding whether to plant or not.

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“We are going to be down on acres on every commodity. The acres won’t be what they will be before spinach and spring mix sales to the big food-service industries are down 40 to 60 percent. Grocery stores have been doing well but did not pick up enough to cover food-service losses,” Vessey said.

Some types of produce have done well because of the pandemic, while other types have fallen off the map in terms of sales.

“A lot of the staples like carrots, potatoes, and onions went through the food in demand because people can store them. Kids staying at home makes parents want to have things on their shelves that will last. On the other hand, leafy greens have taken a hit of over 50 percent in sales,” Vessey said, implying their more perishable nature makes them less desirable for the home buyer.

Farming is always a risky business, but the conundrum local farmers find themselves in today is harder to navigate than in previous years. Most farmers work with or for a Northern California-based farming processor or marketer in financing their operations and must work with them in deciding if making a profit is viable in the current market.

“Salinas-based shippers and processors account for contracts for most of the produce acres in the Valley. We are hoping that it picks up by planting time from September to February so that we can get something going. The risk is that if we plan and the market goes down, we won’t even be able to harvest the crop,” Vessey said.

Vessey is a joint-venture partner and shares ownership and the initial investment of his crop with his distributor.

COURTESY PHOTO

“Together we decide to plant in order to meet the appropriate demand. We are talking weekly about spring mix. I spent money to prepare ground for planting. We flood every field before we plant to leach the salt. We are dragging our feet to stay behind instead of ahead, which is not normal,” Vessey said of the extensive preparation each farmer must undergo months in advance of planting.

“Every year there is a curve ball in farming. It can come from trade wars, increasing cost of labor, new regulations surrounding pesticides. This year the curve ball from the pandemic is bigger than ever,” said Kay Day Pricola, executive director of the Imperial Valley Vegetable Growers Association.

Cattle is the biggest industry in the Imperial Valley. So far, because of COVID, the local cattle industry has had issues processing, milk is being dumped because schools are closed, and less alfalfa is being purchased to feed next year’s cattle, Pricola said.

Farmers normally schedule what they will plant two years in advance, but recent changes in the market are requiring farmers to have a greater degree of flexibility in projecting their future.

“Farmers started planning only one year in advance last year because of E. coli in romaine. Many decided not to do romaine. With the outbreak, farmers are having to wait to the last minute in deciding what to plant based on the market,” said Pricola.

When deciding what to plan, farmers must consider if schools and restaurants will open or even if COVID could make a resurgence, she explained.

“If they invest now and the market crashes, farmers won’t be able to harvest. Farming is the biggest gamble of all,” said Pricola, highlighting that the biggest variables in farming are weather and market volatility.

“Some farmers go broke and others make it. There is big money every season. Because of our diversified crops in the Imperial Valley, we are usually OK. Like we always, have farmers will adapt,” Pricola said.

Vessey also kept a positive outlook for the future of farming. “As an industry we are going to make it through this, and when it gets back to normal, we are going to be able to fill the marketplace,” Vessey said.


This story is featured in the Jun 18, 2020 e-Edition.