The Saturday Berkeley farmers market on Center Street. Photo: Pete Rosos

Recent wildfires have significantly impacted vendors who sell produce at Berkeley’s three weekly farmers markets. Smoke has damaged crops, resulting in financial loss and unsafe working conditions. Patchwork response from emergency services has on occasion been confusing, even dangerous. Some farms have been evacuated, and at least one, Swanton Berry Farm, has had acreage burn.

Both supply and demand are up in smoke

“A lot of my crops that would be ready this week but would have flowered last week aren’t there,” said Sydney Knudsen, owner of Off Beet Farm, a two-acre farm located in Winters, a city in Yolo County 50 miles northeast of Berkeley.

“I harvested maybe 10% of what I normally would.” — Sydney Knudsen, Off Beet Farm

Flames from the LNU Lightning Complex fires did not reach Knudsen’s farm, but unhealthy levels of smoke prevented Knudsen from harvesting and damaged much of her existing crop. “I harvested maybe 10% of what I normally would,” she said.

Besides selling at the Saturday market in downtown Berkeley, Knudsen also sells directly to several East Bay restaurants, including Tacos Oscar and June’s Pizza, both in Oakland. Knudsen’s restaurant orders had already taken a hit when indoor dining closed. But with poor air quality, people were venturing outside even less, which meant restaurants cut back weekly orders even further.

Knudsen would like to make up for the loss by expanding the number of restaurants she sells to, but it’s impossible to sell when both supply and demand dry up simultaneously. The day she spoke to Nosh, she had been unable to fulfill an order for a new and potentially lucrative client.

“I thought that I was going to be able to fill it, I told them I could fill it, and then I couldn’t fill it. So I was really embarrassed,” she said. “They were cool and it was fine, but that’s not how I want to be as a businessperson.”

At only two acres, Off Beet is small enough that Knudsen does not have any employees. But operating at such a small size, in an industry with slim profit margins, even small losses can be significant, and their impact likely to linger. “It’s several hundred dollars a week, at least,” said Knudsen. “Which for a one-human operation is a big deal.”

Farms, farm workers in danger

Joanna Normoyle of Guru Ram Das Orchards at the Berkeley farmers market. Photo: Ecology Center
Joanna Normoyle of Guru Ram Das Orchards, seen here at the downtown Berkeley farmers market, said the farm had to suspend operations due to smoke. Photo: Ecology Center

In Esparto, also in Yolo County, the 12-acre Guru Ram Das Orchards also had to suspend operations on account of smoke. “The AQI [air quality index] reached 360 at points, and we decided it wasn’t okay to keep working outside in those conditions,” farmer Joanna Normoyle wrote via text message, “especially because we didn’t know how long the bad air quality was going to last.”

Guru Ram Das also sells at the downtown market on Saturday. Crops at Guru Ram Das were for the most part unaffected. Only figs were damaged. But hot, dry air has desiccated the trees, a concern in an already hot, dry summer. The property did not burn, and as the owner, Normoyle feels fortunate to have the option to not work. “We get to decide when to go back indoors,” she wrote. “Farm workers harvesting 10 hours a day, six days a week, with limited access to PPE, that’s worse.”

Of the three farmers Nosh spoke with directly, Riverdog Farm came closest to the fire. Located on 350 acres in Guinda, in the fertile Capay Valley around 45 miles northwest of Vacaville, farmer Tim Mueller grows fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, eggs, pork, lamb and chicken. Flames came within 100 feet of Mueller’s chicken brooders. The flames stopped because Mueller, along with neighbors including Full Belly Farm, built a fire break around their adjoining properties, clearing brush with heavy machinery.

Mueller is a volunteer with his local fire department, but the battle to save his property was part of a localized, communal effort, not part of Cal Fire. “We were able to save all residences but we did lose three outbuildings [among the farms],” he said.

Riverdog Farm, a popular stand at all three Berkeley farmers markets (seen here in April at the North Berkeley Farmers Market), has been affected by the LNU Lightning Complex fires. Photo: Pete Rosos

Once the flames were at bay, the next concern came when Riverdog lost electricity. “Power is one of the biggest crop losers because you lose irrigation,” said Mueller. The loss was temporary, and Mueller only went a day without watering.

Mueller feels fortunate. He lost no buildings, no livestock, no crops burned, nor so damaged by smoke as to be unsellable. The only loss was a few days’ harvest. “At this point, it’s too soon to have a real [financial] estimate [on crop loss], but probably less than $30,000,” he said. “It certainly is a lot of money to lose, but it could have been much worse.”

“I feel very grateful that we didn’t lose any structures and that we held the fire where we did,” Mueller said.

“We were able to save all residences but we did lose three outbuildings.” — Tim Mueller, Riverdog Farm

Mueller was more concerned for the physical and financial well being of workers on Riverdog Farms. Although he does keep a stash of N95 masks for workers, with flames just outside the property, conditions were too unsafe to have workers out harvesting. But nor could Mueller pay them for those missed days.

“They’re losing those wages,” he said. “We don’t make enough farming to just pay them if they’re not working.”

The problems of the fire were nearly compounded when California Highway Patrol attempted to block State Route 16, the main route through the Capay Valley. The effort was meant to contain the fire but could have had severe consequences. Only half the valley had been ordered evacuated, but a blockade would effectively cut off the entire valley. Had the fire spread, remaining residents could have been trapped inside, or at the least faced great difficulty in evacuating.

Through connections with the Yolo County Office of Emergency Services, Mueller alerted CHP to the danger and the blockade was lifted before it was put into full effect. “That is a major issue that needs to be addressed at a policy level,” said Mueller.

Mueller also mentioned his concern about potential CHP checkpoints that could discourage farmworkers from commuting to work. “Many farmworkers are poorly documented and having direct contact with state police is very intimidating,” said Mueller. “That’s a significant impediment for farms continuing to operate.”

More vendors affected by the fires, and how to help

Berkeley farmers market vendor Solano Mushroom in Vacaville had a close encounter with a fire that burned across the street from its orchard. Photo: Pete Rosos

Amanda Gordon, the Ecology Center’s farmers market program manager, shared with Nosh that a few other vendors were affected by the wildfires, including Solano Mushroom in Vacaville, which had a close call with a fire that burned across the street from its orchard, and Steadfast Herbs in Pescadero, which had been evacuated and has been unable to appear at recent markets.

Down the coast, Swanton Berry Farms, which has a farm stand in Davenport and ranch in Pescadero, launched a GoFundMe to support its farm workers after the CZU Lightning Complex fires burned farm property and smoke led to unsafe working conditions.

“As many of the farmworkers have lost homes or been displaced during this horrific fire we’re hoping to raise money to help support them through this heartbreaking time,” the farm explains on the campaign page. “These farmers have worked through intense heat, years of drought, and a pandemic to keep delicious, organic, and socially just food on your table.” (Nosh reached out to Swanton, but did not receive comment by the time of publication.)

Besides GoFundMe, there is an even more direct way for readers to support farmers affected by fire. “Agriculture continues,” said Knudsen. “Shop at farmers markets and at restaurants that buy from small farms.”

Mueller suggests locals with the means can help by joining a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. And for readers who want to support their local farmers market but are concerned about smoky produce, he has some simple advice: “Just like Mama always said, wash your damn vegetables.”

Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer living in downtown Berkeley. There are few things he enjoys as much as playing around with the alphabet.