Who are California's farmers and why do they love what they do? Those are the main questions that Nick Matteis hopes to answer for consumers every week in the popular blog and educational campaign he oversees as executive director of California Grown. Partly farmer funded, California Grown aims to connect Californians to the families who grow their food and beverages. In a weekly blog post, readers find seasonal recipes for California crops and a profile of a California farmer. For Down to Earth, Matteis shares some insights about the state’s specialty crop growers, winegrowers among them:
We often hear that people are leaving agriculture, that the average age of farmers is rising. Is that true in California? Any signs that more young people are staying on the family farm or taking up agriculture?
I think there is a more positive picture, but it’s a hard thing to measure. Anecdotally, for the past two years we’ve done a blog series for CA Grown called “Meet a Farmer.” We’ve highlighted farmers of all types, multi-generational and brand new to the industry. We’re up to 80 or 90 stories now, capturing what they’re passionate about, or what would be their advice to somebody going into farming. The most common theme is that they love the lifestyle. Many of them tried out other professions and weren’t sure they wanted to come back to the farm but eventually decided they wanted to get back to being outdoors and working with nature.
California has many different kinds of markets that allow first-time farmers to grow a business. Farmers markets play a big role. You also have CSAs (community-supported agriculture) and retailers who want to source hyper-locally. It’s not uncommon to have a farmer delivering to the back of the local Whole Foods. Direct sales online are big for products like wine and olive oil. All of these outlets provide opportunities and a lot of space. Plus, some buyers are willing to pay more for small-production agriculture, and some types of certification can bring a premium as well.
What are some of the up-and-coming specialty crops in California? What are cutting-edge farmers growing?
The demand for extra-virgin olive oil is driving growth in olives in the state. There’s not enough extra virgin olive oil to satisfy demand. We’re seeing quite significant growth.
The winegrape harvest has grown in the last decade by 25 percent. Wine shipments rose more than 15 percent in the same period. So that’s a healthy agricultural sector.
Finger limes have become a sought-after item in the culinary world. Prickly pears seem to be growing in popularity with smaller niche producers who might have two to five acres. Dragon fruit has been fairly successful in the state. The popularity of Asian vegetables seems to be higher than ever. We’re seeing some new gold kiwifruit varieties. The flesh is golden, with a little less acidity than green kiwifruit. And we’re seeing some gigantic kiwis, mega kiwis, that have a higher sugar level.
Are the state’s specialty-crop growers farming more sustainably than they were a decade ago? Can you offer some examples of change?
Practices have definitely changed. For our blog posts, we ask about practices they’re engaged in to take care of the land and many say, “water efficiency.” Some of our growers have invested in research to determine when it is most critical to water their orchard trees. Can they taper off post-harvest? Some have realized water savings of up to 50 percent from this knowledge.
At Lava Cap Winery in the Sierra Foothills, where the vines are on steep slopes, winegrower Kevin Jones pays a lot of attention to erosion control. He plants cover crops to hold the soil, never discs and uses straw to minimize erosion on the vineyard roads in winter. A weather station in the vineyard calculates the powdery-mildew pressure so he can minimize fungicide applications. All the local vineyards have access to this data now.
Any examples of resource conservation in packing or packaging?
There are some packers investing in alternative processes that use less water. Instead of fluming delicate fruit to wash it, they can do it in a dry way, with some sort of conveyance that prevents bruising in the same way that a flume does. They’re looking at it for cherries, although it’s not common practice yet.
What about worker comfort and safety—any progressive new practices on that front?
One big lettuce grower is now using plant tape for starter plants. Imagine baby spinach plants wrapped in biodegradable fiber tape and linked together. A tractor drives down the row, tugging a semi-automated unit with a couple of workers who monitor the feed of the tape. It eliminates all that bending over, with workers planting one plant at a time. It eliminates a lot of repetitive motion. In the strawberry business, mini robots are being used to relay empty trays out to the workers who are harvesting. It eliminates a lot of that back-and-forth walking down furrows.
What else should we know about CA Grown?
We tell stories about food and how it’s produced. Our mission is to promote the breadth of California agriculture. We hope people will find value in knowing more about the people producing a particular crop, and we try to shed some light on what it means to provide food for the nation. We are highlighting some inspirational people committed to very long hours and not many vacations. And they love it.
Note: Wine Institute is a California Grown member.
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