Farmers are making it count

Vendors at local farmers markets adjust practices to save water

California is years into its latest drought, but a stroll through the Palo Alto Farmers Market doesn't show it. Chard, broccoli, kale, potatoes and apples fill tables and crates at dozens of vendors' stalls, which shoppers aplenty peruse, looking for choice ingredients for the week's meals. An onion is weighed, a bag filled, currency exchanged and then vendor and shopper part ways.

Yet a longer conversation with vendors -- many of whom work on the farm or are owners -- yields a more complete picture of the state of California agriculture: a story of crossed fingers and adjustments big and small to get the most out of available water and keep customers satisfied.

As one might expect, the experience of each farm differs, depending on how big their operation is and how they get their water. Tomatero Organic Farm, a regular produce vendor at the California Avenue farmers market in Palo Alto, has only had to shift its practices slightly, mostly because of access to good soil and water by well on its 60 acres in Watsonville.

Adriana Silva, one of the farm's owners, said water issues certainly aren't new to California, and her farm always tries to be efficient and avoiding over-watering. She fears the water situation may become more difficult in the near future, but the farm has been able to manage well enough thus far.

"Some wells are pumping sand, for sure," she said. "(But) some people have had it so much worse."

One farm that has felt the drought more acutely is Oya Organics, a Hollister-based produce farm that started offering its crops at the Mountain View Farmers Market at the beginning of last year. Oya founder Marsha Habib said that the farm has had to reduce its producing acreage and to fallow half of its land. Habib said that the shrinking -- which didn't focus on any specific crops, just cutting back a bit everywhere -- came as a result of a low water allocation from San Benito County, upon which Oya Organics relies.

"It's political. ... (County officials) decide how much they are going to sell to the farmers," Habib said.

Silvia Prevedelli, owner of Prevedelli Farms -- a producer of organic apples, pears, blackberries and raspberries as well as green beans, squash and other vegetables -- said her operation has also felt the squeeze, though the farm gets its water from wells. The Watsonville business, which has been around since 1945, has booths at both the California Avenue and Mountain View markets.

Prevedelli said her farm had elected not to grow zucchinis this year to save water for the apple trees and berries, which have been in place longer. Because of the lack of rain, she also said that they've had to start watering the trees (especially the young ones) in recent weeks -- in the past, watering began in May.

A fixture at the Mountain View market for 10 years, Avila Farms of Hollister has likewise had to make some tough decisions, cutting back on tomato production. However, Jeanette Avila explained that they're mostly focusing on being smarter about crop selection, ensuring that there will be buyers for whatever they produce.

"We're really just trying to focus on what people really like," Avila said.

She also noted that she and her fellow farmers are researching ways they might make the most of the water they do have. One particular change she's considering is creating a system to recycle the water the farmers use to wash the produce -- something a neighbor of the farm turned them on to.

While the drought hasn't drastically reduced their crops this year, Avila said using less water has changed the crops themselves, specifically the chili peppers. Giving the peppers less water has made them smaller but also spicier and more concentrated. Avila said they might even be selling a little better, though it really comes down to the individual shopper and his or her taste buds.

Emily Leshner from Fifth Crow Farm in Pescadero, another California Avenue vendor, described a similar result with the tomatoes grown on her farm. Fifth Crow practices "dry farming," a common strategy for growing crops like tomatoes, apples, potatoes, grapes and olives in drier climates.

A dry-farmed tomato plant is watered only a little and then grows on its own, taking moisture from the soil. Though fewer in number, the tomatoes that emerge from the process are more dense with nutrients, and thus more flavorful and sweet, Leshner said.

Silva and Habib said they also rely on dry farming as a way to conserve water. As part of the dry-farming process for its tomatoes, Oya Organics applies a layer of dust mulch, which prevents moisture in the ground from evaporating. Fifth Crow Farm also uses dry farming to grow its potatoes.

Vendors mentioned other practices or technologies they're employing to address the water shortage, including watering during cooler times of day and using drip irrigation: a system of pipes and tubes that dispenses water directly to each plant. Despite the added expense and work, Fifth Crow has been implementing more drip irrigation as a less wasteful alternative to spraying water over everything. But ultimately, farmers can only work with the water that's available.

"It kind of just depends on what's in the creek," Leshner said.

Prevedelli said she's uncertain whether they'll have to cut out anything else from the lineup, as she doesn't know how much more water (aka rain) is coming. But that precarious waiting game -- however hidden from customers at local farmers markets -- is part and parcel of the business of being a California farmer.

As Prevedelli pointed out, "We depend all on Mother Nature."

The California Avenue Farmers' Market and the Mountain View Farmers' Market are both held on Sundays from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., year-round, and are located respectively on California Avenue in Palo Alto and at the Mountain View Caltrain Station parking lot.

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