Volume 7, Week 49, July 27–August 2, 2014
I’m frustrated, sad, discouraged, angry….how about we go with just unhappy this morning. And that should be my clue to sub this newsletter out to Amy Beth because folks don’t want to hear about unhappy—there’s enough of that any which way you turn. But since we’re family, you’ll probably put up with me being off beat once every seven years; that means I’ve gotta save up till 2021 for the next one. Gather round and I’ll tell you a couple stories, the first personal, the second about a neighbor.
I started farming out of high school in ’75 while going to college. Dad died of cancer in ’78, I went broke in ’85—18% interest on operating money coupled with $700/acre payments from $500/ton raisins just didn’t hunt. I allowed myself a day and a half’s depression, but with a wife and two little children, that was a luxury we couldn’t afford.
I managed for a neighbor in ’86 and for a very large management company ’87–’89. Those 4 years were very educational, and in retrospect, going broke was the best thing that could have happened. On a slow day, I had 5 field crews spread 80 miles apart, I ran the packing shed, cold storage, shipping…when you’re 30, 18 hours is no thing. But I felt I was losing more at home than I was making from the day job, and when you’re a generational farmer—it’s indescribable unless you live it—you’ve got to be farming the home place for yourself.
That last year, ’89, I pulled some trees, scrounged 4 old power poles and stretched a used canvas tarp I bought for 50 bucks from the cotton oil plant between them and started packing my own fruit. That winter, three neighbors came by and asked if I’d pack their fruit. I asked: “Where?” and they each said: “We don’t care, just do it.” My credit was still good at the lumber yard, and an uncle had some aluminum roofing he’d taken off some turkey shades so I put up a pole shed in ’90, packed the fruit, and paid back the lumber yard and the uncle.
We scratched and prayed and shoveled and today, we employ about 100 people year-round in a beautiful facility with cold storage. We even have a meeting room where we have real meetings; that’s the hardest part to get used to. I guess we shovel better if we have a meeting first?
The second story’s about a neighbor—a competitor actually but in the good sense in that he competes off quality, not price, raising the bar which makes it better for everyone at the end of the day. His facility’s immaculate and his reputation sterling.
Ten days ago, Australia found a trace amount of food poisoning bacteria on his fruit—1/10th the amount allowable there—so they let it pass. We have no such tolerance here, so being a man of integrity; he instituted a voluntary recall from all across America at a cost in the millions. Our media picks it up and tells everyone: “Better not eat California tree fruit; they’ve got a huge recall going on.” But the truth is, no one in the recorded history of our planet, including this incident has ever gotten food poisoning from a peach. The man does everything right, and goes from hero to zero, head line to bread line overnight.
Okay Uncle Vern, what do these two stories have to do with each other and why are you so unhappy this morning? Because, in one generation, we’ve lost something so precious in our country. I could no more pack fruit under a tarp today than the man in the moon. It would take 9 months after I submitted engineered plans and paid thousands of dollars in fees just to put up the pole barn, but I wouldn’t be able to pack fruit there. It’s not enclosed, dirt floor, how ya gonna sanitize the fruit, deal with the waste water…? Just 24 years ago, we picked plums, put ’em in a box under a tarp and shipped ’em everywhere. A guy with a dream could pursue it. He still can, but instead of say $10,000 to get started, minimum would be 2 million today if you had the fruit and the final product isn’t a lick safer.
And that brings us to a bunch of little organic farmers, putting up the safest produce anywhere, following a dream shared by all of you. We’re going to follow this as long as we can because its right and unhappy’s unaffordable.