Coronavirus in California: What Is the Effect on Agriculture?

Credit…Gosia Wozniacka/Associated Press

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The coronavirus pandemic has left no industry and no global system unchanged.

The way we grow, harvest and distribute food has been thrown into particular disarray, as workers fall ill and big companies struggle to adapt to demand that has almost instantaneously shifted from restaurants and cafeterias to supermarkets.

Recently, I spoke with David Mas Masumoto, the third-generation California farmer and author whose peaches are coveted by amateur fruit enthusiasts and high-end professional chefs alike.

He said that, although painful adjustments were underway, there were also silver linings in the pandemic, particularly for smaller growers like the Masumoto Family Farm, which has about 80 acres south of Fresno.

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Here’s our conversation, lightly edited and condensed:

How are things going?

All in all, good, in that we’re not in the middle of harvest. But it’s that cloud of uncertainty. Farmers are used to that, because of nature, but this is totally different.

We’re reading the tea leaves about how consumer tastes are changing.

For example, we make organic raisins and a lot go into raisin bran. Cereal sales are going fantastic after they were declining for some time.

So after we lift the shelter in place, are people going back to skipping breakfast? How do peaches fit into this? Are peaches a luxury item or part of a new, healthy diet?

[Read more about growing peaches as the climate changes in this Opinion piece.]

We’re in a good position because we’ve always diversified — some small farmers are hurting because their main buyers were restaurants. We sell some to restaurants, but some to wholesale and direct sales.

Each of those are starting to shift. We’re getting word that people may buy produce like peaches packaged in clamshells because they don’t want to touch the fruit — so how does packaging affect how we do things? Does that change the kind of fruit we want? Medium or big? I don’t know!

This is one time where small is beautiful. When you’re small you can make these shifts much more easily.

Do you supply to community-supported agriculture boxes? And is that something you’re shifting toward more?

Absolutely. Our friends are small farmers who do C.S.A. boxes.

People are paying attention to food — they’re paying attention to what they make, and so small-scale C.S.A.’s have been booming.

We sell into some C.S.A.’s, but we don’t have a system set up to do our own. If we were a little closer to the Bay Area we probably would have set up something much more direct.

[Read more about the rise of community-supported agriculture services in the pandemic.]

Up until now, we’ve only done that on a limited scale, but we could see that shifting more. It’s a win-win.

How do you see sustainability fitting into all these changes?

The broader question has to do with living with nature. People draw the comparison with World War II and victory gardens — this is working with nature, and the key with that is knowing there are unknowns.

[Read more about the re-emergence of victory gardens.]

Do you think this will change how you actually grow the peaches?

When I got here, the huge shift was me keeping heirloom varieties we grow, as opposed to breeding for shelf life. We’re very fortunate the market grew with us and we found an audience for that when the whole food revolution took over in the 1980s and 1990s.

I wonder now, is it one of those pivot moments, where we’re in the middle of another food revolution?

I think this whole crisis has accentuated the middlemen: the distributors, the packers, the shippers — they’re the ones at the heart of all this and they have tended to be ignored.

A static example is toilet paper. There are truckers and shippers, then the local store gets their Tuesday shipment of toilet paper. No one used to pay attention to when toilet paper arrived.

The same thing is happening with the food chain. I always had a little struggle when people used the term “farm to fork.” It leaves out the middle that’s so critical.

Another thing that we’re in the middle of accentuating is labor.

I was just going to ask about that.

What is the safety of farmworkers? We need sick-leave policies. But I think this could be a shift to people paying attention.

For us, we did a lot of the work ourselves and initially just had seasonal employees at pruning, trimming and harvest time. But about 10 years ago, the labor supply was getting very inconsistent and so we got one full-time employee and a few seasonal employees. At the height, we’re talking about only about a dozen and they tend to be the same.

[Read about how the pandemic has essentially halted migration to the U.S.]

And about five to 10 years ago, we started transitioning so the farm fits the labor. Usually in business, it’s the opposite. I’m not faulting big agriculture for doing that, but we have efficiencies on a small scale that work to our advantage.

Are you worried right now about finding even the labor you do need?

We’re definitely concerned. All these hands that feed us — what happens with politics and immigration. All those factors come butting into what we do. I always think that we’re in Fresno, which is hundreds of miles from the border but we’re actually on the border because it affects us directly.

I think that’s true with a lot of people in the industry and the food world.

[See every coronavirus case in California by county.]

Here’s what else to know today

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  • California sued Uber and Lyft, claiming that the companies wrongly classified drivers as independent contractors when they should be treated as employees. It’s part of the long-running fight over the state’s new gig-worker law. [The New York Times]

  • The state’s stay-at-home restrictions still prohibit restaurants from opening for dine-in service without a certified countywide safety plan, but some in Bakersfield did. [The Bakersfield Californian]

  • “You think this is just the flu? No. If you’ve never had this, you have no idea.” Every member of a family in Yuba County, which reopened businesses in defiance of the state order, is suffering from Covid-19. [The Sacramento Bee]

  • The state’s huge deal with a company selling masks came together quickly. Within hours of a roughly half-billion-dollar wire transfer, the deal fell apart. [CalMatters]

  • The Tenderloin in San Francisco is facing a looming health crisis. [New York Times Opinion]

  • Disney’s new chief executive wouldn’t say when Disneyland might reopen. In the meantime, the company is not doing well. [The New York Times]

  • A group of Marine recruits started their training this week after more than two weeks of quarantine at a nearby hotel. [The San Diego Union-Tribune]

  • You’re into South Korean baseball now? Get ready for bat flips, figure out who you’re rooting for and learn your player-specific cheers. [The New York Times]

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Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, graduated from U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter.

California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.

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