The January cold snap devastated the California citrus industry, and it also wiped out the crops of smaller farmers who grow winter vegetables. Many organic growers and immigrant farmers can't afford crop insurance, so they're struggling to find a way to hang on until spring.
At a farmer's market in Fresno, many of the stalls are empty. Those who have brought crops to sell still have some explaining to do to their regular customers. Sherlyn Pascuale sells organic European-variety vegetables to chefs at local restaurants. She reluctantly tells one, "Just to let you know, I won't have the mache (lettuce) for Wednesday. I may have it for Saturday." He makes a note, and adds, " We're putting it on the Valentine's Day menu, too, so we'll need about five pounds."
Pascuale and her husband Lou farm a tiny plot, a little over one hectare, with shovels and hard work. Each day, they check on the baby plants they covered with sheets of plastic during the frost, trying to protect them from the cold. The freeze wiped out about two-thirds of their winter crop, and that was after the July heat wave that cooked many of their summer vegetables. "We were out one morning, with the Swiss chard, with the icicles hanging over the leaves," she recalls. "Lou and I are saying, 'What next? What are we going to do here?'"
Unlike many of the big citrus growers, the Pascuales can't afford crop insurance. "We totally feel like we're being overlooked. We're left out," Sherlyn Pascuale says. "There's nothing wrong with the big guys, but it's just that we need to be acknowledged also, and we have not been."
Many of the small farmers who've been hardest hit are Southeast Asian. Xiong Pao Her is a Hmong refugee who once fought for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (the CIA) in Laos. He shows some freeze-burned broccoli and mustard greens to farm advisors who work with the University of California. They've come out to his fields to check on the crop.
Her snaps the stem of the greens, noting, "This doesn't smell too bad. This one (is) still good to eat, but see, this (is) black…" He points to a bad spot, and the agriculture agent nods. "Yeah, right in the middle there. That's a defect from when it turns black from the frost."
Like most Southeast Asian farmers, Her grows winter crops like bok choy, napa cabbage, and lemongrass. He usually drives to the Santa Barbara Farmers Market twice a week, but he hasn't set up his stall there since December, because he's lost 80 percent of his crop. He holds up a bunch of bok choy that looks nice and green on the outside, but is mushy when he cuts it open. "[I have] no good vegetables, so I don't take to the market," he explains. "Because black and yellow, when you cook, it's sour. After that you lose customer."
Her has lost five weeks of income already, and he doesn't expect to have any vegetables to sell for another month. He's been using his savings to feed his ten children, pay his bills and buy fertilizer for his plants. "If (it lasts) one more month, my money, my savings will be gone, then I don't know what to do."
The U.S. government has declared counties hit by the freeze a disaster area, freeing up emergency low-interest loans for farmers. But small immigrant growers like Her probably won't apply for them. Farm advisor Richard Molinar says many immigrant farmers don't own their land and don't have the assets to qualify for loans. Others are reluctant to take on debt. And the applications may be hard to understand, especially for limited English speakers. "The paperwork is beyond most of the capabilities of the Hmong farmers," he says. "It's many pages long, and it's going to require some kind of credit history or history back five years to prove what has been lost. They're not going to be able to do it in most cases."
Fresno's City Council is considering one solution: having the city back zero-interest loans for small farmers, enough money to tide them over until they can harvest their next crop in the spring.