San Diego County’s farming community has endured a rain of body blows and attempts to hurt it with legislation during the year of COVID-19 but has proven to be remarkably resilient.
“We are pivoting the best we can,” said Hannah Gbeh, executive director of the San Diego County Farm Bureau. She is speaking of both area growers and the organization itself, which is based in Escondido at the AgHub Office Building at 420 S Broadway.
Almost from the first, the Bureau cancelled all meetings it would normally hold. To make up for that, it has sponsored weekly Wednesday webinars at 3 p.m. “We have experts come in and provide forty-five minute discussions and then fifteen minutes for questions and answers,” said Gbeh. They cover a wide range of subjects important to growers: such as rodent control, pesticide applications via drone technology, Cal Osha requirements—which are highly relevant—and surface water runoff management.
All their normal fund-raisers had to fall by the wayside in 2020. They are hoping the pandemic will have receded enough that they can hold the first public event of the year in June: the annual golf tournament. “We are planning for the pandemic to lift and for life to return to normal. We’ve really spent a lot of time and effort bolstering our magazines. We send them to all our membership, full of relevant information and factual articles. We try to serve,” Gbeh told The Roadrunner.
They have kept busy with policy and advocacy. “It has been really interesting to see that as a result of the state issues, such as the stay-at-home order, that in our everyday lives we’ve slowed down and not been able to go about our activities as normal. Yet government has expedited governing policies. It has not slowed down at all!”
That has resulted in a “slew of anti-farming” proposals at the state capital. “Amidst trying to assist our membership to keep businesses open, to not do mass layoffs, to find labor, we are battling endless anti-agriculture laws coming down the pipeline at a rapid pace,” said Gbeh.
Last session it was a proposed industrial hemp bill “that was very impactive,” she said. “In San Diego county we have some of the highest numbers of hemp growers in the state; the second largest. It has been legalized at all levels of the government. You can use it for a whole slew of things. You can drink hemp milk, although it is also used in CBD oil.”
In San Diego, said Gbeh, “our growers have to do more with less, due to the urban interface with farms and the high cost of water, high cost of land and severe labor shortage. Add to that hostile laws,” she said. “Our farmers are so smart and adaptive they are looking for specialty crops to grow. That is why industrial hemp is appealing. Last legislative cycle there was a hemp bill that made our permitted hemp growers criminally liable if something went wrong with the testing. We stepped in and worked with Senator Toni Atkins office and stopped that bill.”
Another issue for growers is wildfire insurance. “Nearly everyone knows it’s impossible to get for an affordable price,” said Gbeh. “We had the State Fair Plan [offered through the state of California] that you could always fall back on. Recently it began sending denial letters. The first one was in San Diego after the Valley Fire. We took it to the State Farm Bureau and it’s no longer a local issue.”
How did they fix it? “We worked with Senator Ben Hueso [who represents the Imperial Valley]. That issue was shocking,” said Gbeh. “It was unprecedented and it sounds like we will be able to fix. We are excited!”
Another example of how the Farm Bureau kept busy with policy, was in obtaining funds for growers from the federal stimulus act, which originally included $19 billion from USDA (Department of Agriculture) as part of the Coronavirus Food Assistance Program (CFAP.)
“This program the federal government issued to provide direct financial relief to the ag industry to offset market loss. It is different than a low industry loan,” she said. “It was the lifeline our industry needed. A year ago the market collapsed and sales went with them. Now we are on an upwards trajectory. The original program excluded commodities, cut flowers, ornamentals, wine grapes and most of our specialty crops because that is not the wheelhouse of USDA. The majority of our farmers were high and dry.”
So, SDFB worked with the San Diego congressional delegation, the California Farm Bureau and the American Farm Bureau Federation until grapes, ornamentals and other crops were included. “It was the lifeline our industry needed.”
Today the Farm Bureau is working with the County, “keeping an eye on the vaccine and seeing when we can offer them to the farm workers. We are looking forward to getting that,” she said.
Unlike some industries that were not considered “essential” when Governor Newsom issued the first shelter in place orders, agriculture has always been classified as essential. “So we have been able to operate during the pandemic,” she said. “The original order caused an enormous ripple effect. Casinos closed, schools closed, livestock prices fell. On top of trucking, packaging lines drastically reduced in productivity because of social distancing. It was chaos because the markets collapsed.”
Growers grew creative in response. “What I saw was a lot of pivoting by the local farm community. For many weeks I got calls: ‘How can I keep the lights on?’ ‘How can I do this?’ It is important to make sure you are not losing product and it’s not rotting on the ground,” said Gbeh.
Many farmers partnered with food banks to help feed people. “Those farmers said, ‘I have product. Where can I sell this so it doesn’t go bad?’ We saw a lot of farmers pivot their market models to meet the moment. We saw an increase in online sales and to consumer-supported agriculture, where you buy a produce box for $25 and you get fresh produce. And it’s socially distanced.”
Food stands saw increased foot traffic because people wanted to shop. “During those few weeks some sales dropped ninety percent in days,” said Gbeh. “Our farmers adapted because they are incredibly smart and innovative and because they already operate in a challenging environment. A substantial number were able to make it through. The federal assistance came and sales returned and the future of ag looks very bright and is coming back stronger.”