Examining the complex issues for farmers in California
I do my farming over here in the Dakotas, and sometimes I’m guilty of focusing only on the type of farming that happens out our way. But, of course, there’s a whole country (and world) of farming out there.
So today we’re going to be focusing on some of the hot farming topics in the state of California. I learned this info in a recent interview on the Cash Cow Farmer Podcast with Vaughn Brenda and Jeffrey Chapman.
Vaughn Brenda is the CEO and president of Valley Farms Supply, which has four farm supply stores in the Central Valley of California and is the parent company of the online venture Fence Post Ag. He’s also the vice president of Valley Tool & Manufacturing, which produces nationally-distributed brands like Vrisimo (flail mowers), Windmill Spraymasters, RockHound, and BrushHound.
Jeffrey Chapman is the eCommerce manager of Fence Post Ag and former investment banker. They both were kind enough to share some of the enormous challenges farmers in California are facing today. First, though, let’s look at what California farmers are actually growing.
Dominant crops in California
Right now, the dominant crops are grapes and nuts — mostly almonds, which are the number one nut right now, but also walnuts and pistachios.
Dairy also has a huge history in California. Those are the two arms of California agriculture: nuts and grapes, then dairy; though, there are certainly others.
California’s also good in what’s called specialty crops: that is, crops that are not tracked on a futures market like soybeans, corn, and other major exports, but rather things like vegetables and fruits like tomatoes and strawberries. Pretty much, if it’s hard to grow, it’s grown in California, which makes the current obstacles in California that much harder to overcome.
The #1 challenge in California farming
There is a huge, historic drought right now in California, and farmers are rightfully on edge. They just went through the El Niño year, which has been a relief, but only slightly.
It’s an extremely complex issue going on right now, and depending on what part of the state you’re in, your viewpoint will be different, since districts handle their water differently. Some have access to a lot of water, while others don’t, and still others are reliant on federal or other states’ water.
In short, many are dependent on the California aqueduct. In other parts of the state, some are more reliant on reservoir water and canal water, or surface water, and they might be better off. But if it doesn’t rain a lot, it doesn’t matter where you are; you’re not in a good place.
Vaughn hears stories every day about pumps going dry and about people who are going 800-900 feet underground in search of water, which is unheard of. Research being done by really smart people is looking at how to recharge the groundwater.
It’s interesting because one side of the aisle says, “There’s plenty of rain. We’re just not capturing enough.” The population of California has gone up dramatically, but the number of reservoirs hasn’t.
Then people on the other side say that Californians are just using too much water. There’s a stressful divergence between the two sides.
Have farmers had to fold up shop?
Probably so, but Vaughn and Jeffrey are seeing the following scenario more commonly.
In a normal year you’ll see 80 percent utilization of somebody’s water, especially among farmers who have permanent crops and will do anything they can to water their crops. If you, the farmer, have hundreds or thousands of acres, you may have literally millions of dollars of investments that need water.
But if you’re planting non-permanent crops like tomatoes or melons, you can choose to fallow your crops for a time. If a field looks dry, you don’t have to plant it.
This last category of people has a little more flexibility, but because of the current circumstances, some of them are only farming 20 percent of what they could be farming. To cut your production by 60 percent because you don’t think there will be enough water is pretty drastic.
Farmers have to have income to buy products. How has this drought impacted the stuff sold at Fence Post Ag and Valley Farm Supply?
Vaughn and Jeffrey sell farm equipment itself, but also all the parts and supplies. When people are nervous and unsure of the future, the larger purchases tend to get shelved, and purchases tend to lean more towards maintenance and trying to get one more year out of a mower or tractor.
A lot of farmers’ costs, though, are fixed. Frankly, they have crops that need to be taken care of no matter what, and it’s hard to cut costs.
Their stores also tend to be closer to permanent crops vs. non-permanent crops, as well.
• Permanent: If you plant a vineyard, for example, you’re not replanting a vineyard every year. Or if you plant an almond orchard, it takes three, four, or five years to get your first harvest. Once you make that investment, you’re going to be farming off those crops for a long time.
• Non-permanent: These are things like melons, tomatoes, and corn, which you plant at the beginning of a season and harvest at the end. Then you prepare for the next season. These people don’t have it any easier, but they do have the choice to fallow ground or take a season off.
How does Fence Post Ag specifically help farmers?
They like to consider themselves the Amazon of farm equipment. Awhile back, the typical farmer in California didn’t have a place to get all of their farming needs in one central location, hence the creation of four physical locations for Valley Farm Supplies. Now they’ve been able to offer that same type of one-stop shop nationwide with Fence Post Ag, creating a convenient, user-friendly shopping experience for the farmer or consumer.
That’s the appeal of Amazon—having all you need in one central online store. And that’s what Fence Post Ag does, as well.
It’s been fun to move our discussion out west and talk about what’s going on out on the West Coast. Things are rough out there for our Californian brothers and sisters, but hopefully some of the creativity from various professors and manufacturers will help them pull through.
If you’re interested in any of the projects and companies that Vaughn and Jeffrey are involved in, check out these links: