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Bright red chili peppers at a CFFMA farmers market.
Courtesy of Peter DeYoung

How small-scale farmers in California’s central valley survived the pandemic

‘We’ll buy all of your flowers’

For four generations, peaches have been of particular significance to Nikiko Masumoto and her family. Even in the midst of an extremely hectic harvest season, her voice still carries an air of enchantment as she speaks of her deep connection to her work as a farmer in Fresno County. “It feels pretty magical. I literally get to work with and learn from the same grapevines and peach trees that my great grandparents, my grandparents, and my parents have tended to.”

Nikiko’s father, David Mas Matsumoto, holding fresh nectarines.
Courtesy of Nikiko Masumoto

Continuity across generations, along with years of brute, hard work, has sustained many small-scale immigrant farmers, new and established, in California’s Central Valley for decades, but the pandemic’s disruption on local and national food supply chains has put a unique pressure on small farms like Masumoto’s. New marketing and distribution strategies have helped farmers and farmers' markets survive the worst of the pandemic. Now, growers and their supporters are looking ahead by both demanding and carrying out the deeper, systemic changes that need to occur for small-scale growers in California to feel properly supported in the current food system.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, small farmers faced a considerable amount of challenges, explains Alastair Iles, a professor at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy & Management. Specifically, small farmers have often struggled to negotiate land ownership, access government funding, and find a way into dominant, more profitable supermarket supply chains, Iles says.

“In the early months of [COVID-19],” Iles points out, “many specialty crop farmers struggled because they sell mainly to retailers — and to food service companies (ultimately), which were badly affected by the lockdowns of schools, businesses, etc. I don’t think they have fully recovered yet.”

Surviving the pandemic

Masumoto Family Farm was an exception and was able to consistently tap into the retail markets in the Bay Area and in southern California. Masumoto also pointed out that more customers were purchasing fresh produce in bulk during the pandemic. “In a normal year, someone might buy like two peaches at a grocery store, and [now] we’re seeing many more people being happy to buy five pounds of peaches at a time.”

Another program that has supported Masumoto Family Farm during the COVID-19 pandemic is a drive-thru program the family kick-started nearly eight years ago. Customers pre-order fruit online and swing by the farm on a designated day of the week to pick up their fresh fruit. When people were avoiding indoor grocery stores at the start of the pandemic, “we were ready to go, and we had our biggest drive-thru season last summer as a result,” Masumoto says.

The family’s drive-thru is also unique in that they sell produce dubbed as “OUFab,’’ for the fruit which Masumoto and her family affectionately call “organic, ugly, and fabulous.” “Some of the best-tasting fruit we can’t sell at retail,” Masumoto notes. “We do have a long history of donating fruit, which is wonderful, but it’s also not good for our long-term sustainability and our ability to pay our workers as much as we can. Being able to sell our ugly fruit has been really great.”

Crates full of Flavor Crest peaches from Masumoto Family Farm.
Courtesy of Nikiko Masumoto

In addition to on-farm sales, farmers' markets have also offered a strong outlet for small-scale farmers to sell their produce during the pandemic. This past year alone, the California Fresh Farmers Market Association (CFFMA) doubled its profits, says Peter DeYoung, Executive Director of the association. “A lot of that has to do with pent-up demand that was created by [COVID-19]. A lot more people got out and shopped at fresh markets. They realized how fun [farmers markets] are and what a fresh peach tastes like versus one that’s been picked a month early and ripened on the store shelf,” DeYoung says.

As people’s interest in farmers' markets increased, CFFMA began to brainstorm ways to make the farmer's market experience even more memorable. Now, at every market night, CFFMA highlights different cultures and cuisines that make up the Fresno community. From educating folks on Mediterranean dishes to celebrating Lao culture, “we very quickly became an integral part of the community and the place to be on Tuesday nights.”

“We just finished our chili pepper festival,” DeYoung says. “We asked all of our food vendors to ‘kick up the spice’ and use chili peppers in whatever that they [were] making. I think the funniest [dish] that was actually a big hit was a red hot chili pepper funnel cake.”

Uplifting the farmers of tomorrow

Even with all the innovative paths small-scale farmers and farmers markets have paved for themselves over the past year, there continues to be a dearth of substantial resources aimed at small-scale BIPOC farmers at the state and national level. That leaves a lot of farmers behind, especially in Fresno County, where 16% of small farms are managed by Asian American principal producers, the highest percentage of Asian American-led farms per county in the entire state.

During the pandemic, Keng Vang, the Crops Distribution Manager for the Asian Business Institute and Research Center (ABIRC) in Fresno, has been working to connect Asian American farmers with buyers throughout California, as well as helping farmers apply for Covid-related grants. When the COVID-19 lockdowns first began, “a lot of the farmers were calling us saying that all of the farmers’ markets are closed, that they don’t know what to do with their crops, and they [might] have to let [their crops go to waste],” Vang says.

In May 2020, ABIRC began hosting a series of buy-back days wherein the institute would buy and donate up to $1,000 worth of unsold produce from any small-scale farmer struggling to sell their crops. Vang says when the program ended last December, ABIRC had purchased and dispersed nearly $500,000 worth of produce from small farmers in the Fresno area.

Boxes overflow with Sour Leaf and Cassava Leaf during one of ABIRC’s buy-back events in Fresno.
Courtesy of Keng Vang

The buy-back program alleviated many farmers’ anxieties, but it was a temporary salve for the underlying issues burdening small-scale farmers. In Masumoto’s case, the economic precarity of managing a small organic farm is felt first-hand, even in non-pandemic years. “My livelihood and the livelihood of our family is tied to how we do on the farm. We have one harvest every year, so that means we’re wagering weeks to make all of our income [that] we need to carry us through the next year,” Masumoto says.

Vang highlights that it is especially challenging for first-generation immigrant farmers — like many of the Southeast Asian farmers he works with — to access government resources because “a lot of them are not educated [and] they can’t speak English. They don’t know what type of documents they need to even [begin to] go get these resources.”

Currently, Vang is facilitating an effort at ABIRC to equip farmers with the knowledge they need to set themselves up for long-term success. So far this year, the program, which is called the Southeast Asian Small Farmers/Businesses Capacity Building Project, “has helped close to 50 farmers get their PSA Growers Training certificate,” Vang says. The certificate is a safe food handling training for farmers — with it, they can satisfy the regulatory requirements for the FDA’s Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Rule, which basically ensures that farmers are growing, harvesting, and processing their produce in accordance with basic food safety standards. ABIRC also intends on hosting workshops that educate growers on how to access USDA resources, develop business plans, and implement bookkeeping strategies.

A flower farmer’s wife prepares bouquets on their farm in Sacramento. These flowers were bought by ABIRC and sold in the Clovis and Fresno area.
Courtesy of Keng Vang

Upon reflecting on the last year, Vang says one of his favorite memories was when he hosted a buy-back day for the Southeast Asian community in Sacramento. During the buy-back, a flower farmer came up to him and began “pouring out her heart saying she didn’t get enough income [last year, and] she’s struggling to pay her rent.”

Vang decided to make a visit to her farm, where he quickly learned that many of her neighboring flower farmers were also experiencing similar challenges. “The deputy director and I said, ‘Okay, we’ll buy all of your flowers. We’re going to take all your flowers to Fresno, and we will sell them all for you guys, too.’ So that’s what we did. I think that was one of the best moments for me,” Vang says.

Although there is much work to be done, Vang emphasizes that he is assisting farmers so that they can enjoy farming. For small-scale immigrant farmers, farming is as much of a cultural livelihood as it is a financial one. In supporting farmers through the logistical and bureaucratic aspects of their work, Vang hopes to reconnect farmers with the feeling of rapture that farming originally brought them. “I believe that the pandemic is just something to test what we can do. So, even though [many farmers] were struggling, [and] they wanted to quit, we were pushing them to have a big heart, to stay in farming, because we know that it’s going to get better, and we will find ways to continue to help them,” Vang says.