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Making the most of it in dry times

As California endures what may be its driest and hottest year on record, farmers and farmworkers have been among those most heavily hit by the drought. A recent UC Davis study predicts that 14,500 jobs will be lost this year in the Central Valley because farms are getting only two-thirds of their typical water allocation.

Still, some farms are thriving despite the drought. After a difficult 2013 season, Lucero Organic Farms is back in the game. Last year, they planted only a few of their acres in Lodi, leaving their 40-acre property in Clarksburg fallow because they didn’t have enough workers. With fewer crops to harvest, the Luceros had to cut back on their markets. “I was out there picking strawberries by myself at the beginning of the season,” says Curtis Lucero. “I didn’t have one employee.”

Help came in the spring when the Flores family showed up at the farm. Family members had been picking strawberries in Salinas and Watsonville and were looking for permanent work. They began picking at Lucero Organic that day and soon impressed Curtis with their skill, so he offered to keep them on.

The Luceros’ farm specializes in summer row crops like strawberries, tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers, and since their market season runs from April through November, retaining year-round employees has been a challenge. Though there is work to be done throughout the year, the farm doesn’t make an income in the winter months.

As a diverse farm that grows more than 30 different types of fruits and vegetables—including 60 varieties of tomatoes and 15 varieties of summer squash alone—high employee turnover became a bottleneck for production. “It seemed like I was training a whole new crew every two or three years,” says Curtis. “It got really tedious, tiresome, and hectic.”

To keep the Flores family with the farm through the quiet winter months, the Luceros offered free year-round housing. The family could prune grapes at nearby vineyards until the Luceros’ season resumed in the spring. “They now feel like they’re part of the farm,” Curtis says. “They’re not just clocking in and clocking out.”

This year, Curtis says he’s seen more and more workers come to his farm looking for employment as other Central Valley farms have cut back their production and need for help. Nearby farms that rely on canals or district water have been informed that supplies will be cut off at the beginning August, the peak of the summer harvest.

“If we had to rely on the canal water, we’d be done,” says Curtis. “August is when we’re planning our second wave of squash and cucumbers, and when we’re harvesting most of our peppers and eggplants.”

The Luceros have been fortunate to get most of their water from on-site wells, albeit small ones. Utilizing drip irrigation, planting cover crops, applying green waste, and crop rotation have helped the farm maintain soil moisture and fertility while making the most out of its water use. “We don’t need as much water as a 50- or 100-acre orchard of peaches or nectarines,” says Curtis. “We’re row croppers.”

Such water-saving practices have clearly paid off, allowing the small organic farm to stay viable during the drought. This season, the Luceros have been able to employee nine workers, in addition to themselves. Having a larger crew has meant they can plant all of their fields in both of the farm’s locations. With tomato season on the horizon, Curtis is looking forward to a productive summer and anticipates that he’ll be returning to the Thursday Ferry Plaza Farmers Market (something he had to forego last year because he had much less produce) in the next couple weeks.

As more workers come to the farm looking for employment, Curtis has had to start turning people away. He says, “The problem I have now is everybody wants to work here. We’re a small family farm. I’d love give everybody work, but we’re trying to make it ourselves.”

Look for Lucero Organic Farms at the Saturday market.

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