State’s Heat Wave Takes Toll On South Asian Farmers

By Viji Sundaram, New American Media
Tuesday August 08, 2006

MARYSVILLE, Calif.—First it was the long wet spring that took its toll on Sarbjit Johl’s peaches. Then the 10 straight days of triple digit temperatures last week, California’s deadliest hot spell in five decades, cooked the fruit on the trees. 

“This has been the most brutal year I’ve ever seen,” lamented Johl, who’s been farming since 1976 and co-owns Johl Brothers Farms in Marysville. “We are probably going to see the lowest yield since 1983. There was bad weather then, something like what we’ve had this year.” 

Johl’s lament finds an echo among Central Valley farmers in Butte, Sutter and Yuba counties, who say Nature’s one-two punch will cut deep into their profits this year. The Central Valley produces more than half of the state’s peaches. Nearly 75 percent of the peach farms here are owned by people of Indian descent. 

In 1983, California’s peach farmers produced 339,000 tons of the fruit. Three years earlier, good weather helped the state to produce 744,000 tons, but has never been able to replicate that abundance since, Johl said. Last year’s yield was 481,000 tons. 

Excessive rains keep the crops smaller than usual because the blooms set late. And some of the blooms rot on the trees. That is what happened this year before the unusually hot weather set in. 

Farmers were not the only ones hit by this year’s weather. The punishing heat forced laborers, mostly immigrants from Mexico, to cut by two to three hours the amount of time they spent in the field picking fruit, hurting their pocket books as well. 

“On hot days they quit at around 11 or 12 (noon), instead of stopping at the usual time (of 2 p.m.),” said Didar Singh Bains, as he drove up in his Silverado pick-up to see how his son, Ajit, was faring fork-lifting the peach-laden trays onto the trucks to be taken to the Del Monte Fruits canning factories, which contracts with many of the Central Valley peach growers. Bains is the director of the California Peach Association. He claims he is “the largest peach grower in the world.” He and his two sons own farms all across the Central Valley and Canada. 

Even as it was, “labor was in short supply because of increased patrolling of the (U.S.-Mexico) borders,” observed Ajayab Dhaddey, California Canning Peach Association’s manager of field operations. The heat wave only worsened things, he said, noting that the weather drove many of the laborers to “kinder” climates like neighboring Washington State. Johl’s farm drew only about 60 percent of the labor it usually does for its peach harvest that lasts two months in early summer. 

The relentless heat ripened the fruits on the tops of the trees, but not those at the bottom. This meant that farmers had to harvest the fruit in two picks, forcing them to pay more to the pickers. It also meant that the ripened fruit had to be picked quickly before the sun could damage them. 

“Every load is graded (by our buyers),” Johl said. “The peaches can’t be too ripe, too green, too small or have anything cosmetically wrong with them.” 

Between the rows of peach trees on his 550-acre peach farm, dozens of discarded golden fruit rot in the hot sun. Most of them had some minor cosmetic defect and would not have passed muster with Del Monte Fruits or Signature Fruits, the two canners Johl contracts with. His sorters had tossed them out of the bins even as they were being filled by the pickers. 

Ajit Bains believes that the spring rain has cost his family about $1 million in losses. He estimates the loss from the heat wave could “easily be $150,000.” 

“That’s the thing about Mother Nature,” Johl observed. “She has the last word.”