Summer Heat Wave Impacts Local Farmers’ Market

By Malia Wollan, Special to the Planet
Tuesday September 26, 2006

The record-breaking, triple-digit heat wave that rolled through California this summer did untold harm to the state’s $31.8 billion agricultural industry—cooking walnuts in their shells, killing dairy cows and wilting tender greens in the field. 

But for the small-scale farmers at the Saturday farmers’ market in downtown Berkeley, the blistering temperatures caused more sunburns and headaches than crop damage.  

“I hated the heat wave with a passion,” said Didar Khalsa, from behind crates of green table grapes, black mission figs and yellow peaches. “Not for any specific damage it did to the fruit but because I had to work out in it.” 

A tall, lean man with a full beard, Khalsa is the owner and primary laborer on the 13-plus-acre Guru Ram Das Orchards in Esparto, northeast of Sacramento.  

Governor Schwarzenegger has estimated crop damage at “more than a billion dollars” and on Aug. 1 made a request for federal disaster assistance from the USDA for the most impacted Central Valley counties of Fresno, San Joaquin, Kern, Kings, Tulare, Stanislaus, Merced and Madera. 

At the Berkeley market most of the vendors rise before dawn to drive several hours into the Bay Area from outlying counties. Though most of the farms represented are not from the state’s most heat-damaged agricultural regions, they all spoke of record-breaking temperatures.  

“I actually think the citrus liked the heat,” said Khalsa who is looking forward to continued bounty throughout the winter with grapefruit, lemons, limes, hachiya and fuyu persimmons, blood and Valencia oranges. 

Just down the street Abel Estrella placed deep purple pluots and Gala apples on the scale for a customer. For Smit Orchards in Linden, a small town in the foothills of San Joaquin county, fall brings in the money crops, Fuji and Pink Lady apples, selling for between $2.50 and $3 a pound. This year the heat wave spurred the harvesting season.  

“Everything is two weeks early,” said Estrella, “and honestly, I’m not sure the flavor on the apples is quite as good.” 

Watery apples and slightly higher prices did not appear to hamper the hoards of shoppers who arrived with their strollers, cloth grocery bags and coffee drinks to wander through the stands, to sample yellow and white nectarines, buy flowers and stock up on fresh produce for the week. 

Marga Snipes was in town from Spokane, Washington, to take classes on a Zimbabwean instrument called a mbira, also known as a thumb piano, and just happened upon the market. 

“I love it! There is just such a wonderful variety and all the vendors are so knowledgeable. I bought figs, peaches and I am going to try a cactus pear for the first time,” she said, pointing to the de-spined, red colored fruit. 

Shoppers leaned down to savor the fragrant, multicolored roses at Robin Gammons’ stall. Based in Aromas, east of Watsonville, the Four Sisters farm specializes in cut flowers and organic specialty greens like sorrel and purslane. Picked young and tender, the greens don’t do well in extreme heat. 

“During July nothing looked good,” said Gammons. “Everything was wilting, especially the water cress.”  

Much of the fruit displayed at Saturday’s market depends on bees for pollination and when it gets hot bees stop pollinating, cease honey production and start collecting and depositing water droplets in the hive where they continuously flap their wings to circulate cool air. 

The National Honey Board ranks California as the second highest honey-producing state in the nation, generating more than $25 million in 2005. With all the bee’s energy focused on staying cool, the state’s Department of Food and Agriculture estimates a 35 percent decrease in honey production this year. 

Market vendor and beekeeper Tom von Tersch of Half Moon Bay stood behind a sizeable display of honey in variously sized clear glass jars. Sticky fingered children reached for the tiny paper cups filled with chunks of honeycomb he offered as samplers. 

“During the heat wave I didn’t worry about my bees. A good strong hive takes care of itself,” said Tersch. Tersch had hoped the Toyon, a native California shrub, would bloom longer but the scorching days in July cut short the blooming season for many wildflowers and plants. 

For a beekeeper, a heat wave means driving bees around the state in search of sufficient blooms. It’s not always easy or lucrative but Tersch is grateful he doesn’t have to worry about labor issues. 

“As a beekeeper I get to abuse my employees terribly,” he said. “After all, it’s just me and the bees.”