Farmers, ranchers cope with impact of power outages


Issue Date: October 16, 2019
By Ching Lee

Widespread power outages disrupted and halted normal activities on many California farms and ranches last week, interrupting harvest schedules and water deliveries.

Concerned that strong winds and dry conditions would spark wildfires, Pacific Gas and Electric Co. cut power to more than 738,000 customers, many for multiple days. Southern California Edison also initiated a public safety power shutoff affecting more than 21,000 customers.

The biggest concern for those with livestock was making sure their animals had enough drinking water. Because he relies on well water and had no way to pump, Solano County rancher John Pierson said he had to haul water to some of his cattle, which had consumed much of what was left in the trough.

Glenn County rancher Jim Jones said he received notice from the Tehama-Colusa Canal Authority—which provides irrigation water to farmers in Tehama, Glenn, Colusa and Yolo counties—that it had lost power in its pumping plant. That meant no water was being sent down the canals while the power was out. Even though his troughs and tanks were full and his cattle had access to spring water, he expressed concern for those with irrigated pastures and whether they would run out of water. He said many farmers with orchards also were doing postharvest irrigation and would not have access to water during the power outage.

"I think a lot of people were irrigating ahead of time," he said, noting that PG&E alerted him to a possible power shutoff several days in advance. "I think quite a few people have gone out and purchased generators in preparation for this."

Katherine Ziemer, executive director of the Humboldt County Farm Bureau, said she had not heard of any problems arising from the loss of power, though dairy farmers would be most affected in her region. Because dairies already experience power outages periodically, "they all have generators on the farm to milk their cows during the winter storms," she said.

"This exercise should help people in California understand personal preparation," Ziemer said. "This time it was a PG&E power shutoff, but next time it might be an earthquake that devastates our community. This may have opened people's eyes on how to prepare for emergencies in the future."

Johnnie White, who manages vineyards in Napa County, said his biggest problem related to the power outage came from wineries that could not receive his grapes for processing because they did not have another power source. That meant having to delay harvest to accommodate those wineries, he said.

"It's kind of a logistical nightmare dealing with late-canceled picks," White said. "It starts condensing our scheduling, because those picks that were scheduled are now getting pushed back to other days that are already fully scheduled."

He estimated a half to a third of the wineries he deals with did not have backup generators, though some of them managed to keep tasting rooms open even with no power. What complicated matters was not knowing when power would be restored, he said. Because he received notice of a possible shutoff earlier in the week, he said he did as much irrigation as he could ahead of time and brought in portable generators later to run his wells.

Having lost power two years ago during the destructive Tubbs Fire that burned parts of Napa, Sonoma and Lake counties, White said he installed a dedicated stationary generator for planned shutoffs, "so that we can keep everything going."

Sonoma County winegrape grower John Azevedo, who manages vineyards for Jackson Family Wines, credited PG&E's outreach to growers last winter for his level of preparedness, as the utility held meetings to discuss plans to cut power during times of high fire danger. He said he took those warnings seriously and rented generators in anticipation of potential power shutoffs. Even with the generators, he said the operation needed to stop harvest and processing for one day just to get everything up and running, though it was back to 100% the next day.

"We had lots of other stuff to do," he said about the blackout. "We started working on erosion control and a bunch of other stuff this time of year."

His concern with longer power outages, he said, is with fuel delivery, "because we're not the only ones living on generators." He noted how "people flooded all of the local gas stations" during the outage, with many stations running out of fuel.

At the California Rice Commission, Jim Morris said last week's power outages affected a handful of Sacramento Valley rice dryers and mills, delaying harvest for some farmers.

"This was a frustrating situation for those affected and there were some lost opportunities for impacted dryers," he said.

The outages also affected some almond and walnut processors.

Rob Neenan, president and CEO of the California League of Food Processors, said most tomato processors were done for the season when the outages occurred. He noted that for many processing operations, backup generators replace only a small portion of the power load.

Despite not having power for two days, most farms at Apple Hill in El Dorado County—a major tourist destination this time of year—remained open, though some of them were taking cash only, said Lisa Crummett, office manager for the Apple Hill Growers Association. She estimated about 80% of Apple Hill farms had generators.

"We were getting a lot of calls and we were trying to get our message out, and on Facebook we were posting who was actually open with generators," she said.

With many schools being closed due to the power outage, Crummett said she thinks a lot of families took advantage of the time off and "figured this is a good time to get away and go to Apple Hill."

But Apple Hill grower Alison Ryan of 24 Carrot Farm in Placerville said she saw less traffic to the farm during the outage because people "don't think we're going to be open." The farm, which grows fruits and vegetables, does not have a generator and was trying to get by with ice and borrowed refrigeration space to keep its perishables cold. Still, it lost some of its produce, such as spinach, arugula and spring mixes, she said.

"Plus, nobody's coming to buy the perishable foods because they can't keep it in their refrigerator," she said.

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.