Power shutoffs leave some farmers feeling ‘helpless’


Issue Date: November 6, 2019
By Ching Lee

As wildfire conditions prompted more planned power outages around the state, farmers and ranchers affected by the blackouts tried to cope with the financial toll of losing product and rising expenses.

The hardships appear to have been particularly severe for smaller farms, many of which were not prepared to handle the frequency and duration of the shutoffs.

Ana Cox, who runs a goat dairy that makes cheese in Mendocino County, said she has a small generator that allows her to pump water to her livestock, but she has no backup power for her milking equipment, milk tank and cold storage. The Pacific Gas & Electric Co. public safety power shutoff last week left her without electricity for five days, during which she had to milk her goats by hand and then dump the milk, which she described as "heartbreaking." In business since 1972, Cox said she had "never dealt with anything quite like this."

"I would've never imagined this," she said. "It makes you feel so helpless."

Cox noted she and her husband have been shopping since last year for a generator powerful enough to run their equipment and facilities, but found the cost to be "horrendous" and "out of our reach." Farmstead operations such as hers, she said, "don't have a lot of margin." After enduring this latest round of shutoffs, she said they have no choice but to make the financial plunge, even if it means incurring more debt. A greater concern, she said, is the wider economic impact of the blackouts.

"I'm afraid some of the smaller producers might not survive this," Cox added.

As president of Placer Grown, which operates Placer County farmers markets, citrus grower Bob Bonk said not only have the blackouts left many small, local farmers scrambling to find alternative power sources, but water has been harder to come by, as the power shutoff interrupted irrigation-water deliveries to canals.

"The soil is now so dry from the winds and the lack of water that we have crops that are shriveling in the field," he said, noting that the dryness appears to be "forcing maturity" on his own trees and could lead to some crop loss.

The lack of water and an inability to pump well water have also affected postharvest handling and washing of vegetables, steps that are critical for farmers taking their crops to market, he said.

Placer County rancher Karin Sinclair said she did not anticipate losing access to irrigation water during the outage, because she thought she was fine with a gravity-fed irrigation system. But with the Placer County Water Agency limiting supplies, she had to borrow generators to pump water from her well.

She said she also did not think about the impact of the outage on her young animals, which must be kept under heat lamps this time of year.

"I've only got so many generators that I can afford to run," she said. "We're just kind of bedding them down with wood shavings and straw and putting bales of hay around them to help with the insulation."

Before the outages occurred, Sinclair said her biggest concern was keeping her cold-storage facility running, because she doesn't have a generator for it. But she said she and others who use the facility have "been able to make it work" with the use of ice chests and by keeping the door shut.

Some farmers have lost product and sales in the process, Bonk said. During the first round of shutoffs in early October, some farmers ended up donating what they couldn't sell to a food bank, because they knew they couldn't store or hold their products without power and proper refrigeration.

"If they've lost cooler capacity or the ability to wash product, not only are they taking a hit on the expense side, but they have less to sell," Placer County sheep rancher Dan Macon said. "That's kind of a double whammy for a number of folks."

Others have plowed under entire fields, Bonk said, because their wholesale customers, also without power, have canceled orders. Farmers with generators have had difficulty finding fuel to run them, he added, as outages have shut down gas stations, forcing some to drive 20 to 30 miles in search of fuel.

Wineries also are running into this problem, said Anita Oberholster, an enology specialist for University of California Cooperative Extension. Those operating on generators are running low on fuel and can't get it to their wineries, which need power not only to process fruit but to control temperature during the fermentation process. Because yeast can generate a significant amount of heat during fermentation, an inability to control temperature could affect the quality of the wine, she said.

With a high demand for generators, those who managed to find and buy them have done so with money they had planned on using for improvements and other purchases on the farm, Bonk said.

Macon concurred.

"People are making the investments they need to make, but it's stuff that's outside the normal course of business, and I think there'll be some financial impacts from that in terms of this season's profitability," he said.

Even though his small generator has kept his freezers running, Macon noted that had the outages lasted longer than a few days, he would've had to look for other options. Last week's shutoff was the third one at his home ranch and the fourth at another ranch he leases.

Getting information has been problematic during outages, Macon said. Last week, when a fire started about a mile from where he had sheep, he noted how difficult it was to track down information.

As a UCCE livestock and natural resources advisor, Macon said the outage has prompted him to start sending a survey to farmers in an effort "to catalog resources that are out there and available for sharing in situations like this," whether it's generators, water-hauling capacity or, in the case of fire, the ability to load livestock quickly and safely.

Farmers sharing resources and helping each other already is happening informally, he said. For example, people are calling or posting on social media what equipment they have available. In a Facebook posting, he offered his own water tanks to other ranchers who need to haul water to their livestock.

"I think because of that informal networking, we're going to see some more formal planning and networking within the ag community," Macon said, "and I think that's something that UC and county ag departments can really play an important role in."

(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.