A Pandemic Year on the Farm

It’s been almost a year since that last post, and we’ve been open for the duration, as promised. The duration gets longer and longer, but we all need to eat and I guess we need to produce food. And gradually we’re getting vaccinated, making life even with the new variants of COVID less stressful.

We opened our farm stand early on to give people an alternative to the supermarket and even Farmers Market, though it’s not exactly a full-service farm stand, as some of you know. We put out what we can. Right now it’s closed, with plans to open weekends in March. Gradually, gradually, production is heading up and we’ll be able to supply the farm stand as well as our weekly Farmers Market here in Willits.

COVID wasn’t the only contributor to a long, strange year, of course. Fire season hit our area hard, with most of the Mendocino National Forest up in flames through the early fall not so many miles from us and dangerously close to friends along the Eel. And then fire erupted just north of town on the edge of Brooktrails Township. We were among the first in northern California to experience one of those eerie days when the sun went out, turning skies first red, then black. Temperatures dropped for a week, and the air quality was among the worst in the world for some of that time.

And that may have brought on the early onset of winter that accounts for the failure of most of our winter crops. We had two or three weeks of mornings in the twenties in October and early November. Don’t know what kind of records that set, but our garden didn’t like it.

To end the year we found ourselves forced to shut down our dairy share. For thirteen years Sara has been milking goats, and more recently cows along with our daughter, Thea, and providing fresh local milk to grateful neighbors. But fresh local milk is not permitted in California. We had a “cease and desist order” from CDFA, the California Department of Food and Agriculture, some eight years ago, at a time they were persecuting other tiny dairy operations. At that time all hell broke loose for CDFA as public outrage erupted around the state. And so we spent a year or more going to Sacramento monthly to craft a reform to the dairy laws under the auspices of the Department. It all came to nothing, however, with the Western Dairymen’s Association making their veto felt in the Assembly Ag Committee two years running. The Farm Bureau declined to support us, and the one or two organizations supposedly devoted to promoting the small, family farm stayed clear of the melee.

Just like last time CDFA was answering to a complaint “on market fairness grounds” from a neighbor who has two or three hundred goats and makes it work by selling high-end goat cheese. There may be one goat dairy in the state that makes a business of selling milk, but generally they can only survive in compliance with California’s laws by exploiting high end markets. We looked into complying. It would take at least $14,000 of stainless steel equipment and two new buildings. Maybe a quarter of a million to milk 5 goats! Not to mention periodic inspections at our expense and regular testing. California has driven hundreds dairies out of business over the last 50 years with growing demands — demands that make dairy more regulated than meat, restaurants and delis, and fish production, which account for most of the food borne illness in the US. In the meantime, cross the Oregon border and you can buy raw/real milk legally at a small farm.

Ironically, the owner of the goat dairy that reported us also hates the regulations. I’ve commiserated with her about the ridiculous terms of the inspections and the rising costs. But like too many Americans who have chosen to comply with unreasonable regulation in order to get by, she takes out her frustrations on those who have chosen to fight or ignore the bureaucrats.

There will be no local food without local dairy and local meat production. Farmers markets will not thrive without local dairy. Recent changes in laws about meat processing raise hopes that more of our friends’ and neighbors’ production can stay local. But no such change is on the horizon for dairy. I’ve sat in twice on the EcoFarm discussion group on food policy and both times raised the issue of dairy. The convener wasn’t interested. Dave Runsten of CAFF (Community Alliance for Family Farms) sat in on our working group in Sacramento but had nothing to say and no support to offer. He’s since told me we needed a “better strategy” if we were going to get any movement. At the last policy discussion he hosted, at last year’s Sierra Harvest farm conference, I again raised the issue and was joined by a young farmer there, but again Dave blew it off. We won’t have change, evidently, until angry farmers take over “our” advocacy organizations, but Sara and I, frankly, are tired.

But if you want real milk, and treasure the little seed of a local food economy we have, then holler like hell!

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