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Weary but determined, California's small, family-owned farms fight through the pandemic

By Lucas Kwan Peterson, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

LOS ANGELES — Vince Bernard loves his trees. He'll tell you as much. They are what have sustained him and his family for decades at Bernard Ranches. Bernard grows mostly citrus with his wife, Vicki, in Riverside, where a pair of navel orange trees planted in 1871 marked the beginning of the area's storied citrus industry.

Now, Vince Bernard is being forced to make some heart-wrenching choices. What if he can't, because of declining sales due to the COVID-19 pandemic, afford the water to keep all his trees alive?

Sacrificing trees is like "cutting your arm off," Bernard said, but the financial reality of COVID-19 has forced his hand.

"I can't turn the water off from the trees and watch them suffer," he said, gazing out at housing developments in the distance. "But I can call someone up and say, 'Bulldoze this 5 acres.'" Bernard's voice shook. "I come out and say a prayer. They're gone."

The novel coronavirus has wreaked havoc on every aspect of the food industry. It's been particularly taxing on California's smaller farms, some of which have seen their restaurant orders all but vanish and their farmers markets sales decline because of decreased foot traffic.

Surviving this crisis has meant being nimble, making difficult choices, and having to guess what the demand will be like six months or a year in the future. I spoke with four farmers who are fighting through the pandemic and doing what they can to make ends meet.

 

That can mean pivoting to other forms of business, like farm boxes, or rethinking what they've traditionally planted. It can mean working longer shifts or making the difficult choice to shed assets and fixed costs. It means depending even more on farmers markets, where growers forge personal and professional connections and which remain, despite the chaos of 2020, a dependable and much-needed lifeline.

But for most, it means more work for less money. And the farmers share a dogged hope that sooner rather than later, this country can turn a corner regarding the pandemic.

The thing that becomes immediately clear upon meeting Bernard is how much he enjoys his work. "We harvest all year," he said. "The citrus is some of the best in the world — the climate is just perfect for it." Bernard Ranches grows navel oranges, varieties of Valencias, limes, lemons and avocados over approximately 50 acres.

Bernard, who grew up on a dairy and has been farming citrus in Riverside since 1984, spends most of the hot summer months thinking about water and its increasing cost. "You usually get enough rain in January, February, March. April is dicey, maybe you'll get a thunderstorm," he said. "But June, that's the end of that. No more water comes from Mother Nature. Water that comes is going to be from you."

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