Nevada County farmers face tough road | SierraSun.com

Nevada County farmers face tough road

Laura Brown
Sun News Service

Photo by John HartGeorge Loftus, owner of Sunsmile Farms, off Rough and Ready Highway, checks buckets of cherry tomatoes.

GRASS VALLEY ” Farmers are reeling from the combined effects of a late spring frost, a smoky pall during the summer caused by wildfires and a statewide drought.

Even after supplementing the season with summer vegetables, farmers who lost their fruit crops to frost say they never recovered from that loss.

Chris Bierwagen’s peach and apple trees were probably the hardest hit in the county, with 100 percent loss, he said. It marked another black year in a decade of them: He valued the crop at $200,000.

“I was ready to call it quits in a big way,” Bierwagen said. After the frost, he “dozed” most of the trees out. He plans to keep some of his apple and peach trees to sell fruit at his farm stand, but will discontinue the box orders. He has planted rows of blueberries, blackberries and raspberries in their place and is considering strawberries as a more cold-hardy alternative to the delicate peach.

Bierwagen’s farm, Donner Trail Fruit, swarmed with children and families who came out to buy a pumpkin or get lost in the corn maze during warm October. But this year, Bierwagen charged an admission fee to walk through the maze to help make up his loss.

Pumpkins aren’t a high cash crop like fruit and barely cover the cost to grow them, yet the two crops require the same amount of land and water he said.

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Fall harvests of several area grape growers also were hit by the spring frost.

“The wine grapes across the board got a 25 percent reduction for the season,” Nevada County Agricultural Commissioner Jeff Pylman said.

At the organic Smith Vineyard on Dog Bar Road, half of the vineyard is planted in Chardonnay.

“It’s kind of the wine that we’re most known for. It has a very fruity flavor,” owner Chris Smith said.

But the Chardonnay suffered the greatest blow, and Smith could not fulfill his $10,000 contract with Nevada City Winery.

“There’s no way to recover your loss,” she added.

It was the second consecutive year the vineyard lost fruit to a freeze. Because Chardonnay is so susceptible to late frost, it is considered a risky crop to grow in Nevada County, and therefore is uninsurable. Yet, Smith said, the rewards of a good year make the risk worth taking.

Consumers feel the result. This year, fans could only find bottles of Smith’s Chardonnay at SPD, at the vineyard or a at few select restaurants.

On his 32 acres at Sunsmile Farms, owner George Loftus said this year’s frost and smoke damage took the cake.

The frost wiped out his fruit and nut crops and cost him $60,000. The summer wildfire smoke impacted the maturity of his most profitable produce, berries and the extra tomatoes and melons he planted.

“As a business, I would have been better off just staying closed,” Loftus said.

This year, he made an effort to diversify and expand from his farm stand and presence at local farmers markets. He began a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program at his farm. He put in the same amount of labor, but without the revenue to support it.

Primarily an orchardist, Loftus has planted fall crops like broccoli, cabbage and onions to extend the season. Like Bierwagen, Loftus has planted a vast array of berry bushes and vines. He’s also looking at chickens to supply fresh eggs.

“I’m trying to get people out to the farm,” Loftus said. “I like the bonding you get with the customers.”

At the same time, farmers across the state are experiencing the worst drought on record.

“If we don’t get significant rainfall this season, we might have this declared a disaster county for drought,” Pylman said. It’s going to take a couple good rainy seasons to replenish groundwater stores, he added.