Farming in California Fire Land

Last week, during the raging County Fire, sheep and cotton breeder Sally Fox rushed to move her sheep to irrigated pasture before she left her farm per the mandatory evacuation. Farmers Dru Rivers and Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm, on the east side of Capay Valley, were posting pictures of billowing smoke clouds, and reassuring people that the farm was ok.

The thing about fire season in California, is it’s also the peak farming season. And while the general public was told to stay indoors or wear a mask to guard against damaging air quality, farmers have to work outside. The farmers I spoke with said they opted not to wear masks, “They don’t really work when you are sweating and exerting yourself,” explained one farm laborer. So that fresh, local grown tomato you are about to bite into was probably picked by someone harvesting in the smoke-filled air.   It’s just yet another hazard to add to the long list of farming occupation hazards.

Our skies were not only filled with smoke, they were filled with airplanes. Airplanes that we were all grateful to see as they flew by dropping flame retardant on the hills. The retardant is a proprietary blend of fertilizers that blanket the drop area and limits oxygen for a short time. In this recent fire, retardant was not dropped directly on valley floor crops, but for farmers in Napa Valley in 2017, the extra fertilizer was not necessarily a blessing. Farmers had to test soil and make adjustments with amendments, on their own dime. Some of those wine makers also had to deal with a compromised crop of smoke tainted grapes.

Some farmers had to prioritize between their roles as farmers and firefighters on the volunteer fire crews. Tim Muller of RiverDog Farm was busy that first fire day dealing with the chaos of a rapidly growing fire, helping citizens not to panic. “We were lucky it was a Saturday and our picking crews were off that day. Some of the younger crewmembers didn’t come to work on Monday because of smoke.” He said there was only minor loss on the farm. “Plants were not happy with all the smoke and heat. Our seed onion crop dried out a lot faster, so we just harvested it a week earlier than expected. We lost a few chickens who were affected by smoke and heat.” In short, fires can bring added expenses and loss of productivity for farmers.

This year’s fires are breaking out earlier in the season than ever before. Cal Fire Chief Mark Brunton, speaking at the Western Yolo Grange Hall to a group of local farmers and citizens at recent meeting, said the fires he’s encountered these last two years were harder to fight than any in his 30 year career. People in rural CA farmland have always known to disk around the edges of their fields. Hedgerow borders, planted to attract beneficial insects, need to be well irrigated and pruned to figure into property firebreaks as well.

One of the laws enacted in the first session of the CA State Legislature in 1850, known as The Act for the Protection of Indians, included a moratorium against controlled burns that the native tribes used to do routinely. The Native Californians understood that the health of the forest (and safety of land and people) depended on regular burning. But the European ranchers saw it as threat to their livestock. They also used this discriminating law as an excuse for arresting Indians. Fast forward to today, and we have intolerable levels of underbrush in our wilderness areas.   This brush is not only a fire hazard, but also contributes to growth of problems such a sudden oak death. Maybe it’s time to practice regular control burns in the fall, or fire mimicry, where crews are paid to clear brush by hand.

Farming and Fire are two key symbols of California. We have to learn to live with extreme fires in the land of plenty.

( For more on fire mimicry, see Lee Klinger’s article at

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